‘Genuine Houserockin’ Music roars: Alligator turns 50

Queen of the Blues Koko Taylor with Alligator Records President and founder Bruce Iglauer. Marc Norberg / Alligator Records

Fifty years ago this past May, Chicagoan Bruce Iglauer made a lifelong commitment to the music he was head over heels over, and specifically to one hellacious band. Iglauer launched Alligator Records with the sole purpose of documenting the raw energy of Hound Dog Taylor and the House Rockers, and presenting it to the world.

The band’s high-spirited, low-budget sets at Florence’s Lounge on Chicago’s South Side in the early 1970s inspired the phrase “Genuine Houserockin’ Music.” Ever since, it’s been Alligator’s slogan, and fortunately in a broad sense, its constant credo. The label’s roster of artists, which has included up-and-comers and legends alike, have presented music second to none in variety and quality. Taylor and the House Rockers’ signature rip, “Give Me Back My Wig,” properly begins this salute to one of America’s premier blues labels.     

Each of the 57 songs in the set (nearly four hours of music on three CDs) makes a huge impression. I bought my first Alligator vinyl album forty-one years ago. Albert Collins’ “Frostbite” had a few scratches on it right out of the shrink wrap, but I quickly came to realize that those blemishes blended right in with the experience. Collins’ hearty blues sounded like history, and history has its dents. “Blue Monday Hangover,” a Don Robey tune from “Frostbite,” features neat snatches of honestly copped Jimmy Reed, and plenty of absolutely soul-piercing, “Ice Man” guitar playing.  

Guitars figure prominently in Alligator’s blues. All shapes and sizes and sounds of them, from Luther Allison’s hair-raising barrage, to Johnny Winter’s incendiary daggers. From Roy Buchannan’s precision shredding, to the sweet Piedmont-plucking of Cephas & Wiggins. Imagine Lil’ Ed Williams leading his Blues Imperials through “What You See is What You Get” — pure Chicago romping at its finest — by duck-walking his axe down the length of a bar top, as he frequently did. Tinsley Ellis, long an Alligator mainstay like Lil’ Ed, lays out some of his signature Georgia grease for his tough-as-nails “Ice Cream in Hell.” Tommy Castro’s roadhouse rocker “Makin’ it Back to Memphis” features his altogether different kind of ripping — Memphis-inflected, but California durable and cool. Joe Louis Walker, another great left coast guitarist, plays his very own style of siren-stinging guitar during “I Won’t Do That.” But Walker’s also one hell of a gospel-styled soul shouter.        

Yes, Iglauer and the folks at Alligator certainly know their singers, too. There may be hard-edged guitar in much of the Holmes Brothers’ music, but sinewy gospel singing was that band’s shining hallmark. Then there’s Corey Harris and Henry Butler’s punchy, hopeful voices in the traditional “Why Don’t You Live So God Can Use You?” Toe-tappin’ and clappin’ as they go, the two men deliver an encouraging, a cappella message for the ages. And from one of Alligator’s most recent albums, the illustrious, seemingly everlasting soul singer Curtis Salgado testifies that “The Longer That I Live,” “the older I wanna get.” More positivity from a positively riveting singer. All in all, this is the most entertaining modern blues compilation I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard many.

-Tom Clarke  

ALCD 5000
  • Alligator Records 50 Years of Genuine Houserockin’ Music
  • Various Artists
  • Label: Alligator Records
  • Release: June 18, 2021

Up next: Tahoe Onstage interviews Alligator President and founder Bruce Iglauer

Hound Dog Taylor photo by Diane Allmen

No one made a more wonderfully glorious racket than Hound Dog, Brewer Phillips and Ted Harvey. Before cutting their first album, they filled the little South Side clubs, boogie-ing all night long on cheap guitars and decrepit amplifiers. When someone requested a song, Hound Dog would holler “I’m wit’you, baby, I’m wit’you!” Only four years passed between their debut album and Hound Dog’s death, but they built such a fanatic audience that they played New York’s Philharmonic Hall and toured as far away as Australia and New Zealand. Hound Dog said, “When I die, they’ll say ‘he couldn’t play shit, but he sure made it sound good!’” He sure did.

