- The Washington Times - Monday, December 10, 2001

CHICAGO — The owner of what may be the world's best-known blues record label has a corner office with a view. Similarities to a record-company mogul end there, however.
Alligator Records owner Bruce Iglauer looks out on a grocery store across from his converted brick building on Chicago's north side. His second-floor office is clogged with boxes of old master tapes, piles of magazines, cartons of demos from wannabes and battered furniture.
From there, Mr. Iglauer, 54, has made a living and a life recording, producing and selling the blues. The label he started with a small inheritance in 1971 celebrated its 30th anniversary this year with a double-CD sampling of studio and live recordings.
"It certainly is true that by the standards of the American recording industry it's a small independent label, but by the standards of the blues, it's an 800-pound gorilla. It has been virtually since its inception the single most influential label in America, if not the world," says Peter Aschoff, who teaches the anthropology of the blues culture at the University of Mississippi and is a longtime friend of Mr. Iglauer's.
Alligator Records started when rock 'n' roll was king in the United States, its blues roots having been overshadowed by rock's new beat and glamorous lifestyle.
No exclusive blues labels existed then, says Howard Stovall, executive director of the Blues Foundation in Memphis. The foundation sponsors blues' highest honors, the W.C. Handy Blues Awards.
"Nobody made blues the centerpiece," Mr. Stovall says. "Bruce came into it with blues as the centerpiece, not as some peripheral to some core curriculum."
Mr. Iglauer recognizes his place but occupies it with some modesty.
"I'm proud of the fact that I learned to be a businessman," Mr. Iglauer says, working at his desk well after dark.
"I'm proud that I've built this little anthill in the desert of the blues. I'm proud that I'm the tallest of the midgets among the blues midgets, but if I could produce records all day, every day, I would."
Mr. Iglauer's desire to produce a record led to Alligator's birth.

The blues first took hold of the Cincinnati native while he attended Lawrence University in Wisconsin. When Mr. Iglauer moved to Chicago in 1970, he took a $30-a-week job with Delmark Records and continued his pastime of hanging out in blues clubs. The raw sounds of slide guitar player Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers captured Mr. Iglauer's ear.
Delmark founder Bob Koester declined to record Mr. Taylor, so Mr. Iglauer, then 23, decided to do it himself. A record label was born, with the name coming from the way Mr. Iglauer clicks rhythm patterns with his teeth when he likes a song.
Alligator certainly isn't the only blues label with longevity. Blind Pig Records celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. Alligator was first, however, and first to push blues back into the nation's consciousness.
"There's no question that there's a greater realization in mainstream America of the role blues has played in influencing American music than there ever has been," Mr. Stovall says. "In 1972, I don't think many people knew that."
Artists such as Johnny Winter, Buddy Guy, Luther Allison, Koko Taylor and Lonnie Brooks help define the Alligator sound and give it its crossover appeal.
Mr. Iglauer "has the ability to sign good artists and get the best out of them in the studio and then perhaps most important to market them and make them attractive not only to blues fans, but to mainstream rock audiences," Mr. Aschoff says.
The Alligator sound is tuned to the live energy of rocking blues. Mr. Iglauer often goes to clubs ahead of recording sessions to get the live sound in his head.
"I've also tried to have my records punchy in a rock 'n' roll way so if it gets played on a rock 'n' roll station it will sound contemporary," he says.
Airplay or not, Alligator artists have generated a truckload of awards over the years. The label has received 32 Grammy nominations and won twice. Alligator artists have won 64 Handy awards. Koko Taylor has won 21 herself, more than any other blues artist.
Miss Taylor joined Alligator four years after the label started. She had been with Chicago's legendary Chess Records, which folded. She was without a recording contract when Mr. Iglauer approached her after a performance in Michigan.
"I like working with Alligator because they're a smaller company," she says in a telephone interview. "I believe that when you work with a company that's so big and has so many other artists, sometimes you get lost in the shuffle. This way, I haven't gotten lost."
Mr. Aschoff says Mr. Iglauer doesn't consider Alligator a niche label. "He sees it as a mass label that just doesn't happen to sell a lot of records." That fits the blues sales picture.
Blues represents a small percentage of U.S. recording industry sales, totaling more than $14 billion in 2000, according to figures from the Recording Industry Association of America. Rock led with 24.8 percent that year, while the rhythm-and-blues/urban category, which contains blues and eight other music types, accounted for only 9.7 percent.
Mr. Iglauer doesn't release sales figures, but whatever trappings there are from his success, he doesn't wear them publicly. He drives an 8-year-old Honda Civic. Jeans and a T-shirt are the uniform du jour, although for an interview session he put on a long-sleeved shirt he found among the functional clutter of his office.
"It's not the money to him," says Bill Wokersin, Alligator warehouse manager and at 20 years the company's longest-term employee. "He keeps his fingers on the pulse of everything around here, but it's all for the artists and the music, which I admire."
"People say I should write a book, which is something I'd do if I retired," Mr. Iglauer says, "but people retire so they can do what they want. I get to do that every day."

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide