CHICAGO BLUES: Alligator Records Part Two by Gatorman

Posted on 12/16/2009 by Gatorman


Today I am continuing the interview of December 2, 2009, with Bruce Iglauer. Bruce is the founder and head of the independent blues record label Alligator Records in Chicago.

If I was to listen to your Ipod what song would I hear?

First, I don’t own an Ipod. I really hate compressed files because they eliminate so many of the subtleties of the recording and the mix. In a car you can’t tell, but if you play a compressed file against the original CD, you can tell the difference in a second…assuming you’re not listening through earbuds or computer speakers.

But if you want to know what I listen to for pleasure, the answer is almost always blues records from the 1950s and 1960s. If I had to listen to only one artist for the rest of my life, it would almost certainly be Elmore James. I could argue he was the greatest blues singer of all time, just a chilling voice. Plus, I’m a slide guitar freak.

What blues song do you think could be a representative of Chicago blues?

Tough question. Do you mean the ‘classic’ Chicago blues of the 1950s? In that case, my choice would be something obvious, like “Hoochie Coochie Man”, with the lineup of electric guitars, amplified harp, piano, bass and drums and a charismatic vocalist like Muddy. If we start talking about the somewhat ‘modern’ era, I’d pick another obvious choice, like Otis Rush’s “I Can’t Quit You, Baby”. If we’re talking about today’s Chicago blues, it’s harder to define, because the language of blues has become more universal. There is less Chicago about Chicago blues now than in the past. I’d probably listen to one of the so-called throwback artists, like Lil’ Ed or Magic Slim, who could have been recording in the 60s as easily as today.

Can you define what a true Blues Man is?

Honestly, the answer is  ‘no.’ I would say that being a blues man or woman in my mind is more than being a musician. The music must be an expression of your soul. Like John Lee Hooker said, “it’s in him and it’s got to come out.” There’s another song (can’t remember who wrote it) that says “I didn’t choose the blues, the blues chose me.”  And I do believe that you can’t perform blues effectively without having lived a lot of life. That’s why some of the kid guitar hotshots don’t impress me. They can play a lot of notes very fast, but they don’t understand the emotional function of each one. As I like to say, they don’t know what the important notes are, so they don’t know which ones tell the story. And often they don’t understand that a rest (when you don’t play a note) is part of the music and the storytelling too.

Can you tell our readers what Lumpty lump is?

Ah, an easy one! Yes, it’s a type of shuffle where the rhythm goes “lumpty lumpty” like a horse cantering. A “true” lump for me involves playing the same note twice in the bass pattern. But when blues musicians are jamming, they can say “Lump in G from the 5” and count it off, and they will all be speaking pretty much the same musical language. Someone like Bob Stroger is a great lump bass player. And Jimmy Reed was the king of putting great catchy lyrics to a lump beat.

You just concluded your seat on the Board of Directors for The Blues Foundation. Tell us a little bit about that experience.

I am a big supporter of the Blues Foundation, and consider the production of the International Blues Challenge and the Blues Music Awards to be major achievements, and very good for our community. Nonetheless, I wish the Foundation would do a lot more, especially in the area of blues education. The mission statement of the Foundation talks about “ensuring the future of the blues” and I think blues education in the schools and elsewhere is a lot of that job. Blues is not fashionable music at all right now, and younger people have almost no way to learn about it and become fans. So I wish the Foundation would dedicate itself to that goal. During my time on the board, I was considered to be pretty much of a maverick, and probably wasn’t the best-liked person there. I bumped heads with the staff quite a bit too. We just see things very differently. I believe in the mission of the Foundation. It’s a question of how to fulfill that mission where we often disagree.

Pat Morgan, Pinetop Perkins’ manager, is the new president of the Blues Foundation. I am eager to see how she steps into the role, and how she affects things. Paul Benjamin, the outgoing president, was very much responsible for significant improvement in the BMAs. Jay Sieleman, the executive director, has done a great deal to make the IBC a truly fine event. But producing two major events, no matter how good, is just not enough.

