Maybe this half-century commemoration of the Chicago
-based, blues-focused label should have been titled, "The Last of the Independents."
Almost alone of the mid-major labels that formerly thrived in the 1980s and '90s by specializing in non-mainstream styles of music, Alligator has managed to navigate stunning changes in the music businessfrom the vinyl of LPs and 45s to cassettes and CDs, and then, most recently, the virtual collapse of the retail record business and wholesale pivot to online digital sales.
While those other specialty independentsfrom the folk label Rounder to the bluegrass-oriented Sugar Hill, the Bay Area rock label Fantasy to the Midwestern jazz label Telarcwere merging or being bought, Alligator has soldiered on doing its own thing, its own way.
That ability to chart its own course may largely be attributed to what's found on this new 3-CD box set: Alligator did for late-20th Century blues what labels like Blue Note, Verve, Riverside and others did for mid-century jazz: Not only gave it a home, but celebrated it. Loved it, really.
Just as Norman Granz
was the visionary and driving force behind Verve, and Alfred Lion
held that same role at Blue Note, Alligator is the lifelong passion of Bruce Iglauerwho founded Alligator for the singular purpose of recording the late Hound Dog Taylor when Iglauer's employer at the time, Delmark Records, declined.
Soon, Iglauer was recording other southside Chicago blues artists like Koko Taylor
, Big Walter Horton
, and Son Seals
. By the time his 10-year anniversary rolled around, Alligator was the pre-eminent blues labelhaving surged past Delmark and Arhoolie in sales and prominence.
It wasn't just that Iglauer signed some of the better, more popular and creative musicians on the blues scene: The quality of the recordings was as good as anything the major labels were doing. Releases on Alligator sounded clean. And Iglauer promoted the heck out of his releases.
Not only did Alligator issue some of the more popular blues albums, but Iglauer helped promote the blues as a whole in other ways. He became a major supporter of Living Blues
magazine, taking out a full-page ad every month in the form of a letter from Iglauer to fans of the bands he was recording.
Other labels sprang up to take part in this blues renaissance that Alligator had helped to spur: Antone's, Earwig, Black Top. While all helped document and promote the blues, none could eclipse Alligator. (Of all the major competitors that came along after Alligator, only Earwig has also been able to remain independent through all the industry changes. Delmark and Arhoolie, which predated Alligator, also remains active, vitaland independent today.)
Alligator has issued similar anniversary collections at its 20, 25, 30 and 40-year marks, and the 50th anniversary set does include some duplicates found on the earlier compilations. Plus, serious, longtime blues collectors will already have many of these tracks on the original releases by the artists. But that doesn't mean this isn't worth picking up: The 58 tracks on the CD version are one of the best single-label compilations you're likely to find. It's not a definitive history of the blues, but it's a pretty darn good overview of the last 50 years, telling the Alligator story in roughly chronological order, from Hound Dog Taylor's "Give Me Back My Wig" from hisand the label's1971 debut, through other '70s stalwarts like Koko Taylor (no relation), Albert Collins
and Seals, up through the present.
The '80s brought the groundbreaking, Grammy-winning Showdown!
(1985)one of the first "summit" records that assembled a cast of multiple stars for a loose, informal session: This one featured Collins, Johnny Copeland
and a young, not-yet-famous Robert Cray
changed Alligator's fortunes, and made all-star summit albums de rigeur
for everyone from John Lee Hooker to B.B. King
, and even blues-rock star Carlos Santana
Early roots figures like Lonnie Mack
and Roy Buchanan
found a home at Alligator in the '80s and are represented here, as is Johnny Winter
's three-album return to the straight blues he preferred to the rock that had made him a guitar hero.
But what defined Alligator in the 1980s and '90s were homegrown stars like Smokin' Joe Kubek
, Little Charlie & The Nightcats, and Lil' Ed & The Blues Imperials
who either hadn't recorded before Alligator signed them, or who achieved their initial national fame on the label.
Not every artist spent their entire career on Alligatorbut an awful lot of established, influential blues musicians did find their way to Alligator for at least an album or two: Marcia Ball
, Mavis Staples
, Steady Rollin' Bob Margolin, Billy Boy Arnold
, Roomful of Blues
, Cephas & Wiggins
, Long John Hunter
, Elvin Bishop
, James Cotton
And while Alligator's roots and much of its catalog are grounded in post-war Chicago blues, Iglauer and Alligator have never gotten stuck into any one style: Staples' is a gospel and R&B singer, Cephas & Wiggins' brand of blues was in the Carolinas' Piedmont style, Hunter and Clarence Gatemouth Brown
hailed from Texas, Kenny Neal
from the bayous of Baton Rouge. And CJ Chenier
took over his father, Clifton Chenier
's, zydeco band when his father passed on.
