Alligator Greats

Bruce Iglauer Recalls 50 Years of Blues Guitar
Alligator Greats
Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer: Chris Monaghan.

Anyone wondering why a young Bruce Iglauer was so impassioned about recording the raw, high-energy blues of Theodore Roosevelt “Hound Dog” Taylor can find context in the artists that captivated him in the years before he founded Alligator Records.

“I first was turned on to the blues by Mississippi Fred McDowell, who played mostly inexpensive guitars, almost always with a slide,” recalls Iglauer. “And I consider Elmore James one of the greatest singers and easily the most influential slide player in blues or rock. I am fascinated by slide players. The sound of steel on steel is such a bedrock of the blues, and it always attracts me.”

It sure attracted Iglauer to Taylor, a tall, rail-thin Mississippian who smoked Pall Malls and famously had a sixth finger on his left hand; Iglauer first heard Taylor at Florence’s Lounge, a no-frills joint on the South Side of Chicago.

Captivated by what he calls “the most joyous music I had ever heard,” Iglauer, 22 years old in 1970, began pestering his boss, the late Delmark Records founder Bob Koester – for whom Iglauer was working as a $30-per-week shipping clerk – to cut an album with Taylor. When Koester resisted, Iglauer (with Koester’s blessing) took Taylor into the studio in the spring of ’71. After two nights, no overdubs, and $900 in costs, Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers was in the can – and Alligator Records was born.

In the ensuing 50 years, Iglauer would record scores of guitarists, many among the elite in modern blues, each with their own sound, style, and technique.

‘Passion, Originality, and Emotional Honesty’

Iglauer’s adventures with Taylor not only marked the beginning of Iglauer’s five decades as a label boss, they were the beginning of a decades-long master class on all things guitar, from the world of open tunings to gear to the glorious, time-honored process of “tension and release” that gives the blues its cathartic emotional energy.

“In choosing artists, I listen for passion, originality, and emotional honesty,” Iglauer explains. “Over the years, Alligator has released close to 200 albums featuring guitar players, and only a handful with no guitar at all. Though I can only play a few chords, I’ve heard so many immortal blues guitarists I can hear and feel when a player is in a class by themselves.”

Bruce Iglauer established Alligator Records specifically to make Hound Dog Taylor’s (left) first album. Albert Collins (right) was Alligator’s biggest early act; his 1978 album, Ice Pickin’, gave the label a national profile and earned a Grammy nomination.

Frank “Son” Seals was one. The son of a juke joint operator, Seals was also pivotal in Alligator’s early days; the Arkansas native played a slashing, stinging blues punctuated by a furious attack and stinging single-note volleys.

Taylor and Seals had a few things in common. Both worked clubs and taverns on the city’s South Side and West Side in the early ’70s, and neither spent much time worrying about gear; Taylor played a heavy Japanese-made Kingston-branded Kawai electric (“…built when ‘Made in Japan’ was the mark of cheapness, not quality,” Iglauer says). Taylor actually had two Kingstons, both with action so high that fingerstyle playing would have been all but impossible. Seals, meanwhile, went with a Fender-knockoff Norma, also made in Japan.

For many Chicago bluesmen in those days, guitars were simply tools of the trade that served a crucial purpose – to help them make a living.

“A lot of blues musicians didn’t make much money, so they played whatever they could afford,” Iglauer remembers. “Son was living in a basement when I met him. He played the Norma on his first album (The Son Seals Blues Band), but for the follow-up, Midnight Son, he’d moved up to a Silvertone modeled after a Gibson 335 or 345. Then he got his first quality guitar – a dark-green custom Guild Starfire IV with a whammy bar he never used. It played great and we cut a number of his albums with that guitar.”

As it turned out, the absence of expensive guitars wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. If anything, it enhanced the authenticity of the art.

“Sometimes cheap instruments sound great, especially if they have attractive distortion,” Iglauer explains. “Hound Dog’s two Kingstons were like that. A lot of his sound was in his hands. I once heard him play a Les Paul through a Fender Twin Reverb and it sounded like he was playing a Kingston through a battered Silvertone amp. I’m sure Son Seals didn’t want to play a Norma or Silvertone, but that’s what he could afford. Magic Sam often borrowed a guitar because his was in the pawn shop.”

Another notable early release was Fenton Robinson’s 1974 label debut, Somebody Loan Me a Dime – a classic that remains something of a departure from Alligator’s ’70s output, thanks to its musical sophistication.