DISC ONE
1. Hound Dog Taylor & The HouseRockers Give Me Back My Wig (3:31)
2. Koko TaylorI’m A Woman (4:36)
3. Big Walter Horton with Carey Bell Have Mercy (3:45)
4. Fenton Robinson Somebody Loan Me A Dime (2:54)
5. Professor Longhair It’s My Fault, Darling (4:54)
6. Son Seals Telephone Angel (5:25)
7. Johnny Winter Lights Out (2:35)
8. Albert Collins Blue Monday Hangover (5:35)
9. James Cotton Little Car Blues (3:32)
10. Albert Collins, Robert Cray & Johnny Copeland The Dream (5:28)
11. William Clarke Pawnshop Bound (4:22)
12. Lonnie Mack Riding the Blinds (Live) (4:12)
13. Lonnie Brooks Cold Lonely Nights (Live) (5:33)
14. Luther Allison Soul Fixin’ Man (Live) (4:03)
15. Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown Got My Mojo Working (4:45)
16. Saffire–The Uppity Blues Women Sloppy Drunk (3:06)
17. Roy Buchanan That Did It (5:07)
18. The Paladins Keep On Lovin’ Me, Baby (4:02)

DISC TWO
1. Michael Burks Love Disease (3:20)
2. Kenny Neal I’m A Blues Man (4:11)
3. The Holmes Brothers Run Myself Out Of Town (3:26)
4. Little Charlie & The Nightcats Jump Start (2:54)
5. Katie Webster I’m Still Leaving You (3:36)
6. Smokin’ Joe Kubek & Bnois King Don’t Lose My Number (3:32)
7. The Kinsey Report Corner Of The Blanket (3:34)
8. Carey Bell I Got A Rich Man’s Woman (4:43)
9. C.J. Chenier & The Red Hot Louisiana Band Au Contraire, Mon Frere (3:39)
10. Mavis Staples There’s A Devil On The Loose (3:34)
11. Michael Hill’s Blues Mob Presumed Innocent (4:37)
12. Steady Rollin’ Bob MargolinNot What You Said Last NIght (2:49)
13. Billy Boy Arnold Man Of Considerable Taste (4:31)
14. Cephas & Wiggins Ain’t Seen My Baby (3:23)
15. Long John Hunter Marfa Lights (4:53)
16. Dave Hole Phone Line (3:42)
17. Eric Lindell Josephine (2:45)
18. Joe Louis Walker I Won’t Do That (5:01)
19. Janiva Magness That’s What Love Will Make You Do (3:22)
20. The Siegel-Schwall Band Going Back To Alabama (3:40)
21. Corey Harris & Henry Butler Why Don’t You Live So God Can Use You? (2:11)

DISC THREE
1. Marcia Ball Party Town (4:16)
2. Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials What You See Is What You Get (4:21)
3. Roomful Of Blues In A Roomful Of Blues (3:31)
4. Billy Branch & The Sons Of Blues Blue and Lonesome (4:11)
5. Christone “Kingfish” Ingram Outside Of This Town (4:08)
6. Shemekia Copeland Clotilda’s On Fire (4:26)
7. Curtis Salgado The Longer That I Live (3:51)
8. Selwyn Birchwood Living In A Burning House (4:08)
9. Elvin Bishop & Charlie Musselwhite Midnight Hour Blues (4:14)
10. The Cash Box Kings Ain’t No Fun (When The Rabbit’s Got The Gun) (4:42)
11. Tommy Castro & The Painkillers Make It Back To Memphis (Live) (4:55)
12. JJ Grey & Mofro A Woman (Live) (3:24)
13. Rick Estrin & The Nightcats I’m Running (4:06)
14. Coco Montoya You Didn’t Think About That (3:56)
15. Tinsley Ellis Ice Cream In Hell (4:13)
16. Chris Cain You Won’t Have A Problem When I’m Gone (3:08)
17. Guitar Shorty Too Late (4:14)
18. The Nick Moss Band featuring Dennis Gruenling The High Cost of Low Living (4:04)
19. Toronzo Cannon The Chicago Way (4:22)

Tinsley Ellis photo by Regan Kelly
One of Alligator’s most-recorded artists, Tinsley blew out of Atlanta in the late 1980s and became a blues-rock guitar hero with his Alligator debut, Georgia Blue. He blends Southern Rock and hard-edged blues with tough vocals and a raft of original songs honed in front of his intensely devoted fans. He’s a bonafide road warrior, playing over a hundred shows a year. Tinsley is a master at choosing the perfect notes to wring the maximum emotion out of a solo. Rolling Stone says he plays “feral blues guitar…his eloquence dazzles…he achieves pyrotechnics that rival Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton.”

