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Alligator founder marks 40 years in the clutches of the blues

by Ryan Snyder

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Alligator recording artist Tinsley Ellis. (courtesy photo)

Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer would tell you that his baptism into blues fandom as a young man was a lot like being the prey of the label’s namesake animal: Almost out of nowhere, its jaws slammed down on him and thrashed him about. He knew immediately there was no escaping its grip.

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“My conversion was when I saw “Mississippi” Fred McDowell perform, just one guy with a guitar and a slide on his finger. It just was a riveting experience for me,” Iglauer said. “It just leaped out across 20 rows of seats, grabbed me by the collar and shook me.”

Iglauer took to the blues as an enterprise when he departed his job as a mail clerk with Delmark Records to produce his favorite artist, Theodore Roosevelt “Hound Dog” Taylor, after an unsuccessful pitch to label owner Bob Koester to sign the bluesman. With only $2,500 in hand from an inheritance, Iglauer burned through it all to put out the label’s first album. For years, he applied that same model, pecking away one album at a time. Fast forward to 2011, and Alligator Records is celebrating its 40th anniversary this week as one of the most successful and longest running independent blues labels ever.

The longevity of the label, he says, comes from trusting his gut and maintaining a progressive attitude to the blues. When he sees an artist that makes him feel the same way that “Mississippi” Fred McDowell made him feel decades ago, he knows they’re an Alligator artist. Unlike McDowell, who was most famous for his work I Do Not Play Rock ‘N’ Roll, Iglauer gravitates toward artists that he says “have one foot in the blues tradition and the other foot in a vision of where the music could go.

“I think the future is with artists speaking in contemporary terms with blues emotions. To remain contemporary, it will have to speak of contemporary issues,” Iglauer said. “Little Ed & the Imperials are always going to sound very raw, very Chicago, but at the same time he’s also a guy who sang a song about how he can’t get his wife into bed because she spends all her time online.”

One of those artists most transcendent of blues norms is Tinsley Ellis, a guitarist who Iglauer says would call himself blues-inspired before he called himself a bluesman. Ellis plays with a visceral ferocity more common to the British Invasion and early heavy metal than to the boogie of “Pinetop” Perkins or the soul of Koko Taylor. The intersection between Ellis’ style and Iglauer’s vision, however, comes in the healing aspect of blues music; Iglauer says it’s about recognizing pain and expelling it. When asked about the source of his unique sound, the soft-spoken Tinsley was pithy in his reply.

“Inner turmoil,” Ellis said. “I’m screaming on the inside.” To mark their 40 th anniversary, Alligator Records has released a twodisc compilation with music that spans all four decades, from the classic (Professor Longhair and Albert Collins) to the contemporary (Ellis and Corey Harris). Iglauer said he endured a lot of hemming and hawing while trying to whittle down the more than 140 possibilities to the 38 songs ultimately included, but one era that isn’t represented is Alligator’s affair with reggae from the mid ’70s to the mid ’80s.

All 13 reggae albums released under the Alligator banner were masters licensed from British or Jamaican producers, and in the case of the Abyssinians, the artists themselves. All licenses have since expired and thus, Iglauer no longer maintains their rights. Iglauer said he’s very proud of those albums, but the operational mores of reggae music to be a challenge.

“There’s a somewhat different set of values, like shows that were starting at 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning,” he said. “Having operated in the blues world where there was a fair amount of drinking, I’d rather work with heavy drinkers than heavy smokers.”

Alligator recording artist Tinsley Ellis will perform at the Millennium Center next Friday, April 15 with Sam Robinson in support.

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