Even some of the acts Alligator "discovered" were breaking new stylistic ground: Kinsey Report
had as much hard rock in its music as blues; Michael Hills' Blues Mob was closer to Living Colour
than to Muddy Waters
; Australia's Dave Hole
seemed to be channeling Stevie Ray Vaughan
through Aerosmith's prism. And Shemekia Copeland
, daughter of the late Johnny Copeland, has always had a sound based on the blues but reaching out into soul, pop and rockwith the kind of crossover appeal of a Bonnie Raitt
or Robert Cray.
Even as the music industry has changed, with music shops and distributors giving way to mobile apps, Alligator hasn't just survivedbut continues to sign new artists, to carry the blues forward.
In the last decade, Alligator has signed up-and-coming artists including Selwyn Birchwood
, the Nick Moss Band, Christone "Kingfish" Ingram
, and Toronzo Cannon
If there's a hole in this collection, it's the absence of any of the reggae albums Alligator branched out into in the early 1980s. But those are all out of print, and it may be that Iglauer gave or sold the rights back to the artists when he got out of the reggae business. Still, some major reggae heavyweights issued albums on Alligator, including The Abyssinians
, Joe Higgs, Pablo Moses & The Handcart Band
and The Skatalites.
What this collection makes most clear is that for all the hall of fame glamor attached to many of the tracks found here, Iglauer isn't done quite yetand as long as Alligator is around as an independent label, it's likely to be the standard by which blues albums are judged.
DISC 1: Give Me Back My Wig (Hound Dog Taylor & The Houserockers); I'm A
(Koko Taylor); Have Mercy (Big Walter Horton with Carey Bell); Somebody Loan Me
Dime (Fenton Robinson); It’s My Fault, Darling (Professor Longhair); Telephone
Seals); Lights Out (Johnny Winter); Blue Monday Hangover (Albert Collins); Little
Blues (James Cotton); The Dream (Albert Collins, Robert Cray & Johnny Copeland);
Pawnshop Bound (William Clarke); Ridin' the Blinds (Live) (Lonnie Mack); Cold
Nights (Live) (Lonnie Brooks); Soul Fixin’ Man (Live) (Luther Allison); Got My Mojo
(Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown); Sloppy Drunk (Saffire–The Uppity Blues Women);
Did It (Roy Buchanan); Keep On Lovin' Me, Baby (The Paladins).
DISC 2: Love
(Michael Burks); I'm A Blues Man (Kenny Neal); Run Myself Out of Town (The
Brothers); Jump Star (Little Charlie & The Nightcats); I'm Still Leaving You (Katie
Don't Lose My Number (Smokin' Joe Kubek & Bnois King); Corner Of The Blanket
Kinsey Report); I Got A Rich Man's Woman (Carey Bell); Au Contraire, Mon Frere
Chenier & The Red Hot Louisiana Band); There's A Devil On The Loose (Mavis
Presumed Innocent (Michael Hill's Blues Mob); Not What You Said Last Night
Rollin' Bob Margolin); Man Of Considerable Taste (Billy Boy Arnold): Ain't Seen My
(Cephas & Wiggins); Marfa Lights (Long John Hunter); Phone Line (Dave Hole):
(Eric Lindell); I Won't Do That (Joe Louis Walker); That's What Love Will Make You
(Janiva Magness); Going Back to Alabama (The Siegel-Schwall Band); Why Don’t
So God Can Use You? (Corey Harris & Henry Butler).
DISC 3: Party Town
What You See Is What You Get (Lil' Ed & The Blues Imperials); In A Roomful Of
(Roomful of Blues); Blue and Lonesome (Billy Branch & The Sons Of Blues); Outside
This Town (Christone "Kingfish" Ingram); Clotilda's On Fire (Shemekia Copeland);
Longer That I Live (Curtis Salgado); Living In a Burning House (Selwyn Birchwood);
Midnight Hour Blues (Elvin Bishop & Charlie Musselwhite); Ain't No Fun (When The
Rabbit Got The Gun) (The Cash Box Kings); Make It Back To Memphis (Live) (Tommy
Castro & The Painkillers); A Woman (Live) (JJ Grey & Mofro); I'm Running (Rick Estrin
Nightcats); You Didn't Think About That (Coco Montoya); Ice Cream In Hell (Tinsley
You Won't Have A Problem When I'm Gone (Chris Cain); Too Late (Guitar Shorty);
High Cost of Low Living (The Nick Moss Band featuring Dennis Gruenling); The
Way (Toronzo Cannon).