“Fenton was the first very musically knowledgeable guitar player I recorded,” Iglauer says. “He started under the influence of T-Bone Walker, who crossed between blues and swinging jazz then studied under Reggie Boyd (a highly regarded guitar teacher in Chicago who gave lessons to Otis Rush and Howlin’ Wolf, among others). Fenton loved to build solos by stacking chords rather than doing dramatic string bending. He got tons of respect from fellow musicians.”

And no account of Alligator’s initial decade would be complete without mentioning Albert Collins, Master of the Telecaster and arguably the most significant signing in the label’s history. By the time of Collins’ 1978 Alligator debut, the Grammy nominated Ice Pickin’, Iglauer had recorded only Chicago-based artists; Collins, a Texas native and already a star, helped give the label a national profile.

Luther Allison (left) cut three studio albums for Alligator in the ’90s before being stricken with cancer. Bruce Iglauer and Lonnie Brooks (right) circa 2012.

Collins, Iglauer says, is one of the three most-exciting guitarists he has seen live, the other two being Luther Allison and Freddie King.

“They were all incredibly physical players who played from the feet up,” he recalls. “I don’t think any blues guitarist could create more pure intensity.”

As the ’70s gave way to the ’80s, Alligator’s roster grew to include Phillip Walker, Lonnie Brooks, and Magic Slim. But until ’84, there was one thing it didn’t include – an album featuring a white blues man. That changed when Johnny Winter headed to Chicago.

White Guys Play the Blues?

The 74-year-old Iglauer has evolved when it comes to white musicians playing blues, but as a younger man he was an uncompromising purist and the idea of recording white guys bordered on sacrilege.

“I figured that Black people created this music – and there were plenty of great Black blues musicians who hadn’t been recorded, hadn’t been recorded right, or hadn’t been recognized,” he explains. “My attitude was that people who grew up with this music all around them would make more soulful, honest records than people – like me – who had learned about the blues from recordings.”

A blues devotee who spent most of the ’70s playing rock, Winter’s career had fallen on hard times by the early ’80s. Signing with Alligator marked a decisive return to his roots.

“Johnny sang in his own voice, played his own style, and loved the blues,” Iglauer remembers. “We met when he showed up backstage at a Son Seals show in New York, eager to meet Son because he was a fan. Johnny came to Alligator to record with real Chicago bluesmen and get back to the music he loved. From that point on, Alligator was open to white artists, but they had to have their own statements to make. No imitators allowed!”

Two other iconic white players joined the fold the following year – Lonnie Mack (who famously played a ’58 Gibson Flying V) and Roy Buchanan. For Mack, 1985’s Strike Like Lightning marked a major re-emergence for an artist who had been toiling in obscurity for nearly a decade.

Bruce Iglauer listened for passion, originality, and emotional honesty in the artists he signed. Frank “Son” Seals, son of a juke-joint operator, was a pivotal early example. Here, he’s backing Koko Taylor with Lonnie Brooks (right).

“Lonnie was the first blues-rock guitar hero,” Iglauer says, citing classic instrumentals like “Wham!” “He was a truly American musician who wasn’t hampered by genre classifications. To him, blues, country, and rock and roll were all a piece of the same pie. He was a very emotional player, and his leaps into the upper register were exhilarating. Very few people play like him.”

Buchanan, who Iglauer considers perhaps the greatest all-around player he ever recorded, cut three LPs for Alligator. His first, When a Guitar Plays the Blues, was also released in ’85.

“Roy was amazingly creative and seemed to pull licks and melodic ideas out of thin air,” Iglauer said, citing his chops, knowledge, and technical proficiency. “He was famous for wild string bending, melodic ballads, and his harmonics. Roy told me how he practiced without amplification because he figured that if he could execute his signature style that way, it would only be easier when he plugged in. He also told me that he was a lazy player. He didn’t like to move his hand up and down the neck a lot, so he learned finger stretches and figured out ways to find unusual note choices without undue physical effort. Roy loved to accompany other artists. He was a reluctant front man.”

The year 1985 also produced Showdown!, with Collins, Johnny Copeland, and a young Robert Cray. It eventually sold more than 300,000 copies, making it one of the biggest sellers in the Alligator discography. And the involvement of Stevie Ray Vaughan (who co-produced Mack’s Strike Like Lightning) and Cray in key releases is now ironic given that Iglauer passed on the chance to record both.

