Celebrity Access: Larry LeBlanc Interviews Bruce Iglauer (Alligator Records)
Bruce Iglauer who is the 2014 A2IM Lifetime Achievement Award winner who will be presented his award at the A2IM Libera Awards On Thursday June 19th, 2014.
Industry Profile: Bruce Iglauer
— By Larry LeBlanc
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Bruce Iglauer, founder/CEO, Alligator Records.
Chicago-based blues trailblazer Bruce Iglauer will be presented with the American Association of Independent Music’s (A2IM) Libera Awards Lifetime Achievement Award for his work as a leader in the music industry as well as his humanitarian efforts.
The award is being presented by Tommy Boy founder Tom Silverman, winner of last year’s award, on June 19th in New York. Beggars Group founder Martin Mills was the inaugural winner of the award in 2012.
Iglauer launched Alligator Records in 1971 to record and release a self-named album by Hound Dog Taylor and the House Rockers.
Alligator, now one of the most successful independent labels in the music industry, has a catalog of 300 titles; many of which produced or co-produced by Iglauer.
Among those reputable artists in the catalog are: Koko Taylor, Albert Collins, Son Seals, Fenton Robinson, Walter “Shakey” Horton, Lonnie Brooks, Charlie Musselwhite, Mavis Staples, Luther Allison, Lonnie Brooks, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Carey Bell, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Elvin Bishop, Johnny Winter, Lonnie Mack, Roy Buchanan, and Katie Webster,
Alligator’s current roster includes: Marcia Ball, Selwyn Birchwood, Jarekus Singleton, Tommy Castro, James Cotton, Jesse Dee, Rick Estrin & the Nightcats, JJ Grey & Mofro, the Holmes Brothers, Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials, Anders Osborne, Roomful of Blues, Curtis Salgado, the Siegel-Schwall Band, and Joe Louis Walker among others.
Iglauer’s lifetime involvement with blues began while attending Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin in the mid-1960s. He hosted a blues radio show at the college station, and moved on to promoting concerts on campus with Howlin’ Wolf, and Luther Allison. As well, he continually visited Chicago to hear such blues legends as Muddy Waters, Magic Sam, Otis Rush, and Carey Bell perform in the local clubs there prior to Delmark Records’ Bob Koester bringing him on board to work at his label.
When Koester balked at signing Hound Dog Taylor, Iglauer decided to launch Alligator.
A long-time blues activist, Iglauer is the founder and current co-director of the Blues Community Foundation, dedicated to supporting blues music education and assisting blues musicians and their families who are in need.
What are your feelings about the American Association of Independent Music honoring you with its Lifetime Achievement Award?
I am truly honored to be receiving this Lifetime Achievement Award from A2IM. It was voted for me by truly a jury of my peers. By people who understand what business we are in; who understand what I’ve done; and who are my fellow independents; my fellow entrepreneurs; my fellow music-driven record music people. So this award means a huge amount to me. I’m thrilled to be receiving it.
Presently with a staff of 16, Alligator Records is 43-years-old.
That’s right. It was started in 1971.
The blues is one of America’s oldest musical genres. Our generation saw iconic blues singers like B.B. King and Muddy Waters perform live. I’m not sure the newer generation are as aware of the genre. Where does blues fit into society today?
For blues to have a future it has to carry the sense of tradition, but it also has to be music that resonates with contemporary people in terms of stories, and in terms of that emotional healing power that the best blues has. If we have blues songs in the future that talk about plowing behind mules or picking cotton, the blues will become an artifact.
So many blues icons have passed away, while others like B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and James Cotton are in their senior years.
One of the reasons that I am concerned about the future of the blues as a popular music is that our most iconic artists like B.B. King and Buddy Guy are in their 80s and 70s respectively. Who’s going to rise to fulfill this role as the well-known, iconic blues artist who gets beyond the hard-core blues audience and becomes a household name? It is unclear whether there is anybody who is prepared to step into those shoes. But I see part of the role of Alligator is to try to nurture the musicians who potentially will be the iconic blues musicians of their generation.
James Cotton has battled throat cancer but he appeared on the 2012 debut album by The Dr. Izzy Band, “Blind & Blues Bound” on Black Chow Records.
James Cotton, of course, is a great talent. He no longer can speak except with difficulty because of having had throat cancer, and throat cancer treatment. He may well be the senior most bluesman who has earned a worldwide reputation.
Certainly B.B. King was the blues artist who single-handedly broke down all of the mainstream barriers.