Where do you see the genre in the future?

This is a crucial and scary time for the blues The most famous icons of our music, B.B. King and Buddy Guy, are in their 80s and 70s. After them, no one artist has achieved a national profile that anywhere near equals theirs. B.B. has been amazing for the blues, both as a musician and as a spokesman. To have someone like him, who can communicate with audiences so easily and who can go on TV or radio and speak so eloquently about the blues, is a miracle, and has helped make the blues known worldwide. What other blues man can come on the Tonight Show and charm everyone? Unfortunately, no one who is coming up in the blues has that kind of combination of charisma, talent and eloquence, as well as being really well known. I’m afraid when B.B. is no longer with us, many people will pronounce the blues ‘dead’. And it is true that the ‘young guns’ of the blues are mostly middle aged now. There are some good young artists, but many of them are guitar slingers rather than the whole package. And try to name someone under the age of 40 leading a working blues band in Chicago, or almost anywhere. That’s not true in almost any other genre of music. We need to nurture our younger artists. We also need to have an expansive definition of blues, and lots of blues fans want new blues that sounds just like old blues. If the music doesn’t evolve, it will petrify. I don’t want blues to be like Dixieland jazz…a museum piece with a few hardcore old fans that want re-creations of what has already happened. You’ll never beat Muddy at being Muddy. I can never understand why I get so many demos of Muddy and Robert Johnson songs. Do you really think you can bring something new to those, and make me forget the originals?

What are some of today’s challenges?

There are many. For a start, people aren’t buying music like they used to. This includes both recorded music, and, to some extent, live music. Ever since 1999, when illegal downloading began, record stores have been closing. We’ve lost literally thousands of them. And the remaining ones are mostly stocking the hits, just like Wal-mart. As you can imagine, it’s pretty tough to get blues records into hits-only stores. And stores were where a lot of fans (and potential fans) found out about new recordings for the first time. A good record store could be a port of entry for people to discover new music and even genres of music they didn’t know about. Now that discovery isn’t happening. Unfortunately, a lot of blues fans are older, and aren’t very committed to shopping on the web. So our sales through Amazon and our own web site, are not nearly as large as you’d expect. And many blues customers don’t want to buy downloads. With our roots artists like Eric Lindell and JJ Grey Mofro, downloads can be around 30% of their sales. For our blues artists, they are more like 12%.

Still, the best way that a blues artist has to promote his or her career is live performance. Most of our artists tour year-around, usually the old-fashioned way, driving their own vans, hauling trailers, carrying their own gear with no road management or help of any kind. Only a few have buses or even an extra person to help. They survive by gigging as constantly as possible, selling CDs at the gigs (which is very important to us, as you’d imagine) and living almost from gig to gig. With blues not being so fashionable, and the economy in so much trouble, it’s harder and harder for the artists to get the weekday gigs they need to support their touring. Having nights off is really expensive and most of our artists would be happy to gig 6 or 7 nights a week if the work were there. They’re not lazy! They try to save money from better paying festival dates and overseas tours, but it’s hard.

How have you monopolized the internet?

We have hardly monopolized the internet! However, I can brag that I believe we were the first blues label to begin selling online, back in 1995. Our site at offers not only the entire Alligator catalog of CDs but also Alligator-branded clothing and books, DVDs, calendars and other merchandise that I think any blues fan would be interested in.  Besides selling, our web site includes bio materials on all our artists, a complete history of the label, tour calendars and booking information for all our artists, an online jukebox that streams hundreds of Alligator tracks, a goodies section that includes free downloads, news of the label and artists, and most important, a place where fans can sign up to be on our mailing list! Besides offering them special deals from our site, we also inform them of gigs by Alligator artists in their area. We recently expanded this service to inform our Canadian and European customers about upcoming gigs and tours.

