Alligator Records has been preserving the Chicago blues in Houston for 50 years

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Albert Collins of Houston, electric blues guitarist and singer.

Photo: Michael Weinstein / Alligator Records

Bruce Iglauer found himself in the right place, Chicago, at the right time, in the late 1960s, to capture some amazing music. Iglauer worked for the famous record company Delmark. A fan of the city’s legendary blues scene, Iglauer wanted to release a recording by local player Hound Dog Taylor. His idea was not received positively, so he started his own label.

Alligator Records celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The then newborn label began releasing “Hound Dog Taylor & the House Rockers” in 1971. Albums by Big Walter Horton, Koko Taylor and Son Seals followed. Iglauer has found remarkable talent throughout his adopted hometown.

“When I came to Chicago on a Friday or Saturday night, there were about 40 places where you could hear blues ranging from great to world quality,” he says. “You could sit 20 feet from Otis Rush or Howlin ‘Wolf and 100 guys you had never heard of. If they weren’t great, they were still entertaining. This scene imposed itself.

“But these artists did not come to South Chicago in an attempt to become professional musicians. They came in order to get a better job. They all expected to work in factories, in steelworks, to drive taxis. Koko Taylor worked in the laundry. For them, it was just getting out of a horrible sharecropping system. You’re never going to be successful when someone else does the math. They knew that if they did someone else’s math, they were going to be fooled.

Iglauer was initially inspired exclusively by Chicago, but in the late 1970s the Alligator roster began to grow. Several Houston and East Texas blues players have found their way to Alligator over the years, starting with Albert Collins, who resurrected his career with “Ice Pickin ‘” in 1978. Clifton Chenier, Johnny Winter, Katie Webster, Charles Brown, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Marcia Ball and Sippie Wallace are just a few of the artists linked to this part of the country who have released strong albums via Alligator. Chenier’s “I’m Here” earned Alligator its first Grammy. A second will follow three years later for “Showdown!” – a top of the guitar with Collins, Johnny Copeland and Robert Cray.

At the end of last month, the label released “Alligator Records: 50 Years of Genuine Houserockin ‘Music”, a collection of 58 songs celebrating its history. The recording includes songs from many of the blues greats mentioned above, as well as cuts by James Cotton, Professor Longhair, Joe Louis Walker and others who recorded for Alligator during this time.

Alligator has since its inception avoided trafficking in archival music. Iglauer’s plan was to have the artists on the label create new recordings.

“One of the things I say to artists from other labels if we try to sign them, ‘Don’t come to us unless you want to make the best album of your career. A record you would like your grandchildren to hear. Don’t come and make a good record, because you can do it with someone else, ”he says. “It’s a wonderful thing about Albert Collins, we let Albert be Albert. We knew what he looked like live and wanted that excitement live in the studio. You don’t say to someone like that, ‘You can’t play that hard.’ (Laughs.) Part of how he got his sound was to supercharge his amp. It’s strong. Sorry, this is (expletive) strong. … We plan the sound, but we don’t try to accommodate ourselves. We are here to welcome you.

The approach clearly worked. But Iglauer says the early days were busy.

“A number of people in Chicago started labels in the 1970s, but almost all of them failed,” he says. “It’s not because they made bad records. They didn’t recognize the trends in the business that you had to operate. If that first Hound Dog Taylor record didn’t sell, there wouldn’t be Alligator Records. Every record paid off for the one that followed.

Although Collins ‘“Ice Pickin’” surpassed expectations.

“I never thought in my life that I would work with an artist as incredible as Albert Collins,” he says.

Iglauer paid $ 1.77 for “The Cool Sounds of Albert Collins” in the mid-1960s, just as his affinity for the blues was starting to grow. He found his way to music through the folk revival of the ’60s, drawn to Mississippi Fred McDowell, who performed a folk festival that Iglauer calls “my hallelujah moment.” There was this artist with whom, culturally, I had so little in common. And the music he created jumped 20 rows of seats and rocked me. I think this speaks to the power of the blues.

Iglauer dug deeper with all the artists that caught his eye. He went back and listened to Collins’ early recordings on the Imperial label but found the sound disappointing.

“But I knew if you looked at the four main modern blues guitarists, three of them were called King and the other was called Collins,” he says.

Iglauer was surprised the Houston-based tall was without a group. So he helped put together a group and allowed them to focus on a four night adventure in Chicago.

“They fell in love with each other,” Iglauer says. “Albert would go to Chicago to meet the group. He was a jerk behind the wheel, especially when he finally got on a bus. It was part of his dream. Drive it himself.

Alligator’s success in selling the blues can be difficult to measure given the years he has released music. Consider his label started when rock ‘n’ roll started to make its way into the arenas. Through disco and new wave, Alligator has forged a different path focused on variations of a more earthy sound. Even when he only squeezed a few thousand copies of an album, Iglauer sent hundreds of promotional copies to the media.

“If you can just get someone’s attention, listeners become consumers,” he says.

The downside of running a label for half a century – especially one with an already old roster to begin with – is that the players start to disappear. Collins, Chenier, Winter, Webster, Brown – they’re all long gone. But Alligator has proven resilient, regularly finding young talent. Shemekia Copeland released music on Alligator, and the label made Lil ‘Ed and the Blues Imperials a blues star. In fact, the guitarist was already a star, a larger audience only needed a few albums to realize it.

The label also appears to be healthy going forward. Phenomenal young singer and guitarist from Mississippi, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram released “Kingfish” on Alligator in 2019, and he has a new record, “662”, this month. Last week, the label announced it had signed with Texas Treasure and Houston native Carolyn Wonderland, a singer-songwriter and guitar ace whose music effortlessly crosses blues, rock and folk.

“It’s not exactly an accident,” says Iglauer. “But I learned this as we went along. My career path has been guided more by my instincts and my heart than my brain. “

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  • André Dansby

    Andrew Dansby covers culture and entertainment, both local and national, for the Houston Chronicle. He came to The Rolling Stone Chronicle in 2004, where he spent five years writing about music. Previously, he had spent five years in book publishing, working with publisher George RR Martin on the first two books in the series that would become “Game of Thrones” on television. images you have never seen. He has written for Rolling Stone, American Songwriter, Texas Music, Playboy, and other publications.

    Andrew doesn’t like monkeys, dolphins and the outdoors.


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