When I started Alligator I went home to Cincinnati (in 1971) to visit my mother. I had just put out the first Hound Dog Taylor record a few months before. When I went to my mother’s home, she was having some friends over for her bridge club. The friends asked me what I was doing. I said I had started a record company, and I was recording blues musicians. Blank looks came over their faces. Then one of them said, “My husband really likes jazz.” I said, “No, it’s not jazz, it’s blues.” Then I thought, “How am I going to explain this?” I explained it in three words. I said, “Like B.B. King.” All of them had seen B.B. King on the Johnny Carson (“Tonight”) show. They immediately had an image of an adult Afro-American man with a guitar who was a player, and a singer doing music that they sort of could understand; and was well-spoken.
After his performances he would come over, and sit on the couch and chat with Johnny Carson. The skills to be a late night television show guest, and to converse with a host are a different set of skills to play music filled with emotional content and, hopefully, having a cathartic effect on the audience. A lot of blues musicians haven’t had situations where they have developed those skills.
Certainly, Alligator has had plenty of artists on nighttime television over the years.
Primarily, we had had artists on Conan. We have had artists on Letterman, and we had artists on Leno. We have had a number of artists on those shows. I think because of my crack publicity staff getting those placements that we have had an extraordinary number (of artist placements) for a label our size. But those artists performed and, generally, were not then interviewed.
One of the things that the blues needs is artists who can both perform this music with real emotional content and with real talent and charisma, and then sit down on the couch and chat with the host. B.B. King, to his credit, realized this very early on in his career, and taught himself how to do this. He would be the first to say that he talked like an Afro-American man from the South. He talked like a tractor driver who didn’t finish high school. He hired an elocution coach to teach him to be a better speaker. He also had people who taught him greater literacy skills as well as having music teachers.
Muddy Waters was well-spoken.
Up to a point, yes. But still B.B. is really in a special category. I’m trying very hard to nurture the musicians who will be the ambassadors of the blues in the future which means not only (having) the musical talent and the ability to help guide their own careers, but those skills that will allow them to be spokespeople for the whole tradition.
Has the audience for the blues in America, as you have suggested in the past, remained primarily male and white in their late ‘20s?
I am seeing more women at blues events than I used to. When you quote that phrase that was probably something I said when I was in my late 20s. The audience has aged with me. Both the white and the black audience. Last year I went to a Southern soul event that was billed as a blues event at a large theatre in Merrillville Indiana that was sold out. It had about 3,500 fans in attendance of which 3,490 were black, and 10 were white. They were there to see Millie Jackson, Mell Waiters, Theodis Ealey, and Bobby Rush. All artists that we might call Southern soul artists but, as far as they (the audience members) were concerned, they were blues artists. Bobby Bland had originally been booked to headline, but was in the hospital by that time, and died not really long afterwards (on June 23, 2013). This audience will never come to a blues club on the North Side of Chicago, and many of them won’t come to a blues festival because they wouldn’t be comfortable there in the same way that a lot of the white audience wasn’t comfortable in the ghetto clubs where I used to hang out in.
Over the years, blues artists and their catalogs have done fairly well in Canada, Europe, Australia, and Japan. Are those still your major markets for sales outside of the United States?
Not Japan so much. I would say Canada, Germany, France, Scandinavia and Australia is a good market for us. But in all of these markets blues is very much a minority music.
You took Katie Webster, Tinsley Ellis and Kenny Neal to Buenos Aires in late ‘90s for an Alligator Blues Festival. An untapped market for the blues?
I did a few tours in South America, primarily in Brazil and Argentina. There was sort of a blues craze, especially in Argentina, as there was in Japan in the 1970s which was a peak time for growing a blues audience there. In foreign countries, there has always been a fascination with American music. One of the ways that I see companies like mine surviving and, perhaps, thriving in the future is going into foreign markets which are untapped. I am thinking very specifically of China and India. Even though I don’t expect that blues is going to become mainstream pop music in either country, if we have one in a million people being blues fans in those countries, it will be as good for sales as a small European country.
Do you have any sales currently out of China?
I’m working (in distribution and promotion in China) with a company called 88tc88.com based in Germany. But there’s no physical product involved.
What percentage of your sales is physical versus downloads?
We have a higher percentage of physical product than most pop labels.
It will differ with individual titles.
Of course, it changes. For example, JJ Grey & Mofro, and Anders Osborne who are much more roots rock artists than blues artists—whom we don’t tout as blues artists—are amongst our best selling artists. They skew to a much younger audience, and they are much more heavily downloaded on a new release. They typically will run in an area of 40% where most of our traditional blues artists will run 20%. When we are talking about percentages, it is percentages of a shrinking (overall sales) pie.
Obviously, offstage sales are important to Alligator.