Johnny Winter was a famous rock star when he reached out to Alligator in 1984. Bursting out of Texas, he had packed arenas in the 1970s and could still fill concert halls nationwide. He had recorded a dozen albums, scored radio hits, and was renowned for his furious guitar stylings and gravelly voice. But Johnny was tired of being considered a heavy rock guitar hero; he wanted to get back to his blues roots. Dick Shurman and I put together an all-star Chicago band for Johnny. With true bluesmen roaring behind him and famed saxman Gene “Daddy G” Barge as a guest, Johnny lit a fire with this obscure New Orleans tune.

Johnny Winter photo by Paul Natkin

Son Seals photo by Randy Anglin
When Son joined the label, he was 31, a recent immigrant from Arkansas, and an unknown artist who didn’t even have enough gigs to keep a full-time band. I first experienced his unvarnished emotional power and attack at the Expressway Lounge on the South Side, and knew immediately that he was something special. He was Alligator’s third signing. Over the next few years, Son emerged as one of the premier Chicago bluesmen of his generation. He recorded eight Alligator albums. With Midnight Son, he was able to fulfill his dream of arranging his songs to include a horn section. Rolling Stone hailed the album as “A giant step by a major blues talent.”  

With his fervent vocals, red-hot guitar, dynamite band and a raft of original songs, Bay Area-based Tommy Castro has earned his legions of devoted fans the old-fashioned way…one rocking gig at a time. He’s been recording for over 25 years and has played thousands of shows. Tommy lives in the space where blues, soul music and good old rock ‘n’ roll meet, and he’s a master of all of them. He’s famous for his high-energy performances, leaving his audiences exhausted and 100 percent satisfied.

Tommy Castro photo by Bob Haskins

Lil’ Ed and The Blues Imperials photo by Paul Nakin
Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials, more than any other band now on the label, personify our original raw and raucous “Genuine Houserockin’ Music” spirit. Ed and his half-brother James “Pookie” Young grew up on Chicago’s tough West Side. They learned the old school sound and style from their beloved uncle, Chicago slide guitarist J.B. Hutto, who had started recording in the 1950s. Michael Garrett and Kelly Littleton, blues pilgrims from Detroit, joined Ed and Pookie almost 35 years ago. They’ve been together ever since, delivering joyful boogies and serious slide-driven Chicago blues.  
Saffire—The Uppity Blues Women photo by Rebecca Sell
This acoustic trio from Fredericksburg, Virginia were one of the blues’ unlikeliest success stories. The late pianist/guitarist/vocalist Ann Rabson had been playing for 30 years when she began giving guitar lessons to award-winning schoolteacher and activist Gaye Adegbalola. Gaye developed into a strong guitarist and harmonica player and a standout vocalist in the sassy Bessie Smith tradition. With the addition of Andra Faye on vocals, bass, guitar and mandolin, plus a heap of original songs ranging from traditional blues to hilarious takes on middle-aged sexuality to forceful social/political statements, they became one of our most popular bands. They made eight Alligator albums between 1990 and 2009. Sloppy Drunk features Ann’s two-fisted piano playing and vocals.
Bruce Iglauer photo by Chris Monaghan

“As I write this, all the normally hard-touring Alligator artists are at home, waiting out the worldwide pandemic so they can get in front of audiences again. It’s been a tough year for them, and for the label, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and soon we’ll all be able to come together again and share some more Genuine Houserockin’ Music. “
– Bruce Iglauer

ABOUT Tom Clarke

Tom Clarke
From pre-war blues to the bluegrass of the Virginia hills, Tom Clarke has a passion for most any kind of deep-rooted American music, and has been writing about it for 25 years. He’s particularly fond of anything from Louisiana, Los Lobos, and the Allman Brothers Band and its ever-growing family tree. Tom’s reviews and articles have appeared in BluesPrint, the King Biscuit Times, Hittin’ The Note, Kudzoo, Blues Revue, Elmore, Blues Music Magazine, and now, Tahoe Onstage. Tom and his wife Karen have raised four daughters in upstate New York. They split their time between the Adirondack Mountains and coastal South Carolina.

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