The Alligator Records Story
"Alligator Records stands as one of the most enduring and revered independent blues labels in the world, its catalog holding inextinguishable works."
"Prestigious, scrappy independent Alligator Records has reached dizzying heights in celebrating the blues."
"With muscular, no-frills production, Alligator catches the blues as it melds with soul, rock, gospel, country and zydeco, partying away the pains of love. Alligator is the leading record label for the blues, and has succeeded where the giants have failed."
—The New York Times
“From the moment I walked into Florence’s Lounge, sheets of distorted electric guitar filled the room. I could hear the unmistakable sound of steel on steel as a slide tore up and down the strings. Drums pounded out a shuffle beat so infectious and elemental that even I could dance to it….When Hound Dog leaned into the microphone and sang the blues in a high, cracking voice…you couldn’t take your eyes off him….That afternoon I fell in love with Hound Dog Taylor & The HouseRockers.”
In 1971, 23-year-old blues fan Bruce Iglauer spent his meager savings to record and release a record by his favorite Chicago blues band, Hound Dog Taylor & The HouseRockers. The new album needed a record label, so he created Alligator Records to release one LP. Today, Alligator boasts a catalog of over 350 titles, many of which are renowned, award-winning, time-tested classics of the genre. Career-defining albums from legendary artists like Hound Dog Taylor, Koko Taylor, Son Seals, Albert Collins, Johnny Winter, Professor Longhair, Lonnie Brooks, Luther Allison and Michael “Iron Man” Burks share the catalog with releases from current blues and roots icons Elvin Bishop, Charlie Musselwhite, Guitar Shorty, Billy Boy Arnold and Mavis Staples. Records from today’s world-renowned stars like Shemekia Copeland, Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials, Rick Estrin & The Nightcats, Marcia Ball, Billy Branch, Tinsley Ellis, Joe Louis Walker, Tommy Castro & The Painkillers, Curtis Salgado, and Roomful Of Blues, as well as albums from newer voices including Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Nick Moss, Toronzo Cannon and Selwyn Birchwood, clearly showcase Alligator’s wide-ranging, forward-looking vision.
The history of Alligator Records and the history of contemporary blues are inextricably intertwined. Iglauer, a native of Cincinnati, first fell under the spell of the blues in 1966. A live performance by the great Mississippi Fred McDowell struck him deep inside. “It was as if he reached out and grabbed me by the collar, shook me and spoke directly to me,” he recalls. After that show, Iglauer, a student at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, immersed himself in the blues. In 1968, he made his initial pilgrimage to Chicago to experience the city’s thriving blues scene. His first stop was the famous Jazz Record Mart, where he met proprietor Bob Koester, also the owner of the prestigious blues and jazz label Delmark Records. With Koester as his guide, Iglauer began making regular visits to Chicago to see Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Otis Rush, J.B. Hutto, Carey Bell and many other blues icons in the South and West Side blues clubs.
Koester was impressed with Iglauer’s passion for the music and his promotion of a sold-out Luther Allison performance at Lawrence in 1969. When Iglauer moved to Chicago for good at the beginning of 1970, Koester hired him as a $30-per-week shipping clerk. Almost every night, Iglauer hung out in the South and West Side bars, spellbound by the blues musicians performing on their home turf. He accompanied Koester to the studio for every Delmark session, where he watched blues greats such as Junior Wells, Roosevelt Sykes and Robert Lockwood, Jr. create classic blues albums. During this time, Iglauer spent countless Sundays at Florence’s Lounge on Chicago’s South Side, where he fell in love with the music of Hound Dog Taylor & The HouseRockers. He was mesmerized by Hound Dog’s high-energy, raw bottleneck blues, and was convinced that if he made a Hound Dog Taylor album, his passion for this band and his vision for promotion could bring this wildly fun and intensely soulful music to a whole new audience of younger record buyers like himself.
Though he badgered Koester to record Hound Dog for Delmark, Koester declined. Determined that his favorite band be recorded, Iglauer gathered up what little money he had and headed into the studio with Hound Dog in 1971, recording for two evenings direct to two-track, mixing the album as it was being recorded. With his remaining money, he pressed 1000 albums and loaded them into the trunk of his Dodge Dart. The hip new radio format at the time was called “free form progressive rock,” and Iglauer drove over 4000 miles, stopping at every free form station. He offered up a copy of his new LP to on-air DJs, sharing his excitement about Hound Dog Taylor & The HouseRockers. And more times than not, they would spin the record right then and there. With significant airplay, Iglauer was able to find distributors for the album in most major markets in the country.
With his hard work paying off in the form of national radio play, and with enough sales to keep the label afloat, Iglauer realized that he had a whole new set of tasks. By necessity, he quickly became not only the label but also booking agent, publicist, manager, driver, roadie and advisor to Taylor and the band. The record became a huge success (by blues standards), selling over 100,000 copies in the U.S. alone. It continues to have a huge impact on fans and artists alike. Black Keys founder and guitarist Dan Auerbach – who plays one of Hound Dog’s guitars on the new Black Keys album, Delta Kream, to be released in May 2021 – says, “I know for a fact I wouldn’t be in this business if Bruce hadn’t released those first two Hound Dog Taylor records. The fire Bruce captured on those records is the magic place I’m reaching for every time I’m in my studio.”
Iglauer ran Alligator out of his tiny apartment, filled with stacks of record cartons and a shipping table next to the bed. For years, each record had to finance the next one, which meant Alligator released about one record a year. Luckily, those records continued to impress fans and critics and sell enough to keep the label going. After Alligator’s success with Hound Dog Taylor, and then subsequent albums by Son Seals, Big Walter Horton and Fenton Robinson, the label got a shot in the arm when it began its long association with the Queen of the Blues, Koko Taylor. Taylor had been a sensation at Chess Records with her version of Willie Dixon’s Wang Dang Doodle. “Bruce helped me as much as I helped him,” recalled Taylor. “It was a very small company at the time, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me. My career didn’t start until I got with Alligator.” Her 1975 debut Alligator album, I Got What It Takes, won the label its first Grammy nomination.
Alligator hired its first employee in 1975, and Iglauer moved himself and his label into a tumbledown three-bedroom house on Chicago’s North Side where he also lived. LPs were warehoused in the basement and cassettes in the kitchen. Even so, the label was now making some serious national noise. Rolling Stone called the 1978 Grammy-nominated Living Chicago Blues series “the definitive modern blues collection.” Artists included Jimmy Johnson, Eddie Shaw, Carey Bell, Magic Slim and Pinetop Perkins, who all went on to become blues icons. Another featured artist, Lonnie Brooks, would go on to record seven full albums for Alligator and become one of the label’s shining stars. Young Billy Branch, who was also featured on the Living Chicago Blues series, is now one of the world’s best known and most-recorded blues harmonica players. In 2019, he finally released his first full Alligator album, after countless appearances on other artists’ recordings.
In 1978, guitarist Albert Collins joined the Alligator family. Collins was the first non-Chicago artist signed to Alligator and the first to come to the label with a big reputation and high visibility. “Because of Albert Collins,” recalls Iglauer, “the media perceived that Alligator, with only 16 albums in its catalog, had become a major blues label.” In all, six Alligator recordings received Grammy nominations between 1975 and 1978, representing almost half the records the label released. Within the music community, Alligator had developed a reputation as an aggressive and businesslike independent label.
In 1982, the label won its first Grammy Award for zydeco pioneer Clifton Chenier’s release, I’m Here!. Two years later, Alligator signed legendary guitarist Johnny Winter. Winter was better known as a rock star, but came to Alligator to get back to his blues roots. While Koko Taylor and Albert Collins were well-known among blues fans, Winter was the first Alligator artist with rock radio name recognition. Winter’s success attracted blues-rock guitar heroes Roy Buchanan and Lonnie Mack, who brought along his friend Stevie Ray Vaughan to produce and perform on his Alligator debut. These big-name artists gave a whole new level of mainstream radio, press, and retail credibility to the label. Success continued with the release of Showdown!, the enormously popular collaboration between guitarists Albert Collins, Robert Cray and Johnny Copeland. The album won a Grammy Award, received wall-to-wall press and radio attention, and has become the best-selling title in Alligator’s catalog.
By 1985, the time had come to move the label’s headquarters out of Iglauer’s house and into a rundown storefront building, where Alligator still operates today. With only seven full-time employees, Alligator was exerting major label-scale promotion efforts with its own radio, publicity, and marketing departments. International licensing and distribution deals brought Alligator’s releases to dozens of countries including Canada, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Argentina, and throughout Europe.
During the 1990s, the Alligator roster grew to include young singing sensation Shemekia Copeland, dynamic guitar master Luther Allison and trailblazing bluesman Corey Harris, all of whose releases kept Alligator at the forefront of the roots music world. Blues icons Elvin Bishop and James Cotton, acoustic duo Cephas & Wiggins, the all-female trio Saffire—The Uppity Blues Women, famed traditional guitarist Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin, Australian slide monster Dave Hole and New York’s groundbreaking Michael Hill’s Blues Mob reached fans of every style of blues and the growing Americana music audience.
The 21st century brought a whole new set of challenges – from the loss of physical sales due to online music piracy to the closing of thousands of record stores to the advent of streaming music. Alligator responded by committing to promoting every single gig that every artist played, no matter when their most recent album was released (which is still the label’s policy today). Staffers pitched and scored interviews, television appearances and radio station visits, as well as providing venues with promotional materials to help make each show a success. For Alligator, each tour stop became its own artist-centric retail store, with artists more than happy to meet fans, sign albums and take pictures. This full scale marketing of recordings and aggressive publicizing of live concert dates helped increase artists’ worldwide visibility, grow their fan bases, and ultimately sell more music.
Alligator released acclaimed new albums from label stars including Koko Taylor, Tinsley Ellis and Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials, as well as albums from artists who joined the Alligator family after having success on other labels, like Tommy Castro, Guitar Shorty, JJ Grey & Mofro, Roomful Of Blues, Coco Montoya, Joe Louis Walker, Anders Osborne, Marcia Ball and The Holmes Brothers. In 2004, soul/gospel icon Mavis Staples’ career was revitalized with her Alligator album Have A Little Faith. According to Staples, “Bruce was as supportive to me as you could imagine, always willing to offer his insight and expertise. He's been a true friend of the blues and independent music.”
With Alligator’s ongoing support, Alligator artists have seen their audiences continue to grow. The label’s recordings have received a total of 48 Grammy Award nominations and three Grammy Awards. Its artists and their music hold over 150 Blues Music Awards (the blues community’s highest honor) and over 70 Living Blues Awards (presented by Living Blues magazine). Alligator artists have appeared on radio, on television and in films. They’ve performed worldwide at clubs, concert halls and festivals. According to Shemekia Copeland, “Alligator Records has been a cornerstone of the blues world for five decades. As an Alligator artist, I am truly grateful for what Bruce and Alligator Records have done for me and this genre.”
Since its inception, Alligator has always kept a close eye on new technologies, assuring the label’s music is as accessible as possible. In the 1970s and 1980s, the company produced LPs, 45s, cassettes and 8-track tapes. In the mid-1980s, Alligator was the first blues company to produce CDs, and in the 1990s was among the first labels to have its own website (www.alligator.com) and market its catalog over the internet. Fans can easily access full artist information and tour updates, free downloads and the ability to purchase music and other blues-related merchandise. These days, label news, album reviews, reminders about upcoming TV and radio appearances and online performances, as well as tour information can be found all across the social media landscape from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram to YouTube and more. Alligator also works closely with almost all of the download and streaming services, making thousands of Alligator tracks available for instant online listening or purchase.
Throughout its history, Alligator has operated not only as a business, but also as a tight-knit family. Relationships between the staff and the artists are personal and run deep. Touring artists performing in Chicago regularly drop by the office to catch up with Iglauer and the staff. Musicians regularly call Iglauer at all hours looking to discuss their upcoming recording sessions or test out new tunes over the phone. Everything except for the actual recording happens at Alligator's headquarters. Staffers operating with a grassroots, do-it-yourself ethos reach out across the globe from offices that used to be apartment bedrooms, kitchens and living rooms.
Through their tireless work, the 14 long-time employees – many who have been with the label for over 25 years – carry out major label-level promotional and publicity campaigns, achieving results that rival any deep-pocketed corporation. Alligator's publicity and radio departments are constantly working the phones and the internet, placing feature stories and generating airplay. Over the years, Alligator artists have performed on national television and radio, appearing on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, The Tonight Show, The Late Show With David Letterman, Austin City Limits, The CBS Saturday Early Show, PBS NewsHour and NPR’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Fresh Air, E-Town, Mountain Stage, Woodsongs and on SiriusXM Radio, among many others. Advertising, international sales, social media, licensing, publishing, film and television placements and design are all done in-house as well. In addition, Alligator's full service mail order company is housed in an old former furniture store just down the block from the main building.
Even as Alligator passes the half-century mark, the label is still dedicated to finding and signing young artists with the talent and vision to create new blues that speaks to today’s and tomorrow’s audiences. The label has helped bring artists like Selwyn Birchwood, Toronzo Cannon, The Nick Moss Band Featuring Dennis Gruenling and The Cash Box Kings to the forefront of the modern blues scene. In 2019, Alligator released the debut album from guitar phenomenon Christone “Kingfish” Ingram. At just 22 years old, Kingfish is already being hailed as a new blues superstar.
Since releasing the first Hound Dog Taylor record, Alligator Records has become the most successful blues label in the world. And the Alligator story is still unfolding. From the early days of recording only Chicago talent, to attracting national and international musicians, to the label’s commitment to nurturing the new generations of blues and roots artists, Alligator, like the blues itself, continues to break new ground while staying true to its Genuine Houserockin’ roots.
Of course, the history of Alligator Records is best told by Iglauer himself in the 2019 book, co-authored with Dr. Patrick Roberts, entitled Bitten By The Blues: The Story Of Alligator Records, published by the University of Chicago Press.
THE STAFF (and the years they started):
Bill Wokersin, Director of Warehouse Operations, 1983
Kerry Peace, National Sales & Advertising Director, 1987
Luisa Rosales, Warehouse Assistant, 1987
Bob DePugh, Director of Licensing & Publishing, 1988
Marc Lipkin, Director of Publicity, 1992
Tim Kolleth, Director of Radio Promotion, 1992
Matt LaFollette, Director of Artist Relations, Radio Promotion, 1995
Lynn Coleman, Financial Controller, 1995
Chris Levick, Director of Tour Publicity, 1998
Josh Lindner, Director of New Media & Retail Promotion, 2000
Kevin Niemiec, Art Director, 2000
Eli Martinez, Mail Order Director, 2006
Jill Dollinger, Office Manager, 2010
Mickey Gentile, Director of Manufacturing/Inventory, 2017
For a full discography by year, click here