All of our artists sell at their gigs. We will not sign an artist who isn’t prepared to actively and aggressively do sales at live performances. We absolutely need those as part of our business model. Of course, that also leads to a greater percentage of physical sales. But a lot of our adult consumers simply do not want to buy downloads. They want to own a physical product. Some of them love vinyl. We have released about a half dozen classic titles on vinyl. And all of them (the adult consumers) will buy CDs. They like to be able to touch and hold the CD and look at the packaging. They don’t feel a sense of ownership with a download. Converting our consumers to downloads has been a very hard battle. It is just beginning to work a little bit. Now, of course, the download business has started to level off.
In some international markets, like Germany, physical remains the primary configuration.
You are absolutely right. For us, with back catalog, we find that the percentage gets a little higher. Some of our back catalog is 50% digital, and 50% physical. But a lot of the reason for that is the remaining records stores are not stocking anything (in volume) like they used to.
Many brick and mortar stores having music product only stock one or two copies of a title.
But we have over 300 titles. We can’t expect even a Music Millennium in Portland (Oregon) or a Waterloo Records (in Austin, Texas) to be stocking our whole catalog. I would consider those two, along with Jazz Record Mart in Chicago, which is more specialized, to be the best record stores in the United States. But notice that I wasn’t able to mention more.
Alligator’s publishing company is Eyeball Music?
We also have an ASCAP company called Small Scale Music, and a SESAC company called Chomp Music.
Eyeball Music is your BMI company?
Yes for most of the titles that we publish or administer. We do a fair amount of administration as well as publishing.
Controlling master and publishing rights makes it easier to license music for TV, film and other uses?
Absolutely. I have an employee named Bob DePugh…
Who has been with you forever as licensing director and as head of your publishing and international departments.
Many of my employees have been with me forever. I have employees who have been with me over 30 years. Bob is 25 years here. Amongst Bob’s many jobs are doing placements. He regularly keeps in touch will about 150 music supervisors. We probably get maybe 20 or 25 good placements a year as we will do placements in student films, and films that are trying to get distribution. No placement too big; no placement too small.
Synch income, however, is in decline.
Yes, but there are music supervisors, especially television supervisors who, if they have a weekly budget, will do their best to use the entire budget because if they don’t use the entire budget they are giving the production company the message that they don’t need the entire budget.
If they are seeking contemporary blues, they would likely come to you.
Well that’s true. Since we have such a large catalog, we have also set up a private section on our website where we have a lot of our tracks grouped by style or grouped by tempo or grouped by instrumentation. Also Bob can set up a folder for a music supervisor who is looking for something in particular. Rather than sending them a bunch of MP3s or some CDs, the supervisor can go to the site and listen to a half dozen tracks that might fulfill their needs. We also have an arrangement with some shows where they have songs in their library which they can draw on for a previously negotiated amount of money. One of the shows that has been good to us is “Justified” on FX which has a library of Alligator songs. We end up getting used in bar fights a lot. Our specialty is music for bar fights and sad blues on the jukebox when the hero goes into drink after the woman has dumped him.
Alligator has recently had a spate of new artist signings. How do you determine what artists to sign?
I’m constantly offered finished masters, and I am sent many, many demos. I will listen to virtually everything that is sent to me, and respond to it. If the music is too far away from what we do, the person will get a form letter. But if it’s at all close to what we do, I will sit down and write a detailed letter responding to individual tracks, and tell the artist or the presenter–which could be a lawyer or a producer–what I liked and what I didn’t like.
How did you come to sign Tampa-schooled bluesman Selwyn Birchwood and Jarekus Singleton, a former basketball star who some now consider to be the future of blues guitar?
In the case of Selwyn and Jarekus, it was first a live performance that sold me. In the case of both of them, the performances were at the International Blues Challenge run by the Blues Foundation in Memphis every year, usually in January. I saw Selwyn when he made the finals in 2012. I might have heard his name before. I’m not sure. But I was very impressed by the way that he carried himself and the fact that he performed all original material–well-constructed original material. He could play, and he could sing, and he had a natural ease onstage that sucked me right into the performance. I also liked the way that he interacted with his band. He had an unusual band line-up. He plays guitar and lap steel guitar and he has a bass player and a drummer, which you would expect, but the fourth member is a baritone saxophone player (Regi Oliver) who plays solo baritone. I loved the way that Selwyn played off the baritone player, and the baritone played off of him onstage. Trading licks and challenging each other. It was loads of fun, and it was different texture from the average bluesman.
[Selwyn Birchwood releases his debut Alligator album “Don't Call No Ambulance” on June 10, 2014.]
What are the factors behind Alligator being around for 43 years?
Somebody asked me that the other day, and I quoted a character called Mr. Wizard from a cartoon called “Tooter Turtle” (a segment of the “Leonardo The Lion and His Funny Friends” series in the ‘60s). Mr. Wizard said, “Be vat you iz and not vat you is not. Folks who is vat they is is the happiest lot.”
