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FEATURE: Bruce Iglauer Interview
GLT blues radio

Alligator label boss Bruce Iglauer was Bitten By The Blues and lived to tell about it

Koko Taylor & Bruce Iglauer
Koko Taylor & Bruce Iglauer
photo: Norberg

by Linda Cain

Bruce Iglauer was bitten hard by the blues 50 years ago when he walked into Florence’s Lounge on the South Side to witness the raucous blues music of Hound Dog Taylor & The HouseRockers.

That experience inspired him to form Alligator Records at age 23. Now at age 71, after seven years of work with co-author Patrick A. Roberts, the president of the world’s largest independent blues label has released Bitten By The Blues. The 337 page memoir recalls Iglauer’s life as a hard core blues fan who went on to help make blues history by working closely with some of the genre’s most influential and colorful artists and presenting their intensely expressive music to the world.

Bitten by the Blues book cover

The book is a wealth of blues history that draws both from Iglauer’s encyclopedic knowledge of blues along with his vivid, personal experiences with legendary artists like Hound Dog Taylor, Koko Taylor, Son Seals, Luther Allison, Albert Collins, Johnny Winter and more. The author also presents the future of the blues in artists like Selwyn Birchwood, Shemekia Copeland, Toronzo Cannon and more.

The label boss also delves into the challenging business of running an independent record company that delivers the blues to remote markets such as China. The book also includes 30 “memorable moment” photos, plus a complete Alligator discography from 1971 until present.

Co-author Patrick A. Roberts is associate professor in the College of Education at Northern Illinois University. He also co-authored Give ‘Em Soul, Richard! Race, Radio, and Rhythm and Blues in Chicago.

Chicago Blues Guide sat down for an online chat with the internationally known blues boss turned author.

Q. What was your motivation for writing your biography/memoir? Was it your idea or did someone else prompt you to start writing?

A. I had thought for a long time about chronicling some of my adventures in almost 50 years of recording blues artists, managing them, being on the road with them, as well as trying to build a successful business (which means a surviving business) recording the music I love. I felt that I could give readers some insight into the larger-than-life figures I had worked with, the creative process of making records, and challenges of creating and running a label. I probably never would have done it except for meeting my co-author, Patrick Roberts, an experienced writer. Patrick recorded over 100 hours of interview with me, which we had transcribed. He then did the hard job of organizing my answers to his questions into the first draft of the book. After that, almost every word was rewritten or at least my thoughts were reorganized. After we created the first chapter, we went looking for a publisher and got an enthusiastic welcome from University of Chicago Press. From the first meeting to the book being published was over seven years.

Q. Did you keep a personal diary or journal over time that you could refer to?

A. No. I have a good memory and some documents from various recording sessions, but that’s all.

Prof. Longhair, Dr. John, Bruce Iglauer
L to R: David Lee Watson, Professor Longhair, Dr. John, Bruce Iglauer at Sea-Saint Recording Studio, New Orleans in 1979
photo: Michael J. Smith

Q. Who is your target audience for the book? What kind of reader did you have in mind as you wrote?

A. I, of course, wanted to reach blues fans but also people interested in the independent recording business. I tried to write/talk the book in plain language, to keep it conversational and to be a fun read. I think it will speak to both the most knowledgeable fans and those who just want to learn more about the blues.

Q. What is your relationship with your co-author, Patrick A. Roberts, and what role did he play in creating this book with you?

A. As I said, Patrick interviewed me for 100 hours. He didn’t just let me talk—he asked specific questions that he though the readers would want to know the answers to.  My words were transcribed, and then he did the “scissors and scotch tape” job of organization. At that point, I saw how spoken words sometimes didn’t always translate to paper, and I rewrote a lot of what I said, with Patrick’s input and guidance. The publisher also encouraged me to get deeper into the business aspects than I might have done otherwise. Patrick and I were rewriting and editing up until the last possible minute.

Q. How many pages are there and are there lots of photos?

A. Over 300 pages and 30 photos. Of course, I had more to say and would have included many more photos, but the publisher gave me some limits (I got in 10,000 more words than I was supposed to; I hope the publisher doesn’t notice). I’m slowly organizing a website with additional material and photos. It will be bittenbytheblues.com but I’m not sure how soon it will launch.