Johnny Winter (left) signed to Alligator in 1984, becoming the label’s first white bluesman. Tinsley Ellis (right) earns Bruce Iglauer’s praise for his intensity and interpretation of Freddie King songs.

“To my everlasting embarrassment, in 1979 I turned Stevie down for a one-record deal that probably would have made a pile of money,” Iglauer writes in Bitten by the Blues: The Alligator Records Story, published last year. “Stevie just didn’t impress me; I thought he was the world’s loudest Albert King imitator and couldn’t hear what made him special.”

Cray, he thought at the time, was a work in progress – shy onstage and not fully realized as an artist, plus his music was more soul and R&B than straight blues.

The Important Notes

The resurgence of Luther Allison unquestionably stands as one of Alligator’s greatest successes. A veteran Chicago blueser who first recorded in the ’60s, he found his greatest creative and commercial success near the end of his life, cutting four albums that appeared on Alligator in the U.S. and on Ruf Records in Europe – Soul Fixin’ Man, Blue Streak, Reckless, and the posthumous Live In Chicago.

“He was one of the most exciting, most physical players ever,” Iglauer recalls of Allison, whose career revival was upended by his death from cancer in 1997, just days before his 58th birthday. “He played with such intensity, such confidence, and a very aggressive attitude toward the groove, playing blues more like a rocker than a bluesman. Plus, he was a great Memphis soul-style singer. There are so many great songs and guitar performances.”

One of the most satisfying aspects of the last 50 years for Iglauer is bringing world-class (but lesser known) players to a wider audience, Atlanta-based Tinsley Ellis among them. Iglauer was sold the first time he heard Ellis perform Freddie King’s “Double Eyed Whammy.”

Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials have been with Alligator since 1986.

“He has one foot in the blues, one foot in Southern rock,” Iglauer said. “He also has great intensity, and he’s maybe the best interpreter of Freddie King’s songs. Tinsley has a lot of guitars, but he sounds best to my ear on his ES-345. When he plays slide on a Moderne, guitar collectors in the audience drool.”

Ellis is one of the most-recorded artists in Alligator’s history, along with Lil’ Ed (Williams) & the Blues Imperials, who have been with the label since 1986. Williams, a fiery slide player who tunes to open D, prizes his Gibson Firebrand and Airline 59. Both were played by his greatest influence (and uncle), Chicago bluesman J.B. Hutto.

Iglauer also has high praise for New York bluesman Michael Hill, who cut three albums between ’94 and ’98 with a Steinberger GL4-TA.

“Michael has really big ears and a very broad definition of blues,” Iglauer noted. “He was a source of constant musical surprises to me. He liked creating an intro that grabbed your attention, then he’d startle you by going in a different direction after the intro was over.”

If there’s a single artist today who embodies the spirit – and future – of the label, it could be 22-year-old Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, a Mississippi native Iglauer likens to “Buddy Guy on steroids.” Ingram’s debut, Kingfish, was released in 2019 while the follow-up, 662, dropped in July.

Iglauer says a positively blistering set delivered by the then-19-year-old at the 2018 Chicago Blues Festival sealed the deal.

“I’d seen him when he was much younger, on a tiny stage at the King Biscuit Festival in Arkansas,” said Iglauer. “At that time, his technique was dazzling but he played way too many notes for me. In Chicago, he delivered the music, playing and singing, with remarkable maturity and emotional effectiveness. He plays with youthful attack and energy, but with the subtlety and dynamics of a top-rank veteran.

“When I describe the players I like, I often say, ‘He knows what the important notes are.’ With Kingfish, that was the performance that showed me he knew those notes, because it was soul-to-soul communication. He didn’t play like a teenager; he played like a grown man. I knew then that he had to become an Alligator artist.”

Rick Estrin and Kid Andersen: John Alcala.

’Gator Bites

Bruce Iglauer’s Favorite Guitar Moments

Brewer Phillips (1924-1999) – “Phillips’ Theme,” Hound Dog Taylor & The HouseRockers (1971). “Mostly, he played ever-changing bass lines on a Telecaster, but when he was unleashed on lead, his playing was searing. His playing was sloppy as hell and he only played in a few keys, but his attack was ferocious and he had a beautifully distorted tone. He played with a thumb pick and bare fingers, but often used the thumb pick as a straight pick.”

