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March/April 2019

Bruce Iglauer & Patrick A. Roberts
 Bitten By The Blues: The Alligator Records Story (book)
University of Chicago Press

Bitten By The Blues

Over 30 years ago my life was changed when I picked up a copy of Showdown! at my local record store. The sound of that music from the guitars of Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland, and Robert Cray changed the way I listened to music forever. Because I wanted to hear more, I looked for the name of the label releasing that wonderful album, and it was Alligator Records. I dug deeper and found even more great blues music from that label, and I also was able to hear some of the artists who recorded for Alligator perform live. Thereís no question that Alligator Records played a major role in my development as a fan of the blues.

One of the things that also helped me was a subscription to Living Blues magazine, which always included a letter/advertisement from label founder Bruce Iglauer in which he took time to promote the labelís latest releases and to share stories of how some of the earlier recordings came to be. I always hoped that he would one day write a book collecting those stories and others, and well, my hope has been realized with the release of Bitten By The Blues: The Alligator Records Story, written by Iglauer with Patrick A. Roberts.

The book recounts the high points and a few low points in the label's nearly 50-year history. Iglauer also tells his story along with the story of Alligator --- how he fell in love with the music as a youngster, how he hosted a radio show and booked blues acts at his college, how he ended up in Chicago and working at Bob Koester's Jazz Record Mart (and Koester's Delmark Records), how he helped found Living Blues magazine, and how he took a huge leap of faith with a small inheritance and decided to record his favorite blues band, Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers, after Koester declined to do so.

There are numerous stories about the artists who made the albums. Some are continuations of or expansions on stories Iglauer has already shared with Living Blues readers. His love for the music, and for the performers, comes through on every page. He revels in their successes and mourns their failures. Not every artist's story ends on a positive note --- such is the nature of the blues --- and Iglauer goes through each of the label's successes and their few failures in great detail. He's the first to acknowledge that he can be hard to work with because he sometimes has a different view of what a song should be like than the performers do, but he's also willing to acknowledge that, at times, his way may not have been the right way. More often than not, he got his way and it worked out for the best for most of the artists.

Heís always taken care of his artists, too, ensuring that they got their royalties from sales, something that surprised many of his earlier artists who had been shortchanged in their earlier recordings. He also describes the business difficulties, obstacles and hoops that he's had to jump through over the years. Itís obvious that the label's success over the years was due to a lot of extremely hard work and perseverance by Iglauer, with a little bit of luck thrown in from time to time.

When a longtime blues fan looks at the music's landscape today, compared to the mid '80s when I started listening, it's a bit sobering to see how many of the labels that sprang up during those days have gone under or no longer have new releases or just stopped releasing blues albums altogether. There aren't nearly as many blues festivals as there were back in the day. The whole record industry has changed, moving from vinyl to cassette to CD to digital to streaming. Alligator continues to survive and this past year was one of their most successful critically and financially. At the same time, Iglauer realizes that many of his label's biggest fans are in the 50-60 year-old bracket, so there's a need for his label, and the blues itself, to attract younger fans. He is working hard to ensure that this happens.

Iglauer is honest, but fair, in his assessment of artists and other people associated with the blues. He's also honest in assessing his own place in events as well as his place in helping with the continued popularity of the music. It's hard to argue what an impact Alligator Records' success has had on the rest of the blues genre and many of its fans, this one included.

Anybody who loves the blues has certainly heard a few Alligator releases, and they will certainly enjoy Bitten By The Blues: The Alligator Records Story.

--- Graham Clarke

 

 

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