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Bruce Iglauer eyeing next generation of blues artists

Alligator Records founder celebrates his label’s legacy with all-star blues revue this weekend.

Bruce Iglauer, founder and head of the independent blues record label Alligator Records.
Bruce Iglauer, founder and head of the independent blues record label Alligator Records.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

This year marks Alligator Records’ golden record as the homegrown Chicago blues label celebrates its incredible 50-year anniversary, having put out its “genuine houserockin’ music” since 1971. The occasion will be feted with the Alligator Records All-Star Blues Revue at Al Larson Prairie Center for the Arts on Oct. 23, a night featuring label stars Nick Moss, Billy Branch and Toronzo Cannon, and putting a spotlight on Alligator’s continued legacy.

“It was so much more exciting than anything I had ever had thought of for a career,” says founder Bruce Iglauer who still runs operations today at Alligator HQ in Rogers Park. When he was just 22 years old in 1970, Iglauer headed to Chicago on a sojourn to the music mecca like so many of the great blues artists ahead of him. Like them, he was captivated by the sound coming out of the West and South Side clubs and was determined to be part of it all, calling those formative years a “voyage of discovery” when his ears were attuned to those rich guitar sounds and the people making them.

In the 50 years since, Alligator Records has put out 350 titles with a massive roster over the years that has included greats like Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, Albert Collins, Shemekia Copeland, Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials, Marcia Ball, Billy Branch and newcomers like 22-year-old guitar prodigy Christone “Kingfish” Ingram. Alligator Records has become the defining exclusive blues label in the country while Iglauer has become a prominent figurehead in the genre.

Iglauer is also one who has helped steer the vision of the Chicago Blues Festival, working from the beginning with former mayor Harold Washington and Lois Weisberg, the city’s first Commissioner of Cultural Affairs. Today it remains the largest and only free event of its kind in the world.

But if you ask Iglauer, he’s not content to just rest on his laurels and look at a career well-honed. There’s still work to be done. “I’m worried about the next 50 years!” he admits, particularly concerned about who’s going to carry the legacy of the blues going forward. “I’ve been so fortunate to help be a bridge between artists and audiences, and I’d love to do this for another 50 years, but just in case I can’t I’m really focused on launching more careers.

“I’m looking all the time, especially at younger artists … artists that are proud to be part of the tradition but making statements for today and tomorrow.”

He points to a Buddy Guy protege, 22-year-old Kingfish, who Iglauer hails as “the emerging blues artist of his generation,” as well as 36-year-old Selwyn Birchwood, who writes songs about current societal issues like police brutality and the effects of addiction. And of course Chicagoan Toronzo Cannon, who will be playing the All-Star Blues Revue this weekend. “Toronzo sings about love and loss, but also about life on West Side and dealing with violence. He’s trying to push the envelope of what is blues music,” says Iglauer of his signee.

Cannon, who’s working on his third album for Alligator and will be debuting songs in the upcoming set, says of the label, “They treat their musicians like you are important. I used to have to do it all by myself, trying to get gigs, not even knowing what I was worth. And now I can focus on the music. ... [Bruce] is keeping blues out there and alive, and that’s a feat in itself.”