You say you want to sign your favorite local band to a lucrative recording contract? Share its music with the rest of the world? Why not do what Bruce Iglauer did 22 years ago and start your own label?
It was back in 1971 that Iglauer, a young blues enthusiast working as a shipping clerk for Delmark Records in Chicago, lobbied with all his heart on behalf of a hometown hero, slide guitarist Hound Dog Taylor. Sorry, said Delmark chief Bob Koester, you're barking up the wrong tree. (Of course, Leonard Chess had turned down Buddy Guy years earlier, and lived just long enough to kick himself in the ass for his lack of foresight.)
Undaunted, the young Hound Dog advocate gambled a small inheritance to produce a thousand copies of a cheap recording that somehow managed to shake its moneymaker and gain the attention of local DJs. The Alligator was hatched.
It wasn't until the independent pulled off the coup of signing blues queen Koko Taylor in 1974 that the gator got its teeth. The beast just grew and grew, accumulating a bullpen of strong acts such as Son Seals and Albert Collins. After landing the Iceman, says the label's Mark Lipkin, "we convinced people we weren't just a fanatic's label." He pauses and then confesses, in a conspiratorial tone, "But we really are."
Alligator is still driven by Iglauer's single mandate. "He only records the stuff he loves," says Lipkin of the still-involved big boss man. That includes the raucous Li'l Ed and the Blues Imperials, who so bowled over Iglauer on a compilation project that he kept the tape rolling in the studio until they had enough material tracked for their own LP. Contracts were quickly inked and Li'l Ed retired from his job at a car wash.
After two decades of relieving artists from their day jobs, Iglauer's mighty independent blues machine continues a celebration that began two years ago with a twentieth anniversary tour, double album, and video (directed by Robert Mugge of Deep Blues fame). This year's party teams what can only be termed a legendary lineup of Alligator artists -- Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks, Junior Wells -- with equally rarified nongators B.B. King and Buddy Guy, and new kid on the ax Eric Johnson.
Many record execs might squawk at having their artists share the spotlight with non-label mates (particularly those of the stature of B.B. and Buddy), but once again, Alligator behaves most uncorporately. In fact, the Alligator All-Stars, as they're billed, were invited along for the ride by promoter Paul Zukowski, who was mightily impressed by the roster of blues stars. "It was just a matter of working out the logistics," says Lipkin.
Here's some logistics to make you think twice before boarding the tour bus: 35 cities in 42 days. And these are not young guns on their first time out, but successful artists who could stay home, rest on their gold records, and play with the grandbabies. Yet, here they are. Why? Perhaps for the chance to hit the road with old running partners: Chicagoites Guy and Wells share a history of smoky clubs and heated, intense harp/Strat duels (although they're just as simmering reinventing the Delta, without the watts); Brooks and Taylor, too, have shared many a stage, as is evident in their red- hot and raunchy "It's a Dirty Job." Guy, King, and Taylor all ascended the Blues Summit, a new release featuring only the true blues-bloods.
"I sometimes forget what hotel I'm in," says Taylor in a sleepy but contented voice from a lodging we think is in Chattanooga. "But we're doin' it." The last time she was part of such a hectic tour, she reminisces, was with the late Jimmy Reed when she was first starting out. And although she's at the moment not far from her home in Chicago and family in her native Memphis (tomorrow's tour stop, "I'm just lookin' forward to rubbin' in the briar patch again"), her road buddies, too, are like extended family. "We go back a good twenty years," she says of longtime pal Brooks. "A good twenty years. It's like a family reunion. We're just havin' a party. Playin' cards, shootin' the bull, havin' a good time. Me and B.B., we go back 30 years. We started off in Memphis, Tennessee. B.B. was a DJ down in Arkansas, just across the bridge, and he had this little radio program advertisin' 'Peptikon, sure is good, get a little in your neighborhood.' And I would look forward to listenin' to his program, fifteen minutes every day, and he would play the blues."
An established artist of Queen Koko's standing doesn't have to tour this hard. "I think it's wonderful," she responds. "I feel really honored that B.B. selected the Alligator All-Stars, including myself, to be on this tour. It's a lot of exposure, and it's a lot of fun."
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Being one of the first artists signed by Iglauer had its drawbacks. "Everybody would ask, 'Hound Dog Taylor, that's your brother right?'" (They're not related.) "I first met [Iglauer] twenty years ago in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at the blues festival. And this was when I just left Chess, right after Leonard had passed away." The association between Koko and Alligator has been more than successful, with almost yearly Grammy nominations. A new album is right around the corner A Koko reveals that one cut, "Born Under a Bad Sign," was recorded with tourmate Buddy Guy, a tribute to the recently departed Albert King.
Besides Lucille, Koko is the only woman on the tour. "Me and all the guys, the way it's always been, you know. I don't get no red carpet laid out for me, nowhere, no time. I just do what I have to do. I just get out there and take care of business. Sometimes I don't even have a dressing room. I ain't bashful at all. I don't back up for none of 'em. I'll step over 'em."
Although there are some logical connections among these old friends, it's impossible to predict just who will step on stage with whom on any given night. They mix it up, keep it fresh, play it by feel. As in "Maybe I don't feel like doing my own set, plus sitting in on someone else's." No guarantees, but one: You will have a chance to see and hear some of the greatest blues practitioners alive today. And there ain't a record, CD, or cassette that can duplicate the experience. Not even on Alligator.
The South Florida Blues Music Festival '93 takes place at 5:00 p.m. Sunday at Bayfront Park Amphitheater, 301 Biscayne Blvd., 358-7550. Admission costs $20 and $22.50.