I’ve made it (the label) work by creating and trying to own a niche. I didn’t know the term branding when I started out, but my first concept of Alligator was to try and create a brand. I wanted to release records where a fan could say, “I liked the last record. I see that this new one is on the same label. I have never heard of the artist, but I have learned to trust the label. So I’m buying it because I am an Alligator fan.”
Much as a jazz fan would buy Blue Note recordings over the years.
Actually, my great heroes in life were Bob Koester my old boss at Delmark Records, and Lillian Shedd McMurry who ran the Trumpet label.
Lillian McMurry was a remarkable figure in American blues.
Lillian and I became friends in the later part of her life. I had the honor of inducting her into the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame (in 1998) while she was still living, and able to travel to the event. Lillian was one of the most scrupulously honest record people I ever met, and was involved in every aspect of the business. I idolized Lillian partly because of her ethics, and partly because she was completely hands-on.
I will also mention Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records, because the very first blues record that I bought was a Mississippi Fred McDowell record on Arhoolie in 1966. Chris and Bob Koester never followed any kind of commercial rule. They recorded what they wanted to record. So these kind of music-driven people are my heroes. Later on, I discovered Alfred Lion and Bluenote Records which you mentioned. Absolutely, the Bluenote model is very similar to the way that I envisioned Alligator. I simply was not as aware of it at the time that I started.
Lillian died the year following receiving the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame award.
I went to her home in Jackson, Mississippi when she was still alive.
The impact of the Trumpet label on American music has been profound and lasting. She ran the label out of a storefront in Jackson, Mississippi?
Her husband Willard was in the furniture business. They were a very devoted couple. She got into the blues because he bought an out-of-business furniture store. You will recall that furniture stores back then sold phonographs, and often had bins of records. In this case the furniture store was in the black community in Jackson. They had bins of records, and she put on Wynonie Harris’ recording of “All She Wants to Do Is Rock.” [“It was the most unusual, sincere and solid sound I’d ever heard,” McMurry told Living Blues magazine in 1986. “I’d never heard anything with such rhythm and freedom.”] That was a complete revelation to her, and made her a huge fan of the blues. She began selling records at retail. And then she began a mail order record service, and doing radio advertising much like WLAC (in Nashville). She then thought, “I could make these records rather than just buy other peoples.” So she began recording people including, of course, Sonny Boy Williamson (aka Aleck “Rice” Miller).
[Founded in 1950, Trumpet Records was the first record company in Mississippi to achieve national stature. The label recorded Little Milton, Wynonie Harris, Willie Love, James Waller, Arthur Crudup as well as Elmore James’ original recording of "Dust My Broom,” and Sonny Boy Williamson’s” Eyesight to the Blind" and "Nine Below Zero.” Due to debts, Trumpet folded in 1955.]
What made you think that you could operate your own record company?
Obviously, I had a model from Delmark. I had a vision of what my potential audience would be. They looked just like me. Basically, a ‘60s’ college student who had learned about blues either through folk music or through British blues bands and had gone back to the roots or could be led back to the roots. So I knew that there was a marketplace out there. There were lots and lots of distributors at that time. I think that when I started Chicago had 9 independent distributors, and 11 one-stops.
You are of the age that you would have seen Howlin’ Wolf introduced by the Rolling Stones on ABC-TV’s “Shindig” in 1965.
I didn’t but I brought Howlin’ Wolf to my college (Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin) in 1969 when I was on the special events committee, and I talked them into letting me choose a blues artist to bring in. Then I was the producer of a Luther Allison concert.
When I brought Wolf to my college, it was only three months before I moved to Chicago. When I moved to Chicago, I started going to the South Side and the West Side clubs. Wolf was mainly playing on the West Side. He remembered me because I was the hippie who had brought him the Bromo-Seltzer. He had been sitting on the fire escape at the college after they did sound check—the whole band was sitting outside on the fire escape, probably smoking—and I very shyly went to meet them. I asked Mr. Wolf if there was anything that I could do for him. He said that he would really like a Bromo-Seltzer So I ran four blocks off campus, bought some Bromo-Seltzer, and then ran four blocks back. So I was the hippie who brought him the Bromo-Seltzer. When I moved to Chicago, he remembered me, and he was always extremely nice to me.
You started Alligator Records with a $2,500 inheritance. Then you stayed on at Delmark for a year after releasing the Hound Dog Taylor album.
Amazingly, Bob Koester didn’t fire me as he should have. He did fire me at other times. I simply didn’t leave.
Did you work at Bob’s record store, the Jazz Record Mart?
