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Bruce Iglauer :: Alligator Forever
by Eugene Dolgikh

Blues and jazz that share their roots and fans are both rather non-pop music now. Blues is one of the most open and sincere kinds of music so I'd like you to get closer to it and get to know more of those who make all spread it all over the world.

Bruce Iglauer, chief of the most important independent American blues label Alligator Records gave this interview to the editor of JazzQuad magazine Eugene Dolgikh.

Eugene Dolgikh: Dear Bruce, the story of Alligator Records begins with the name of Hound Dog Taylor. Could you tell why his sound so touched you?

Bruce Iglauer: I loved the sound of the slide guitar with all the raw distortion, plus the energy and urgency of his singing. the rhythmic drive appealed to me, and the fun level. It was a cross between blues and old rock and roll, and very immediate.

ED: What was blues society of those times like? Was it very hard for bluesbeginners or less known bluesmen to make records?

BI: There were very few blues records getting made and it was hard for artists to find labels. The black-oriented radio stations were not playing much blues, and this market had been for 45s (singles). Blues had only begun to be recorded for albums about 10 years before i got involved. At that time the best records stores had maybe 100 blues albums. Every album was an "event" and the fans talked about them with each other all the time. There were dozens of excellent blues artists in chicago who had no opportunity to record. That's one reason i made my living chicago blues series in the late 70s.

ED: Where and what was your first recording studio, it's staff and equipment? And what it is now?

BI: I don't own a recording studio. It's really a different business from the record business. I rent time as I need it, and I choose engineers who seem to understand what I like to hear. In general I use rather good and expensive studios, though sometimes I make records in simple places. But even in my early days I used rather good studios.

ED: Do you have your favorite blues... no, not musicians, but instruments?

BI: I think it's possible to make blues music on almost any instrument. But I admit that I've heard very few synthesizers that I like. Othewise I like them all, depending on my mood. Guitar, piano, harp, drums, bass, sax, if I feel them they are all great.

ED: Which album was your first real commercial success?

BI: Actually my first Hound Dog Taylor record did rather well by blues standards and sold over 100,000 in 30 years. My fastest sellers were Johnny Winter, Showdown, our 20th and 25th anniversary collections, Koko Taylor and recently Shemekia Copeland.

ED: Are you jealous of bluesmen who left Alligator Records for some major label (for example, Lucky Peterson)?

BI: Jealous is not the right word. I am always disappointed when an artist feels like some other label could do better for his or her career. In the case of Lucky, he came to us through Kingsnake Records and he was not directly under contract to us. In the case of Albert Collins and the Kinsey Report, both thought that a big multinational company could do more for them. In fact if these companies put the energy and money into their blues records that they put into their pop records, the artists would be right. but the big companies are driven by big, fast money and they don't know how to market the blues.

The Kinsey Report is now back with me and rebuilding their careers. Albert told me before his death that he wanted to come back home to Alligator. As far as Lucky, he's done very well in France but is still rather invisible in the US. He's an excellent artist and I wish him nothing but success.

ED: For sure you remember many curious and maybe funny stories about Alligator artists. Please tell us some of them...

BI: For many years I ran the company from my home and everyone on the label knew how to reach me 24 hours a day. I consider that (hopefully) my artists are my friends and I should be available to them like I am to my friends. I have so many stories that this is a very hard question to answer…

ED: So I'll specify: please tell how you worked with Albert Collins and Johhny Winter... and that story about Coco Taylor as well. And please tell something about Corey Harris - I myself was very impressed by his albums.

BI: Well… Working with Albert Collins:
Albert was a very easy and fun guy to produce. My friend Dick Shurman and I did his records together, except the Live In Japan album (which was recorded in one long set!). Albert was very confident as a guitarist and he had his unique sound. He was much less confident in himself as a singer; he grew up listening to big-voiced singers like Roy Brown and he had a quiet voice without a big range. But he could tell a story, and if he wrote songs with good and humorous stories (like "Master Charge") or Dick or I found one for him (like "I Ain't Drunk) he could enjoy singing it. Albert hated to rehearse and we would often make up arrangements in the studio. He liked to play very loud, so we had to put his amp in a separate room. He also liked to sing in the studio without headphones, and to sing as much of the song "live" as possible. His playing was very unpredictable--when we cut "Bending Like A Willow Tree" for his "Cold Snap" album, he played something that he had never played before, and he asked me to play it back so he could figure out where he had put his fingers on the guitar neck to play it again! He was a sweet and gentle man and I miss him all the time.

Johnny Winter:
Johnny has a huge and deep knowledge of the blues tradition. He knows thousands of songs and more thousands of guitar licks. It's very easy for him to quote ten different guitarists in one solo, but imitate none of them. Johnny is a very high strung and nervous guy, and it's hard for him to get focused in the studio. He works in "streaks", so that in five hours he may have 30 minutes of greatness, but that 30 minutes is truly great. Johnny and I had bitter arguments about mixes (snare drum sounds actually) that became personal and hurt our friendship. I believe the three albums he made for Alligator, and especially "Guitar Slinger" and "Third Degree" are the best pure blues he ever recorded. Again, Dick Shurman was co-producer and, after Johnny and I argued, Dick produced "Third Degree" by himself. Dick has produced Johnny's more recent albums on Pointblank also, and they are still good friends. Johnny has had health problems in recent years (typical for albinos) and I worry about him.

Koko Taylor:
Koko is one of the most honest, direct and hard working people I know. She is over 65 (her age is private) but she still plays about 100 nights a year, and complains when she isn't performing. Koko had a very hard life. She was the child of a sharecropper and actually picked cotton by hand. She came to Chicago in the 1950s with her future husband. He worked in the steel mills and as a taxi driver. She went to the suburbs and cleaned houses for rich people. As she says--she spent many hours on her knees and she wasn't praying; she was scrubbing floors! Now, because of her talent and wonderful shows, she lives in a house like the ones she used to clean!

Corey Harris:
Corey is a very interesting and unusual man. He's rather intellectual, with a degree in linguistics and time studying in Africa. But he is also very instinctive, and he can crawl inside a song that was old when he was born and make it his own. Corey has huge "ears." He can hear a lot of music as being blues that isn't purely in the blues tradition, like creole waltzes and reggae. He is one of the men will expand the definition of blues for the next century. He is also quite militant about the situation of black people in the USA, but not in a way hostile to whites. I think he is a very deep man. But he has mellowed a lot recently since he became a father. I don't know where he will take his music in the future; I hope my ears are big enough to hear what he creates. I'm sure it will be different and special and challenging.

ED: Do you know of some non-American bluesman who you want to record?

BI: I have recorded dave hole, the australian blues musician. I have heard very good blues musicians from all over the world. I was recently impressed by Rumanian musicians who are blending traditional folk sounds from their own country with blues. I liked them a lot. There are some very good bands in Germany. The main problem I hear with foreign blues musicians is that they don't understand the importance of the lyrics and stories. But many Americans are the same way. They think that blues is about just playing instruments, not about words and singing.

However, I probably will not record non-American musicians because there are so many good Americans and because our limited radio play means we need musicians touring in the USA constantly for exposure.

ED: You were one of the founding members of NAIRD (now AFIM – Associacion For Independent Music). What was the main reason for it's creation? What function does it execute now?

BI: It was originally a way for labels and their (many) distribibutors to meet, exchange information, make deals, plan promotional campaigns, and for labels to share information about successful and unsuccessful ventures. Now with the good movement of freight in the US it is not necessary to have a distributor in every city, and many indepdendent labels have only one distributor. So meeting with distributors is less important. Now labels share information among themselves as to how to do business, and we train many newcomers to our industry. Also we are being pleasantly invaded by internet companies who want to do business with US. They may be the future distributors as the business changes.

ED: What in your opinion is the future of indy labels? What should be the right directive line for them?

BI: The "majors" are built on huge sales of mainstream "product" because they have huge machines to run. This means that the independents will have a role with non-pop music like blues, jazz, folk, contemporary classical, etc. Also the independents have their local connections that allow them to find budding pop and rock acts and "break" them to the public. That's why the majors like to buy indie labels. They think they're buying "ears".

ED: Could you say that "today blues is not so cool as at old good days?" Or you have more optimistic sight of view?

BI: I'm not sure what you mean by "cool". Many of the "first generation" blues musicians are not around, the ones who learned blues as a folk music. Now almost everyone learns from records, like I did. Right now I look for musicians who have a vision for a new blues with deep roots but contempoary rhythms and lyrics. But it must still feel like blues and come from the tradition.

As far as the image of blues, when I was in college it was very unknown and therefore kind of "cool". Now it is fairly well known, but only the outside of the music is really known. But because people know the sounds of blues, it is not so "cool" in its image.

ED: Blues fans in our country are very often jazz freaks as well. And how is the situation in the USA?

BI: There is some crossover, but most blues fans I know came from rock to blues. And a few (like me) from folk music. Jazz fans tend to think blues is too unsophisticated and traditional, and the musicians don't have the instrumental skill of jazz musicians.

ED: What book on the history of blues could you recommend as the best one?

BI: There are a lot of good books, but two of my favorites are out of print, I think..."Deep Blues" by Robert Palmer and "The Story Of The Blues" by Paul Oliver.
ED: What is your life and art creed?

BI: I try to make honest records that are true to the musicians and also have deep emotions that can stir people and leave a deep impact. I pride myself that I pay everyone fairly (including song writers) and also try to help my artists with advancing their live performance careers, not just making records. And I want my artists to be my friends if possible.

published 14.05.2005© 2005 jazz news :: home page

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