Alligator Records Pilots a Blues Time Machine on 50th Anniversary Collection
Fifty years ago, Bruce Iglauer founded a record label based on Hound Dog Taylor’s gloriously fuzzy, raucous, and rattly guitar. The six-fingered guitarist cranked out his brand of houserockin’ blues with a slide repurposed from a kitchen table leg backed by the frenetic drumming of Ted Harvey and Brewer Phillips’ muscular, menacing bass lines. Iglauer says the label’s “Genuine Houserockin’ Music” motto came from the flyer for Alligator’s 1971 initial release, Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers.
“Give Me Back My Wig,” Taylor’s signature tune, leads off Alligator Records’ 50th anniversary celebration with nearly three and a half minutes of glorious, distorted mayhem courtesy of a cheap Japanese guitar, over-driven amp, and Taylor’s party-like-there’s-no-tomorrow attitude that still brings a smile to listeners’ faces after all these years.
You could spend years perusing the stuff on this three-CD or two-vinyl collection and analyzing what it meant to spreading the gospel of the blues. But it’s almost as satisfying just to lay back and listen to these masters sharing their musical gifts. Iglauer is as gifted a curator as he is a label head, dredging up cuts from his catalog that are often not the best known. The selections are intriguing enough to draw you in if you’re a newbie or bring you back to beloved territory once again if you’re a ‘Gator vet.
50 Years of Genuine Houserockin’ Music is a time machine, flashing you back to treasures like Iglauer discovery Son Seals’ searing guitar and fiery vocal on “Telephone Angel,” from 1976’s Midnight Son, which still raises blisters on uninitiated ear canals and tickles old calluses on those in the know.
Johnny Winter’s take on the Dr. John-penned 1958 rock and roll classic “Lights Out” sounds like it was based on Little Richard’s 1956 “Heebie Jeebies,” but was originally recorded by 17-year-old New Orleans native Jerry Byrne, vocalist for The Loafers, Mac Rebennack’s band pre-Dr. John. Art Neville played piano on the original. Winter’s remake doesn’t leave any room for a piano solo, relying on a sustained blast from Daddy’s G’s sax with Winter’s blistering guitar filling in all the rest of the spaces.
Gatemouth Brown’s itchy-twitchy version of “I’ve Got My Mojo Working” from 1989s Standing My Ground is light years away from any other approach to the old blues chestnut with a big-band, horn-heavy take that still rocks the house.
The Holmes Brothers’ gospel/soul/blues blend was an irresistible draw for fans on both sides of the aisle. With Wendell on lead guitar and brother Sherman on bass with honorary brother Popsy Dixon on drums, the trio produced celestial three-part harmony that was as welcome down below as it was on higher ground. “Run Myself Out of Town” from 2003’s Simple Truths, narrated by Wendell’s gravely soulful lead, has everything you need to throw your own house party.
Mavis Staples regained her standing in funky gospel soul royalty thanks to her performance on 2004’s Have A Little Faith. “There’s a Devil on the Loose” is Staples at her messianic peak on a sensual soul-soaked gospel protest song.
As listeners have picked up on through the years, even though Iglauer’s core is blues, he’s always been open to blends. Eric Lindell’s is some of the most eclectic of the lot, featuring New Orleans second line/soul/honky-tonk fusion on his 2008 original “Josephine,” like Delbert McClinton celebrating Mardi Gras in Austin.
Iglauer always has an ear out of new talent as well. Twenty-two-year-old Clarksdale, Mississippi, native Cristone “Kingfish” Ingram is one of his latest discoveries, a powerful child prodigy mentored by Buddy Guy and Keb’ Mo’ and boosted by Bootsy Collins, Ingram dusts off old roots and makes them sound youthful, injecting a strong dose of fertilizer to bring a healthy blue-tinged glow to his new crop as he demonstrates on “Outside of This Town” from 2019’s Kingfish.
And then there’s Shemekia Copeland, the starship of the fleet, bombastic blues healer with a blast furnace in her belly that burns up the competition. 2020’s Uncivil War was an album that mixed protest songs with Dr. John funk and a Webb Wilder duet with Duane Eddy. Jason Isbell’s guitar backs Copeland on “Clothilda’s on Fire,” the stunning account of the voyage of the last slave ship to reach US shores.
Just surviving for 50 years is a feat any label can be proud of. But to do it with such class and vision as Alligator has done and continues to do deserves recognition and support as well as best wishes to continue and prosper for the good of all of us blues lovers.