In half a century of writing about blues, I’ve found three people in this business that I love unequivocally: Delmark Records founder Bob Koester, agent/photographer/journalist Dick Waterman, and Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer.
I love Bob because he brought Chicago musicians and blues fans worldwide closer together by recording blues artists as they sounded live in the South Side and West Side Chicago blue bars that he frequented, and I respect him for his eclectic tastes in understanding the fundamental affinity between blues and jazz musicians.
Dick Waterman brought artists like B. B. King and Buddy Guy on tour, introducing them to a wider – and whiter – audience. He is the best anecdotal story teller in the business.
Bruce Iglauer has given me more artists to write about than any other label head, and he’s maintained his Alligator label longer with greater success and with a larger catalog of true blues artists than any label larger or /smaller.
Reading Bruce’s memoir Bitten By the Blues (University of Chicago Press) co-written by Patrick Roberts for me is like finding a brother’s secret diary under the bed. I am keenly aware that as a journalist the personalities I write about are much, much closer to me than I am to them. I know them intimately through their work, and I get to ask them sometimes impertinent questions in a briefly circumscribed period of time. Then, I’m gone to them, like a thief in the night who steals their identity for others to read. It’s rare that they remember me at all among the myriad of journalists who write about them.
Bruce is different. He recognized before he started Alligator Records in 1971 that
journalists like me were a conduit by which he could grow a business. I was writing for underground newspapers, community weeklies, an Army newspaper that went to “grunts” in the field in Vietnam, and dailies in a secondary market. He was a young white man who loved old black music, and he understood that there were others like himself who would buy this music if he could reach them. And journalists like me were his entre into this potential market. Bruce, then and now, treats me as an “important person,” (his salutation on letters accompanying complimentary copies of his CDs to the press) in his business.
As his label grew to become the premier blues label, he has become a public figure, and his reputation for “controlling” artists’ “product” (my words, not his) has made him somewhat controversial. I have quotes from many scores of artists who get nervous over his control of the way he presents their art to the world. But in the end, many of them circle back around and sign with him twice or even three times in a long career after they realize that the grass is not always greener somewhere else. His memoir clarifies a lot of things about their concerns and is frankly more revelatory than I expected. That he would answer my questions below with such thoroughness is nothing less than a gift from a dear friend.
You spend a large part of the book going into great detail on the Herculean efforts it’s taken you to keep the label’s head above water. How much of that effort do you think was fueled by your obsession with the music, and how much of it by a belief that a “niche business” like a blues record label is viable? Or are you simply a survivalist?
As I said in the book, I never wanted to be a businessman. I started Alligator
because I wanted to get Hound Dog Taylor’s music to the world, to prove to my
boss and mentor Bob Koester that he should have recorded my favorite band, and
because I saw a role for myself in the blues world, especially in bringing the blues
to a wider audience. There were so many great musicians I was hearing, and so few labels recording them. I didn’t have any overriding thoughts about niche businesses in general, just my own. I very much wanted the company to survive, because the music was so good, and also because the best parts of the job were so exciting. I was very much driven to survive. I didn’t start Alligator to fail, though I certainly got close on many occasions.
You talk about how your taste in music became more eclectic as the label grew. How big a part did your younger staff play in that evolution? Did they play a role in convincing you to sign JJ Grey and Mofro, for instance?
As I surrounded myself with terrific, hard-working people with great ears, I began listening more and more to their opinions. This started pretty early on. My first full-time employee, Richard McLeese, helped with the production of “Ice Pickin'” and “I Hear Some Blues Downstairs,” and I was impressed by how he heard and felt the music. Mindy Giles was a big fan of Lonnie Brooks and pushed me to keep him on even when his sales weren’t all that good. Ken Morton, my long-ago publicist, was a cheerleader for signing Dave Hole. Tim Kolleth, my head of radio promotion, spurred enthusiasm for Eric Lindell. Ultimately, the decisions whom to sign fall on me, but I respect the ears of my core staffers, and if I’m not 100% sure, I’ll ask for their opinions. I was already enthusiastic about JJ Grey & Mofro, but I
certainly consulted with my staff (and we went together to a gig to see him live) before committing to him. I recognize that my ears are very much “blues ears,” and I don’t as easily hear the originality in other roots music, so I count on them to have bigger ears than I do. Some years ago, my graphic designer, Kevin Niemiec, urged me to go see an unknown band playing at a local club on a multi-band show. I was sick but went to see them the next time they were in town. We chatted and they told me that they were big fans of the label but had just signed with another label. The name of the band was the Black Keys.
Did you think much about how you are perceived by the press and the public
before you began writing the book?
To some extent. I knew that in this small blues world, I was a pretty well-known
person. I was sometimes an easy target–for example, I kept reading there was an
“Alligator sound” even when albums were produced by other producers. I also
caught a certain amount of flack from musicians whom I turned down (and
sometimes I made bad decisions about whom to turn down). But I didn’t write the
book with any scores to settle. Mostly, my feeling is that my role in the book is to be a camera–to have the reader see the musicians, the clubs, the sessions, the tours through my eyes. The book isn’t about me; it’s about what I’ve experienced. If it makes the reader better appreciate Albert Collins or Koko Taylor, or want to hear Michael Hill or Corey Harris or Selwyn Birchwood, then I’ve succeeded.
Did you purposely set out to change any of those perceptions? Particularly the one about you being controlling in the studio?
In the book, I plead guilty to being a control freak. I’m running a commercial record label. Jac Holzman, the founder of Elektra Records, told me that not one track was released on Elektra without his personal approval. And Elektra was a very successful label that also kept its artistic integrity. It’s rare for me to accept a finished album or to allow an artist to make all the artistic/production decisions. I push musicians to surpass their own expectations of themselves. I’m sure that Toronzo Cannon and Lil’ Ed and many others would tell you that they’re better songwriters because I pushed them to be more original and avoid the blues clichés, sometimes sending them back to rewrite songs multiple times.
What did your book co-writer Patrick Roberts bring to the party? Why did you
Actually, Patrick chose me. I met him at a book launch for his previous book,
‘Give ‘Em Soul, Richard!: Race, Radio, and Rhythm and Blues in Chicago,’ which he based on his interviews with Richard Stamz, a pioneering black DJ in Chicago. We were introduced by my friend Bob Riesman, who wrote ‘I Feel So Good,’ the excellent book about Big Bill Broonzy. Patrick almost immediately said, “We should do a book together.” He interviewed me for about 100 hours, not just letting me ramble, but guiding me to the subjects which he, as a blues fan but not by any means a blues expert (he’d agree with that), found interesting. For example, he asked many more questions about the business aspects of the growth of Alligator than I would have thought the public wanted to know. I was wrong. One of the things the University of Chicago Press wanted me to talk more about was the growth of the business and the independent industry in general. After the interviews (which lasted for two or three years), all my immortal words were transcribed. It was Patrick who sat with the scissors and Scotch tape and organized them into a narrative. Then I edited or rewrote large sections, to make them less like an interview and more like a book. He and I battled endlessly about what should be included or left out, and how it should be organized; we probably spent a year communicating only by email because we were so angry with each
other (we got over it). Without Patrick as the motivator/interviewer, I would have
thought about writing a book forever and never done it. It wasn’t until well after we started that I discovered that he owned exactly one Alligator CD!
I have found my obsession with this business to be very difficult to balance with my personal life through two marriages, two biological children, six stepchildren and seven grandchildren. You talk very little about your personal life other than to say you’ve been married twice. Do you have a personal life, and how do you make time for it?
I do have a personal life, though I sometimes have to battle to find time for it. I was married briefly in the ’70s, but divorced. Then I was a bachelor for 18 years. I finally got married at the age of 48. I never had my own kids, but my wife Jo had two adult daughters, both with kids of their own, so I married into grandpa-hood. Over the years, I’ve grown to love my wife’s adult daughters and legally adopted both of them, so I am really “dad” and “grandpa.” I am deeply in love (in a very romantic way) with my wife after 23 years of marriage. She knew what she was getting and has never gotten between me and my work. I even had to spend a couple hours in the studio during my one-day honeymoon. Part of the reason our
marriage works is that we don’t live together. I met Jo in Milwaukee and she still lives in Wisconsin, about 100 miles away from me. I go to see her every weekend that I can, and we talk and email every day. Of course, I take work with me when I go to see her, and I often have to be in Chicago or traveling on weekends. She puts up with a lot! She’s really smart, funny and very affectionate. We laugh all the time. She has made me a much, much nicer person! (By the way, although I had noticed her earlier, she first noticed me at a Hound Dog Taylor gig in Milwaukee in 1975).
Do you think Alligator is the exception to the rule and that record labels in general are dinosaurs?
I think that the role of labels is changing. It’s not hard for musicians to get music onto services like iTunes or Spotify or Amazon digital, if they can afford to get their music recorded (a big “if”.) But it’s very hard for them to get their music known or heard. Our traditional role is to pay for recording, packaging and manufacturing physical recordings (CDs, sometimes LPs) and get them into the marketplace. But more and more, our job is to find ways to make the public aware of our artists’ music they may want to hear if they ever discovered it. That’s why we have two full time radio promotion people, two full time publicists, an online promotions person, as well as my own constant battling to attract the attention of the streaming services, which seem to be the main conduit to bring new music to potential listeners, at least going forward. We are determined to create new fans, especially as the existing fans become (literally) old fans.
I’m writing either pro bono or close to it across the board at age 74 because I finally decided in my “retirement” to do exactly what I want to do in terms of picking my assignments and saying exactly what I feel. Do you think there’s room in the future for intellectual property to be paid for? And if so, how will it be manifested?
I don’t think that music will ever generate the kind of money that it used to, either
for artists or labels. The digital revolution made vast swaths of the public think that music should be free. Downloads to some extent destroyed the concept of the album and took us back to singles, and streaming has moved us more that way. But…the good part is that Alligator music is now available to a world audience. You can hear our music on Apple Music in Burkina Faso and Kazakhstan. Right now, our entire catalog is becoming available on three of the biggest streaming services in China! So, as income from sales drops, potential income from streaming is creeping up. I absolutely believe in the power of the blues to make new fans if only they can hear the music. The availability of our music worldwide will eventually create new fans. I just wish this was happening a little faster!
If you could go back and start over, would you have started a label?
Absolutely. I would have made a lot of different decisions, but I lucked into a job (really more of a mission) that was apparently what I was meant to do.
I love your honesty and integrity. This “business” of music is full of sharks and broken promises. My way of dealing with it is to assume that if I treat people in the business honestly and fairly whether they be artists or business people, I assume they’ll treat me with the same respect I treat them until they don’t, and if that happens they no longer exist in my world.
I try to cut a certain amount of slack for musicians. They can be very emotional people (after all, part of their talent is to bring honest emotion into their music; for that they need their emotions close to the surface). I expect that the musicians I choose to work with will be honest with me, as I will be with them. Sometimes that leads to hurt feelings. But the Alligator artists know I’m available to them 24/7/365 and I’ll do almost anything for them.
I don’t give the same kind of slack to business people. I pay my bills, and I expect to be paid what I’m owed. I’ve been burned financially a number of times, so I’m not very trusting. I try to act as professional as possible and expect professionalism from those I work with. If someone treats me right, I’m very loyal and will go through a lot for them.
You describe yourself as not fundamentally a businessman and yet you’ve outlived everyone in the business except your mentor, Bob Koester at Delmark. What was the most important thing you learned from Bob?
Bob always let his gut lead his head. If he believed in an artist, even an unknown one like Jimmy Dawkins or Carey Bell, he would record that artist. Bob’s inspiration has led me to take leaps of faith on artists like Hound Dog, Son Seals, Michael Hill, Lil’ Ed, Jarekus Singleton and Lindsay Beaver. Not all these leaps of faith have been great business decisions, but I’m damned proud of the music that they recorded for Alligator. Bob brought passion to every recording project. That’s one of the many things I love about him.
You talk often in the book about the struggle between heart and head and how most of the time your decisions are dictated by your perceived ability to outlive your mistakes. If money were no object, what’s the first thing you’d do?
How much “no object” did you have in mind? Let’s assume you mean that I had access to millions of dollars (this is fun). I’d open a chain of really good record stores with great selection and very knowledgeable clerks, because there are many people out there who would like to buy CDs, but want the store experience that they can’t get online. I would start an all-roots streaming service to appeal to adult listeners who don’t feel at home with Spotify or Apple Music or Amazon Music Unlimited. I’d pay Sirius XM to create an eclectic music station in the spirit of the early years of free-form progressive rock radio. I’d hire someone who could run every aspect of my business besides the music part, and spend all my time listening to music, flying around the country scouting musicians, and producing albums. I’d pay scientists to clone me so that I could spend more time with my wife while doing all these other things. And I’d do everything I could think of to make blues hip and cool for a younger audience. If I had less than millions, I’d take more risks with more unknown musicians.
I want you to know, YOU personally have been directly responsible for some of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. Just to pull out one, Roy Buchanan was my favorite guitarist, period! One day a few years ago, I visited one of my oldest friends, Bob Disbrow, who lives on Cape Cod. We drove to a point now obliterated by erosion where we could see the sunset. I played one of Roy’s albums on the car stereo as the sun splashed red across the sky, the seagulls circled our car, and Roy screamed and streamed into the sky.
Roy would be very happy to read this.
Thank you. Your work is worth it!
A humble “thank you.”