Q. How much of the book deals with your personal life, or is it mostly about your professional life?

A. Honestly, I didn’t think the readers would be very interested in my non-musical personal life. The book goes a little into my background, but gets me to Chicago and the blues pretty quickly. As you know, I’m a workaholic and in fact I haven’t had much of a personal life.

Hound Dog Taylor & The Houserockers
Hound Dog Taylor & The HouseRockers
photo: Alligator Records

Q. Which blues artists did you mostly write about?

A. The publisher and Patrick encouraged me to concentrate on the early years of Alligator, so Hound Dog Taylor, Son Seals, Fenton Robinson, Koko Taylor, Albert Collins, Johnny Winter, Roy Buchanan, Lonnie Mack and Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials are the subject of a lot of pages. But I was able to say something about most of the wonderful artists I’ve worked with, including current artists like Shemekia Copeland, Toronzo Cannon and Selwyn Birchwood. I wish I could have written at least a little about every artist on the label, but it wasn’t possible.

 

Q. Are there any big surprises, at least to the average blues fan? Can you hint at it without us doing a spoiler alert?

A. There are no big revelations but I think that the fans will be interested in how music moves from the clubs to the studio, and how a producer and blues artist interact. There are vivid portraits of the South and West Side clubs (especially my favorite, Florence’s Lounge), of adventures on the road, and in particular of the first Lil’ Ed recording session (which was a surprise to both Ed and me) and the terrifying train wreck that the Son Seals Band and I were in.

 

Q. You had to delve into the past and remember many parts of your life experiences, both good and bad. Was writing this kind of like therapy?

A. The therapy part was chronicling some (not all) of the experiences so that I knew that fans in the future could share in my experiences, knowledge and what I hope are insights. Plus, for a lot of readers, my almost-50 years in the blues world seems historic and colorful.  Imagine if Leonard Chess had written a book, or Lester Melrose (who ran RCA’s blues label in the 1920s and ‘30s) or Don Law, who recorded Robert Johnson. Or my mentor and hero and former boss, Bob Koester of Delmark Records. Any blues fan would want to read those. I hope that my story has some of the value that theirs would have had. I have some sense of legacy (and mortality), so it felt good to get the story on paper.

Q. Do you feel that as a record company executive, you have been misunderstood or misquoted at times? By writing this book, are you intending to set the record straight?

A. There are a few times when I feel I’ve been mischaracterized. Over the years, there have been some pretty ruthless record men, so it’s natural that artists, fans and media sometimes looked at me with suspicion. I’ve always tried to be a straight shooter, as Alligator artists will attest. But for the most part I’ve let my story and actions speak for themselves. I didn’t come into writing this book with any axes to grind or scores to settle.

Q. Which chapter or chapters was the most difficult to write about?

A. When I started Alligator, I was 23 and my first artist, Hound Dog Taylor, was 55. He died at 60. Since then, I have had to deal with the deaths of so many people whom I cared about deeply. So writing about deaths was always hard.

Q. If you could get in a time machine and go to back to your favorite chapter in the book, which would it be and why?

A. I’d probably go all the way back to the first time I walked into Florence’s Lounge on the South Side and heard Hound Dog Taylor & The HouseRockers. It was the most fun music I ever heard, completely energizing and exciting. And it set me on the course for my career.

Q. Where do you see yourself in five year’s time?

A. Well, I’m 71 now but I hope that in five years I’ll still be going to gigs, producing records, finding new talent, running Alligator and still sleeping as little as possible.

Q. If you had a crystal ball, what would be the next unwritten chapter after those five years?

A. I have very strong commitments to the artists we presently have on the roster—Marcia Ball, Lindsay Beaver (the ‘new kid’), Selwyn Birchwood, Elvin Bishop, Toronzo Cannon, The Cash Box Kings, Tommy Castro, Shemekia Copeland, Tinsley Ellis, Rick Estrin & The Nightcats, Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials, Eric Lindell, Coco Montoya, The Nick Moss Band Featuring Dennis Gruenling, Roomful of Blues and Curtis Salgado. I certainly hope we’ll be recording more albums with them. In fact, we are preparing new releases (some in the studio, some in planning) by Tommy Castro, Coco Montoya, Toronzo Cannon and The Cash Box Kings. Shemekia, Marcia, Eric, Tinsley, Curtis, Nick, and Lindsay have all had releases this year. But in addition to these artists, it’s my mission to find and record the musicians who are going to carry blues into the future—the visionaries who have one foot in the tradition but are redefining the blues for a contemporary audience (without losing its essence).

Shemekia Copeland by Howie Greenblatt
Shemekia Copeland at Chicago Blues Fest
photo: Howard Greenblatt

Q. How do you see the future of the blues? You have been signing some exciting young talent that is going to keep the music alive by pushing it in to the future.

A. Blues music, of course, comes from a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. But it’s always changed and morphed to speak to contemporary audiences, to create the “tension and release” that is its hallmark, and to give people that healing feeling. It’s also been party and dance music, as well as telling real life stories, both happy and sad. So if blues is going to be a living music, and not a museum piece, it needs to evolve both lyrically and rhythmically to speak to today’s audiences. The stories have to resonate—I often tell artists, “Write a song that starts ‘I woke up this morning and my hard drive crashed.’” And blues should be danceable. When B.B. King was recording shuffles in 1955, people were dancing to shuffles. Now many blues artists are still recording shuffles, but few people under the age of 50 would dance to that beat. Why not blues with hip-hop beats, or other beats that are popular today. How can we expect younger people to become fans if the music is reworking beats and lyrics that are decades old? My big fear is that blues will become like New Orleans jazz—a form frozen in time. For this not to happen, older blues fans have to welcome ‘new blues’. Not just hot rocking guitar solos (hardly new anymore) but different grooves and different lyrics. Muddy Waters didn’t regurgitate Robert Johnson and Son House. He made something modern (for his time) from their music. That kind of reimagining of the blues (without losing the tradition) is essential for the future.

Also—part of the future of the blues is reaching new audiences. I’m thrilled that, as of just this month, much of the Alligator catalog is available on the biggest streaming services in China. Blues speaks so loud and clear that even people who don’t understand the words can be moved by it. I’m counting on millions of future Chinese blues fans. They just need to hear the music!

Q. Right now the vast majority of blues fans are getting up there in years. Will the young artists help create new young blues fans? Any examples of who is already doing this?

A. I am seeing some more young faces in blues audiences these days. There are some younger artists like Selwyn Birchwood (a real visionary), Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Jamiah Rogers, Marquise Knox and others whom younger fans can relate to because they are more their own age. But reaching younger audiences is a definite challenge. I have been wishing that there might be a real blues/hip-hop fusion band. I’d love to hear electric guitar, harmonica, drums and a turntablist playing together, with both singing and some relevant rapping (minus the hos and bitches).

Q. Any other thoughts as to how to help keep the blues going in the future?

A. We could sure use some help from the media. Radio still means a lot. It would be great if both black-oriented and album rock radio stations would throw in a taste of blues. On the internet side, XM Sirius ‘segregates’ blues to one station. A little more imaginative programming on XM Sirius would be great. Their blues station is good, but how about a little blues on their rock stations?

Q. And finally, after the reader has finished the last chapter and closed the book, what do you hope they will take away from it?

A. Ultimately the blues speaks for itself. If the music doesn’t move you, my words won’t. But if the music does move you, I hope that the book will give you greater insight into the artists who create the music, the culture from which it springs, how recordings are made and marketed, and thus make hearing the records and seeing the artists live even more rewarding and fun.

Q. Thank you for your time and for all you have done for the music, the artists and the fans over the last 50 years.

It’s truly been my pleasure. My life has been so much more exciting and rewarding than I ever could have imagined. I’ve been in the presence of greatness, and sometimes helped those great artists to record music that will stand as their legacies. I see my role as a bridge—on one side are the artists and on the other side is their potential audience. It’s my job to bring the artists and the audiences together.

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