I worked primarily for the label. When I went to work there, the label was in the basement of the store at 7 West Grand. In this dank basement that held a lot of small vermin. I would be doing the packing and shipping, and Bob’s wife was doing all of the paperwork–the invoicing. She went off to have a baby, and I had to learn how to do invoices. I began learning more about how the books worked. I began learning more about distribution. I was never running Bob’s label. I was doing a lot of the nuts-and-bolts work while he did the bigger work of producing the records, and dealing with the artists.
[Recalls Delmark owner Bob Koester in Blues Revue Quarterly, "Bruce came in and worked at the store, and Delmark. Delmark was in the basement of the store at 7 West Grand. It was about 600 square feet upstairs and, maybe, another 50 or 100 square feet in the basement. I had one room in my apartment that was the Delmark tape file, and editing room My wife and Bruce Iglauer worked with me. If somebody came calling somebody had to go to lunch to make room for them cause it could get pretty crowded down there. We just needed more space."]
You had seen Hound Dog Taylor perform at Florence’s Lounge on the South Side of Chicago.
Right. I first saw Hound Dog in late January 1971. I had met him. I had seen him sit in previously to that during one of my blues expeditions to Chicago before I moved there. Sitting in, Hound Dog was a disaster because other musicians couldn’t follow him. So I had kind of written him off as being an affable, clownish guy. He was clearly very funny, and people had great affection for him. But I didn’t think much of him as a musician because I had literally never heard him finish a song. Songs would start, and they would fall apart. I ran into him at Theresa’s Lounge, and he mentioned that he had a Sunday afternoon gig at this place called Florence’s which I had never heard of at 54th Place and Shields.
Florence’s was a little neighborhood tavern which only had music on Sunday afternoons.
That was the only time they had music. On Sunday afternoons. No other club in Chicago was having music on Sunday afternoons. So I went down there with very low expectations, and I walked in and heard what I would still describe as, “the happiest music that I had ever heard in my life.” I knew immediately that the music needed to be recorded. This was an artist who had done two 45s, and an unreleased four-song session for Chess that I didn’t find out about until much later. He mostly played in Chicago, often in the Maxwell Street Market playing for tips. He and his band were the cheapest blues band in Chicago. They would play a weekday gig for $10 a man—that is $30—and a weekend gig for $15 a man.
Little wonder that Bob Koester didn’t rate him.
Well, Bob had never seen Hound Dog with his own band, and I don’t believe that he had seen Hound Dog with his own band when I put the record out. So his impression of Hound Dog was much like my initial impression. That this guy was not really a very good musician and kind of a clown. Hound Dog liked being funny. He liked being the centre of attention. He told jokes. He was extremely social.
When you moved to Chicago was the Maxwell Street market still operating with blues and gospel musicians practically on every corner?
The Maxwell Street Market was already in its decline because the city was trying very hard to close it up. They weren’t doing trash collection. So it was pretty filthy. There were still a lot of musicians there, blues and gospel musicians. Maybe not on every corner, but plenty of them. However, with the exception of Blind Jim Brewer, who was a very good acoustic guitarist who did both blues and gospel, most of the musicians working Maxwell Street at that time were not great musicians. They might have had great blues feeling, but they were mostly doing other peoples’ songs, and copying other peoples’ styles.
[For decades, the swarming weekend open-air market on Maxwell Street southwest of Chicago's Loop served as a place where Chicagoans of all ethnic and racial backgrounds could come together. It was free, out in the open, and dozens of local blues and gospel musicians, including Little Pat Rushing, Blind Jim Brewer, Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis, John Henry Davis, L.V. Banks, and Robert Dancin' Perkins performed there weekly.]
And many were very primitive, too.
Often yeah, like Little Pat Rushing or Maxwell Street Jimmy Davis (born Charles W. Thompson, who recorded a self-titled album for Elektra Records in 1966.)
One of the things that happens in blues is that sometimes artists are more authentic than talented. You bow to their authenticity, and what they went through in their lives to get that authenticity which was usually a whole lot of hell. But there’s nothing that compels you to record them.
What then impressed you about Hound Dog Taylor?
When I heard Hound Dog, one of the things that I realized quickly was that he had quite a few original songs. Hound Dog was a very limited guitarist. He played in an open tuning somewhere between D and E. Not exactly in either one of them with a slide on his fifth finger. He had six fingers on his left hand. He was born with six fingers on both hands, but he cut one of them off. Luckily they had no nerve endings. But he had very long fingers, and he played an extremely cheap Japanese guitar. As with many artists in the blues clubs at that time, he sang into a microphone plugged into a guitar amp. There wasn’t a PA system. So his vocals were often quite distorted. In order to fill the club, they played everything at the maximum volume that their relatively small amps would handle.
In that period, a blues label like Delmark didn’t sell a lot of records. Probably an average of 2,000 to 3,000 sales on each title.
I would think that on many titles it was less than that.
Hound Dog’s Alligator debut sold 9,000 copies within three months?
I’m not sure how quickly the 9,000 was but it certainly was many more than any specialist blues label was selling. Besides knowing my marketplace, I started my label at absolutely the peak of progressive rock free form radio. Because I was aware of that kind of that radio and because I was given a list of stations by a guy named Augie Bloom as well as him telling me the existence of a (radio tip sheet) publication called Walrus….
Many of the new progressive rock stations, and most every college radio stations had a blues show.
Absolutely correct. I had done the blues show at my college radio station. I was aware of progressive rock stations. I was aware of community stations because there were a few of those, and I was aware of college radio. Unlike Delmark or Arhoolie, I wasn’t afraid to give away a lot of promo copies. I remember that Bob Koester would say, “We have a new release, and I am going to give away 150 or 200 promo copies.” And that was that.
You took the Hound Dog album on the road, visited radio stations, and convinced many DJs to give the record some airplay.
That is absolutely true. In fact, I did that for five albums in a row. With the first Hound Dog Taylor record I got a three week leave of absence from Bob. Since Bob was paying me $85 a week at that point, I’m sure it was an unpaid leave of absence.
Meanwhile your phone bills to distributors and radio stations were higher than your checks from Bob.
Well, yes. Fairly early on, I began drawing $100 a week out of Alligator. Between Bob’s check and my $100 a week, I lived on that. I was living in a one room apartment that cost me $70 a month, including utilities.
When did you have your first staff member?
I had a couple of part-timers, but I didn’t have a full-time staff member until 1975.
I recall you living in Chicago’s North Side.
Right. I am still in Chicago’s North Side. I am just a little bit north than I was when I started the label. I started in the southern edge of Uptown in a building so close to the L tracks that you could hear the screaming metal on metal on the curve about every 10 minutes. Eventually, I moved from there into a house where I ran my label for 10 years completely against all zoning regulations. I moved into the house in 1974 with the person who would become my short-term first wife, and I worked out of the house until 1985. By that time I had 7 people coming to work in my house every day.
That house is where the records were stored in the basement?
Yes. I had the records in the basement and the UPS truck would come in the alley and we would take them out on the two-wheeler.
Betcha the neighbors loved that.
Actually, the neighbors liked me fine because the house had previously been a band house. When I bought the house the grass was literally four feet high in the yard. The fact that I mowed the lawn immediately made me friends. Then we painted the house. So I was better than the previous neighbors.
Koko Taylor’s “I Got What It Takes” earned Alligator its first Grammy Award nomination in 1975.
Yes. It was kind of a surprise. The blues at that point fell under the category of Traditional and Ethnic Music. So we were competing with traditional folk records, Zydeco, Hawaiian, and Native American music. There wasn’t a blues category. Later on, they created a blues category and then two blues categories. With the relatively recent reductions of categories, they have gone from traditional and contemporary blues as separate categories to having one blues category. I am involved with a committee made up of members of the Chicago chapter of The Record Academy who are lobbying to get our second category back.
In 1982, Clifton Chenier’s “I’m Here!” won a Grammy.
Yes. Now that was a record that I had not produced. One of the most important relationships that Alligator has had and one of the great mentors and sponsors of the label has been with Dag Haeggqvist of Sonet Records (in Sweden) who is still a dear friend. Sonet approached me when I had my second Hound Dog Taylor record out in 1974 about licensing my four record label for European distributed. I was amazed. I didn’t know them. I knew nothing of the history of the company. I didn’t know that Dag had been a record producer–a jazz record producer–starting at the age of 17. That he had created a consortium of independent labels that distributed one another. He was a very visionary guy, and an extremely nice guy who is music-driven, but also a very smart businessman. So he became my European patron. Sonet had released the Clifton Chenier record “I’m Here” in Europe, and it was offered to me for U.S. distribution as a licensing deal. I listened to it and thought, “This is a good record. This deserves to be out in the States.” So I released it. There were a number of other Clifton records, of course, on Arhoolie and, maybe, on other labels at that point. It wasn’t a record that we spent a lot of time promoting because Clifton wasn’t signed to the label. It was simply a licensed master.
So when we received the Grammy for that record, it was an extremely pleasant shock. But I didn’t feel in a sense that the label had earned a Grammy. We had simply released the album. We had not been involved with it in any way creatively. It was great that Clifton got a Grammy. I was all for that but I didn’t feel that kind of emotional relationship with the record as I might have if I had produced it or if I had been involved in any way in the creation of it.
