What do Luther Allison, Koko Taylor, Son Seals, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, Magic Slim, Lonnie Mack, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, Little Charlie & the Nightcats, the Paladins, Tinsley Ellis, Lucky Peterson, Charlie Musselwhite, Elvin Bishop, Bob Margolin, C.J. Chenier, Coco Montoya, Marcia Ball, Joe Louis Walker, Tommy Castro, Janiva Magness, Curtis Salgado, Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials, Selwyn Birchwood, Toronzo Cannon and Lindsay Beaver have in common?
One, they all played the Zoo Bar sometime during the club’s 46-year history. And two, they all recorded for or had records released by Alligator Records, the Chicago label that has been the world’s stand-out blues label since 1971 and, in the past decade, has largely kept the blues alive by signing young artists and getting them out on the shrinking blues circuit to places like Lincoln.
It was the Zoo Bar connection — and my chats with Bruce Iglauer over the years — that sent me digging into “Bitten By The Blues: The Alligator Record Story,” Iglauer’s memoir and label history the day it turned up in the mail.
Iglauer’s storytelling, his illuminating views of the artists he’s worked with, his straightforward recounting of the business — from recording to running the label, and deciding who to sign or drop — kept me going strong, finishing the highly readable book, co-authored by Patrick A Roberts, in just a couple sittings.
“Bitten By The Blues” opens when the Wisconsin college student Iglauer, in 1966, ventured into Chicago to attend the city’s annual folk festival, where he heard Mississippi Fred McDowell playing his hill country blues.
“It felt like he reached out to me over 20 rows of seats, grabbed me by the collar and slapped me, and yelled ‘Wake up, boy! This is for you,’" he writes.
He returned two years later to book an artist for a college show — which turned out to be Howlin’ Wolf, then booked Allison for another show. Moving to Chicago in 1970, he landed a job at Jazz Record Mart, working at the store and for Delmark Records, the blues label run by its owner.
By the next year, Iglauer had scraped together the cash and the courage to start his own label, Alligator Records, and make a record on Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers, a raw three-piece band he encountered on his early visits to Chicago’s South Side clubs.
His stories of Florence’s Lounge and Theresa’s Lounge are similar, down to the details, to those told to me by Zoo Bar founder and longtime owner Larry Boehmer, who made his way to the Chicago clubs at about the same time as Iglauer.
That’s confirmation, for me at least, that Iglauer’s a terrific, honest storyteller, who recounts tales of working with say, the very country blues-rock guitarist Lonnie Mack, who loved to go fishing with Boehmer whenever he played the Zoo and his mistakes, both early and late, in dealing with Allison, who became one of the label’s biggest artists.
And, I know, Iglauer had to leave plenty of great stories out of the book — like this one he told me after Magic Slim’s passing six years ago:
In the late ‘70s or early ‘80s, Slim’s drummer was shot outside the 1125, a West Side club.
“Slim (who was 6-foot-6 and weighed more than 300 pounds) grabbed the guy who shot (the drummer) and sat on him,” Iglauer said. “He literally sat on the guy until the cops came.”
By the book’s end, Iglauer confronts the challenge for the blues in the 21st century. At its simplest, the original Chicago electric blues artists, save Guy, are all now gone and many of the second generation players, black and white, are in their 60s and 70s.
So is much of the blues audience who discovered the music at about the same time as Iglauer — hence the 6 p.m. early shows at the Zoo and other blues clubs around the country.
“My initial mission, the mission of Alligator, was to carry Chicago’s South and West Side blues to a worldwide audience of young adults like me,” Iglauger writes. “Now it has become a mission to find and record the musicians who will bring the essence of the blues — it’s catharsis, it’s sense of tradition, it’s raw emotional power, and it’s healing feeling — to a new audience, the blues audience of the future.”