Wendell Holmes (1943-2015 with The Holmes Brothers) – “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” Simple Truths (2004); “Pledging My Love,” Feed My Soul (2010). “He combined blues, R&B, gospel and country licks. I’d normally see him with a Telecaster. He could get down and dirty and distorted.”

Michael Hill – “Heading Home,” Bloodlines (1994); “Rest in Peace,” Have Mercy! (1996); “I Always Get My Man” from Shemekia Copeland’s Turn the Heat Up! (1998). “His vocabulary includes Albert King, Hendrix, various reggae players, funk, and some jazz. He executes with great precision.”

Little Charlie Baty (1953-2020) – “I’ll Take You Back,” All the Way Crazy (1987); “Jump Start,” The Big Break (1989). “His playing sometimes went to Mars without warning. Charlie could sear you with one blue note or swing like a madman.”

Coco Montoya: Frank Vigil.

Coco Montoya – “It’s My Own Tears,” Dirty Deal (2007). “One of the most melodic and stinging of blues-rockers and a disciple of Albert Collins. He has beautiful tone and plays just the right number of notes to tell the story of the song.”

Michael “Iron Man” Burks (1957-2012) – “Empty Promises,” Iron Man (2008); “Count On You,” Show of Strength (2012). “He was a bluesman but liked rock, too, and used to play [Hall & Oates’] ‘Sara Smile’ regularly. He played with tremendous intensity and confidence, doing super-long sets and working his solos up to soaring climaxes. His attack reminded me a lot of Freddie King’s.”

Kid Andersen (with Rick Estrin and the Nightcats) – “Broke and Lonesome” and “The Legend of Taco Cobbler,” both from One Wrong Turn (2012). “He’s unbelievably talented. He has a huge vocabulary of blues, rock, and other genres, and a completely wild musical imagination. He can play great straight blues or present a musical commentary on a fictitious western.” – Sean McDevitt

Pat Faherty and Matt Stubbs with the gear used to pay tribute to Hound Dog Taylor, including a Teisco Kingston and Silvertone 1454 along with a Silvertone 1482 amp (right): Fancey Pancen.

Dog Tracks

GA-20’s Hound Dog Taylor Tribute

Beyond being the first artist to release an album on the Alligator label, Hound Dog Taylor was an ebullient, full-steam-ahead guitarist and performer with an influential approach.

Two players today who best exhibit its impact are Matt Stubbs and Pat Faherty of the guitars-and-drums three-piece GA-20, whose music (like Taylors) bypasses a bass instrument.

In ode to Alligator Records’ 50th anniversary, Stubbs conceived GA-20 Does Hound Dog Taylor: Try It…You Might Like It! for the Colemine label. The album – 10 songs written or performed by Taylor for his self-titled 1971 debut and ’74 follow-up Natural Boogie – are set for release in cooperation with and distributed by Alligator, and it’s a study in the HouseRockers’ approach to blues and the interplay between Taylor and co-guitarist Brewer Phillips.

“I’d listened to them for years, but until we started this album never really sat down and dissected what they were doing,” said Stubbs. “But Brewer Phillips was playing all kinds of bass-line stuff, and re-creating some of that was tougher than I expected. It was unique, and fun to learn. If you listen closely to the verses in ‘Give Me Back My Wig,’ he plays these blazing-fast fills. It’s low in the mix, but if you have headphones and really hone in, you’ll hear how cool it is.”

Stubbs shared the details of his band’s approach on the tribute album.

Which blues artists do you first remember having an impact on you?
Jimi Hendrix. As a kid, though, I first heard Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Going To Go My Way?” and I was like, “Man, this is cool.” My father said, “If you like that, you’ll like Jimi Hendrix.” So I got into Jimi then within a year or two I’d gone back to Buddy Guy and Albert King. From there, I dug deeper and deeper into earlier blues and by 16 I had blinders on; I loved Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Earl Hooker, Guitar Slim, Gatemouth. I didn’t have many friends listening with me, but I was hanging out with older musicians, trying to find people playing traditional blues.

When did you first hear Hound Dog?
I don’t remember exactly, but he’s always been in my album collection. I love Chicago blues, and “Give Me Back My Wig” was the first song I remember hearing by him.

Whose idea was Try It…You Might Like It!?
Last July, Bruce saw GA-20 when he came through Chicago, and he later reached out to see if we were interested in doing a record with Alligator. He didn’t realize we were with Colemine Records, but I had an idea that maybe Colemine could work in partnership with Alligator to do something for the 50th anniversary of Hound Dog’s first record. I proposed the idea to Terry Cole, who owns Colemine, and he loved it. Then Bruce called, so I pitched the idea to him and he seemed to really like it, and his whole staff and team are doing a great job getting behind it.

How did Taylor and the House Rockers affect the music you make in GA-20?
I think all three of us – myself, Pat, and our drummer, Tim Carman – connect heavily with a lot of Chicago acts from the ’50s through the ’70s. There were a lot that didn’t have bass – just two guitar players. I wasn’t walking around thinking about doing a tribute record, but with Bruce reaching out I thought it could educate people. Plenty who hear our music might not be blues fans or not listen to blues of that era. But there has always been a connection between GA-20 and the HouseRockers; GA-20 has been around for a couple of years but we still get a lot of “Where’s your bass player?” And we didn’t start super heavily influenced by Hound Dog’s band. It was more about Little Walter records and even earlier Chicago stuff – the Meyers Brothers and Robert “Junior” Lockwood. That’s where it started, and Pat and I were just doing local gigs without a drummer. We first had a harmonica player, then realized we wanted drums, so we morphed into what we are now.

Do you ever miss having bass in the mix?
I don’t, and I don’t think Pat does, either. One of us was always playing a bass-like part, and we arrange our music that way. When we’ve had bass players sit in from time to time, it always feels kind of awkward.

Pat Faherty with one of the Teiscos used to re-create Hound Dog Taylor’s sound for GA-20 Does Hound Dog Taylor: Try It…You Might Like It!.

What’s the most profound thing about Hound Dog’s music?
When Hound Dog digs into a slide solo or even plays just one note, man, I get goosebumps! It’s just so raw and captivating.

As a trio, they really played off of each other; it’s not just drums doing a straight beat or Brewer Phillips playing rhythm with maybe a walking bass line, then Hound Dog soloing. They didn’t sound like “just” a front man with people behind him. Everything was an interaction with that band; Ted Harvey was like a jazz drummer going off the rails half the time. When Hound Dog leans into a solo and starts going crazy, it’s totally off the rails. That is what speaks to me about Hound Dog. Unfortunately, I never saw him live. I’ve seen videos and it’s easy to imagine his stage presence.

To re-create the Hound Dog sound, you needed old Teisco guitars. Where did you find them?
Neither Pat nor I owned a Teisco – we’re into old Harmonys and Silvertones. But yeah, right away we said, “We’ve got to at least get in the ballpark with the gear.” I didn’t want to exactly copy Hound Dog, but I wanted to do our best to capture the spirit. So, we started researching the guitars, and I wanted to get the right drum sizes – all of it. So I talked to Bruce a few times and he sent me pictures. He still has one of Hound Dog’s guitars, so I asked him about models, then Pat and I went down that rabbit hole, looking online and locally. I think Pat ended up buying six of them – different models with different pickups. A few are the exact model Hound Dog had. Then we tried them through different amps, playing the record, listening to different songs. From there, we searched out what sounded as close as possible to our ears.

Did you already have Silvertone amps like Hound Dog played?
I had a few, but the amp Pat used, I found two or three weeks before the record. It’s not the exact model Hound Dog used on those recordings – he had a big piggyback one with a 6×10 cabinet that was a really loud; Bruce told me Hound Dog cranked the thing and one or more of the speakers was probably blown. Anyway, I have a 1482 from the early ’60s. We recorded in my studio and wanted to all be in the room together so I could use room mics and the guitar wouldn’t overpower drums or vocals. It’s a five-watt amp. Pat plugged in and we turned it all the way up and put the Treble all the way up, and it was in the ballpark.

It was important to be in the same room like Hound Dog and the band were?
Yeah, Bruce told me when they went in for both the first album and the second, Natural Boogie, they were in a room with no headphones or anything and recorded to a two-track with minimal mics. So that was the idea for us. The only difference was we did use headphones so we could hear vocals, just because my recording room is so small and the drums were pretty loud.

A lot of the songs were one or two takes. We just came in, spent time working on arrangements, and did the whole record in a day and a half.

It’s exciting to bring Hound Dog’s music to a bunch of new people. Hopefully, they check out his catalog. – Ward Meeker

This article originally appeared in VG’s September 2021 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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