“I’m Here!” was produced for Sonet by Sam Charters who had produced the ground-breaking “Chicago/The Blues/Today!” series (originally released as 3 LPs on the Vanguard label in the mid-1960s) which was hugely influential on me and many others. That series was the inspiration for my series, “Living Chicago Blues,” a series of 6 LPs that I released in 1978 and 1980. Three (titles) in 1978, and three in 1980. I used that model. Three bands per record. Three or four songs per band because I was so influenced by “Chicago/The Blues/Today!”
[The Living Chicago Blues series featured the cream of the crop of Chicago's emerging blues artists, Including Jimmy Johnson, Eddie Shaw, Left Hand Frank, Carey Bell, Magic Slim, Pinetop Perkins, Johnny "Big Moose" Walker, A.C. Reed, Scotty & The Rib Tips, Lovie Lee, Lacy Gibson, Billy Branch, Detroit Junior, Luther "Guitar Jr." Johnson, Queen Sylvia Embry, Big Leon Brooks, Andrew Brown, and Lonnie Brooks.]
What was the first Grammy Alligator received?
The first and only Grammy that we’ve gotten for a record that I was intimately involved with was for “Showdown!” with Albert Collins, Robert Cray and Johnny Copeland. I produced that along with my good friend Dick Shurman.
[“Showdown!” won the Best Traditional Blues Recording Grammy Award in 1986.]
That’s one of the big sellers in your catalog.
“Showdown!”” and our 20th anniversary collection (with 35 tracks from 1971-1991) have been the biggest sellers in Alligator’s history. The 20th Anniversary Collection, of course, was two CDs for the price of one. Both of those have sold over 300,000 copies in the United States alone.
How about Albert Collins’ “Ice Pickin’” in 1978?
I don’t have the figures in front of me but I would guess that we have done over 100,00 copies of that. It continues to sell. All of Albert’s records sold well for us and we wrote him some really nice royalty checks.
You reportedly passed on signing Robert Cray because there was a member of the band who wasn’t a very good player. You wanted to replace him with a studio musician, and he refused.
I made a mistake in not signing Robert Cray, and I will be the first to admit it. I had heard Robert live, and had scouted the band more than once. At the time, even though it was the Robert Cray Band, the other vocalist was much more front and centre. Robert would come up, and do some songs and then kind of drop back to being almost a sideman. Ironically, the other vocalist was Curtis Salgado (reputedly the inspiration behind John Belushi’s creation of the Blues Brothers’ characters in the late 1970s) who is now signed to Alligator. Initially, I was not that interested in signing white people. That changed over the years, but the reason was that white people got better.
Of course, you signed such notable white artists as Johnny Winter, Lonnie Mack, and Elvin Bishop whom had recorded for other labels.
I think you also have to mention Roy Buchanan in that group. The reason that I would mention Roy even more than Elvin is that Elvin was, even at the height of his popularity, was on Capricorn Records which was still not one of the majors; although it was a very well-known label. So Elvin had been with a smaller organization whereas both Roy and Johnny had been with true majors
Roy had been with Polydor Records.
And then with Atlantic records (for three albums). Both of them came to me not because they had passed the peak of their talents at all, but they had both, perhaps, the peak of their popularity.
In 1984, you signed Johnny Winter, and his “Guitar Slinger” became Alligator’s first release to crack the Billboard Top 200 chart, reaching #183. How did you come to sign Johnny?
I had met Johnny socially. He came to a Son Seals’ gig at the Bottom Line in New York in, I believe, 1978. He came backstage because he wanted to meet Son. He and I hit it off immediately. I discovered that he was a fan not just of my artists, but a fan of the blues. We didn’t relate to each other as musician and record company guy. We related to each other as fellow blues fans. Johnny came to Chicago, and stayed with me a couple of times. We spent our time hanging out in clubs and being friends. I was shocked when Teddy Slatus, who took over Johnny’s management from Steve Paul, called me up kind of out of the blue and said, “Johnny wants to make records for you.” The reason that Johnny wanted to make records for me was that he wanted to make blues records. It wasn’t complicated. He perceived me as the guy who was carrying the (blues) flame, and he wanted to be perceived as a blues artist, and make real blues records. That’s exactly what we did.
I remain impressed you produced the last recording by Professor Longhair, “Crawfish Fiesta” in 1979.
Yes. I was incredibly lucky to have that recording happen. I pursued Professor Longhair for years, and his management was determined to get him a major label deal. In fact, he did some sessions that were never released. One of which was for Bearsville Records (which turned up as the posthumous turned up on the Rounder Records album “House Party New Orleans Style” in 1987), and there was one (session) done for Atlantic as well.
Of course, he had recorded for Atlantic in the 1950s.
