The Legend That Is Alligator Records
Chicago. IL

by Todd K Smith

It only seems right that the hottest blues label in the Midwest is located in northeast Chicago. For many a delta bluesman, the Windy City became the final destination, with some finding a little fame under its neon lights. A ten-minute walk from the northbound ‘el’ puts you at the door of a three-story renovated brownstone. Inside is the heart of Alligator records.

Nearly thirty years ago Cincinnati native Bruce Iglauer, then 23, used a pocketful of inheritance money ($2500) to finance and promote a recording by his favorite blues act, Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers. He had been spinning records as a latenight DJ and working as a shipping clerk for the Chicago-based Delmark records. When they declined to record the blues act, Iglauer decided to do it himself.

Alligator Records was formed with only the one act and one record. For the next three years the company put out one record a year using the money made from one album to finance the next. As Alligator’s catalog grew, so did their fan base. Iglauer was aggressive. He would load up his old Chevy with stacks of records and drive out to every radio station, record store, and distribution warehouse in an effort to sell his brand of blues.

In 1975 Iglauer hit pay dirt when he recorded singing sensation Koko Taylor. The blues Queen was already an established act, having polished her star at Chess Records. Taylor’s Alligator debut, I Got What It Takes, landed the label its first Grammy nomination and put the fledgling company on the map. But blues were a tough sell in the mid to late seventies, at least on the radio. So Iglauer took his acts on the road, exposing the merits of his stable and establishing a loyal audience.

By 1981 Alligator was up to eight acts a year, a 200-date itinerary, and eleven Grammy nominations. They branched out into blues-rock, signing Johnny Winter, and began a long-term relationship with Albert Collins, Lonnie Brooks, and Dr. John. On their 25th anniversary the label put out a two-CD set showcasing the best of Alligator’s teeth clicking blues. Now home to 30 Grammy nominations and two winners (Albert Collins, Robert Cray & Johnny Copeland Showdown, Clifton Chenier I’m Here!) the company has set its sight for the next generation of blues greats.

Corey Harris and Henry Butler lead the pack of current hot picks from Alligator. The 20-year age gap between the two New Orleans-styled musicians is unnoticeable as they blend barrelhouse and porch-blues into a seamless package complete with rich emotion and thick texture. Butler’s piano gives the 15-track Vu-Du Menz a timeless barroom shuffle, while Harris cuts through with razor-like acoustic clarity. Separately, the two have an extraordinary musical history yet together they punctuate the traditional elements that created Vu-Du Menz. Down Home Livin’, Let ‘em Roll, and Sugar Daddy are gems.

John Mayall alumni
Coco Montoya was just in town hotly promoting Suspicion, a roof-raising electric masterpiece. Montoya certainly has nothing to prove, his legacy speaks for itself; however, progression is much of what Suspicion is about. Casting My Spell has a real hip-shaking swagger in comparison to the ripping Enough Is Enough and the Doobie Brothers-esque I Need Your Love In My Life and Fool. Montoya’s vocals thread through the CD’s 12 numbers with passion and conviction. Suspicion adds supreme songwriting to his credit and validates him as one of this years superb guitarists.

Smoke and Steel is the third
Kinsey Report release on Alligator. Brothers Donald (g), Kenneth (b), and Ralph (d) have returned after a nine-year absence from the label only to deliver the powerhouse platter of their career. Perspective is key when the Kinseys arrange their joint talent, mixing just enough Chicago blues, reggae, rock, funk and soul to make this disc stand up to the brilliance of the band’s 1987 Edge Of The City. This Old City, Must Be Love, When The Church Burned Down, and Rattlesnake Highway jump right out of the speakers with infectious enthusiasm. Smoke and Steel has the band expertly covering all the bases from their years of recordings with as distinguished a set as any.

Australian native
Dave Hole’s slide technique has been compared to such luminaries as Elmore James, Johnny Winter, and Duane Allman. Though left-handed, Hole plays guitar right-handed and has developed a technique to compensate for a finger injury in which he places his fingers over the top of the neck. He often uses a pick for a slide. His high-volume rock and roll/blues is crisp as ice on Under The Spell, Run With Me, Bird’s Eye Blues, and More Love Less Attitude. Riffs are plenty in Demolition Man and Cold Women With Warm Hearts.

Alligator’s catalog boasts over 150 titles and is the largest independent contemporary blues label in the world. The label and its artists have won a total of 51 W.C. Handy awards, the highest honor in the blues community. For a well-rounded listen of over 25 years of Alligator recording, pick up one of their two anniversary compilation CDs. Also visit their web site for ordering and additional information.