More recently, we’ve established myspace and Facebook sites for any of our artists who didn’t have them, and I’ve even begun to twitter, though I have to say that I think it’s kind of silly. Myspace and Facebook are good tools to let fans know where gigs are.  These also include links to artist’s videos. We’re continuing to explore all kinds of online communication, as we’re very aware that traditional media is struggling. It sure was a lot easier when there weren’t so many bloggers and podcasters trying to convince us how important their work was!

I hate to ask this question, but there is a rumor that you turned down Stevie Ray Vaughn. Is that true and if so why?

I heard Stevie live around 1980. At that time, he was playing what I heard as lots and lots of Albert King licks at about three times Albert’s volume. I didn’t hear original songs or much in the way of original guitar playing. In fact, as much as I appreciate and admire Stevie for turning on so many people to the blues (and for producing our wonderful Lonnie Mack record, “Strike Like Lightning”, which he also played on), I don’t think many of his fans realized that he was playing a lot of other people’s licks. Stevie had an amazing ability to absorb existing styles and playing. His playing of Albert King’s and Lonnie Mack’s styles was uncanny, and you could also hear his huge vocabulary of guitar from the players like Clarence Holliman, Roy Gaines and Pat Hare, who did lots of session work behind singers like Bobby Blue Bland and Junior Parker. Of course Stevie pumped up the volume and the intensity, but he would be the first to point the spotlight at his inspirations. So, I heard Stevie playing a lot of things that I considered derivative, and passed on him. I would say that he grew a great deal as an artist, but his music didn’t really excite me a lot until about halfway through his recording career, when he began to write more original songs. I think his best, most original and personal music was still ahead of him. Of course, his death was a huge loss for the blues. No one since has managed to bring the blues to a new, young audience. We didn’t know how much we needed him until he was gone. As Tinsley Ellis says, the only thing worse than a world full of Stevie Ray imitators is a world without them.

Now, don’t ask me who ELSE I foolishly turned down!

Do you have any secrets you would like to share with our readers?

You mean, besides the names of the artists I mistakenly passed on? What I’d say to aspiring blues recording artists is—don’t get into this music because you think there’s a career for you there. There probably isn’t, and if there is one, it will be a constant struggle without much financial reward. Play this music because you love it, because it soothes your soul and makes you smile. If someone hears you and likes you, great! But keep your day job.

For aspiring record business people, I’d say—this is about the hardest time ever for anyone trying to run anything that resembles a record label. If you are determined to try it, apprentice to an existing label first. I learned a lot as I went along, but there is not time for that now. You need to know what you’re getting into before you get into it, not afterward.

If you could go back in time what one thing would you change?

This question made me smile. The first thing I’d do is go back and see Elmore James and Sonny Boy Williamson live. In fact, I’d see plenty more blues men and women…Tommy Johnson, Skip James, Louise Johnson, Cripple Clarence Lofton, young Gatemouth, hundreds and hundreds. As far as business, there are some chances I should have taken and didn’t. I could have signed Otis Rush, for example. And I would have invented cloning so that I could clone myself and have a couple of selves working all night so that I could go out to more gigs!

What are most proud of?

Wow. Lots of things. I have given many great artists recording opportunities and career opportunities they might never have otherwise had. I have helped make recordings that will stand the test of time, from Hound Dog Taylor to Professor Longhair to Koko Taylor to Lil’ Ed to Corey Harris to Michael Hill to dozens more. I hope I’ve helped enlarge the audience for blues, and helped to carry the tradition into the future.

What’s Next?

Right now we’re working on albums by The Holmes Brothers and Guitar Shorty for March release. In April we should have a new Janiva Magness. Soon I’ll be going into the studio with Smokin’ Joe Kubek & Bnois King for a 2010 release.  I’m constantly listening and watching artists, trying to fine the visionary blues men and women for the next generation. I hope I have enough vision to recognize them. I like to think that the future of Alligator Records and the future of the blues will be one and the same.

Thank you Bruce for your time.

Terry " Gatorman" Lape

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