That’s how I had discovered him. There’s a reissue of his Atlantic sides (“New Orleans Piano” in 1972). The Atlantic series with the black covers. I had been fascinated by that record. I pursued him for signing but they were holding out for a major label. Then I was helping a friend of mine who was putting on a blues festivals at Notre Dame University in South Bend (Indiana) every year. He asked me to locate some talent. So I called up Quint Davis, the producer of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival who had been managing Professor Longhair. He told me that he was no longer managing ‘Fess and that Alison Kaslow was managing ‘Fess. I knew that Alison was a friend of his, but otherwise didn’t know anything about her. I called her, and we worked out an appearance at the festival.
Then, at the very end of the conversation, I said, “I know you are looking for a major label, but if you ever want to work with an independent who loves this music; who will keep a record in print forever; who will pay royalties exactly according to the contract; and who will treat Professor Longhair like the great artist that he is, please think of me.” And I thought that would be the end of it. About three days later, she called back and said, “We are interested in talking. Would you like to come to New Orleans this weekend? ‘Fess is working two nights at Tipitina’s. Why don’t you come down and we can see if we can work together?” So I dropped everything, and went to New Orleans. I was about to buy a new car, and I had put aside money for it. I thought, “What do I want? A new car or a Professor Longhair record?”
Those are type of life moments that end marriages. Wives get ticked off when those type of things happen.
(Laughing). It’s true but I have to say that neither the woman that was my wife—that I call “my practices wife” who was a huge blues fan—nor my real wife, the one I have now, has ever given me a hard time about spending money on the label instead of having a more comfortable personal life. They both have understood that I was absolutely driven to do this. That this what gave me the kind of pleasure that other people get from having a nice house or having a nice car or being able to go on an expensive vacation. I was able to live the dream that I had and not just do it for fun.
Were your parents as understanding? Are they still alive?
No. My father died when I was 5 years old. I was raised by my mother who never remarried. My mother, who died in 1999, was very supportive, in general. When I went to Chicago to be on the blues scene she still thought that I was going to spend the year in Chicago but that I intended then to go onto graduate school.
What were you studying at Lawrence University?
I majored pretty well in anything that didn’t involve math or science. I was an English major for awhile. I was a history major for awhile. I ended up as a theatre major. I went four years and change because I was trying to stay out of the draft. So I did a few months as a student teacher.
You could have ended up in Canada.
Oh yeah. Believe me. I considered it. Some of us were very lucky. I was in the very first draft lottery, and I got a good number. So I thought, “I’m going to go to Chicago and hang out, and try to get a job with Bob Koester. Then in a year I will go to grad school.” The year I was going to hang out was 1970, and here I am.
I know that over the years you’ve been close to many of your artists. Many of them are self-employed with no health care…
And often still don’t.
I know you supported one artist in front of a parole board.
It was for Fenton Robinson. Getting him out of prison is one of the accomplishments that I proudest of.
Fenton, imprisoned for involuntary manslaughter in connection with a car accident, is among those you worked with who had a rough life. Roy Buchanan also had a rough life.
Yes but he didn’t inflict any of that on me. Roy was actually one of the gentlest, sweetest, and easy to work with guys that I had ever had the occasion to bring into the studio. He was open to suggestions. He was a friend, and he brought really good cigars for me.
[After Roy Buchanan was arrested for public intoxication he was found hanged by his shirt from a window grate in a jail cell at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center in 1988.]
You are 67 on July 10th. What are your plans for Alligator if you pass away?
Well, I have no intention of dying. I want to be the first person to get the A2IM Lifetime Achievement Award twice. So after the next 43 years, I intend to get the award again. Seriously, I have made some plans for Alligator in the event that I get run down by the MAC truck that will definitely keep the catalog in print and available which, of course, will assure that the artist and the songwriter get paid what they are supposed to, and may create a situation where new recordings could be done. That part I’m not sure of yet.
Have you had many offers to sell Alligator over the years?
A few. In the ‘80s, I had a very serious offer from A&M Records, back when it was a very viable label during the period Gil Friesen was chairman. And I turned it down. With two years every single person that I had been talking to at A&M was gone. That would be my great fear in selling the label. That the people who would be champions of the label at any larger company could be expendable.
So many notable indies have disappeared after being purchased.
Obviously, that’s true. I can’t assure the future of Alligator beyond my lifetime. But I am doing everything that I can to try make that happen. Let me be clear that I intend to die in the saddle. I want to die at either a really good gig or at a really exciting recording session. I have no plans to retire. When I started, I was 23, and Hound Dog Taylor was 55. That’s a 33 year difference. This year, I have signed two 29-year-olds, Selwyn Birchwood and Jarekus Singleton. Both are from the South. Both are doing all original music. Both have a vision for what the blues can be in the future, and are writing songs for a contemporary audience, and not for an audience of 60-year-olds.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry. He is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario.