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Chicago’s Alligator Records celebrates 50th anniversary in ‘home of the blues’

The Edgewater-based record label has a roster of blues legends including Koko Taylor, Lil’ Ed Williams, Shemekia Copeland and former CTA bus driver Toronzo Cannon, among many others.

on the North Side, Wednesday afternoon, June 9, 2021. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
Lil’ Ed Williams (from left), Billy Branch, Bruce Iglauer and Toronzo Cannon chat in the office of Alligator Records in Edgewater.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Bruce Iglauer, founder and president of independent Blues record label Alligator Records, says he initially came to Chicago in 1966 as a “blues pilgrim” who wanted to check out the University of Chicago Folk Festival.

Decades later, ahead of Mayor Lori Lightfoot declaring June 18 as “Alligator Records Day” in Chicago, Iglauer is looking back at the nuances of starting an influential record label in a blues mecca.

“I’ve recorded blues artists all over the country, but I started here in Chicago because this is still the home of the blues in this country,” said Iglauer, a Wyoming, Ohio, native who founded Alligator Records in 1971. “This is still the city with more active blues musicians and more active blues clubs than any other. I call myself a blues pilgrim because I came here for the blues, and I could have ran this label from Cincinnati; it wouldn’t have been the same label. It feels great.”

 Wednesday afternoon, June 9, 2021. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
Bruce Iglauer, founder and head of the independent blues record label Alligator Records, reads a proclamation from Mayor Lori Lightfoot, declaring June 18 “Alligator Records Day” throughout the city of Chicago, in his office in Edgewater.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Iglauer and Alligator Records won’t rest on their laurels for long. In fact, the label’s legendary roster of blues artists — many of them directly influenced by one another, including Hound Dog Taylor, Koko Taylor, Shemekia Copeland, Nick Moss, Lil’ Ed Williams (leader of Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials), Toronzo Cannon, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, and Selwyn Birchwood — are featured on the Edgewater-based label’s anniversary release, “Alligator Records: 50 Years Of Genuine Houserockin’ Music,” which be available June 18 on LP and three-disc CD set.

“When I started I had $2,500 — that’s all I had to invest,” said Iglauer. “So I made Hound Dog Taylor’s first record in eight hours in the studio, and we mixed it as we went because I couldn’t afford multitrack recording and mixing later. We just mixed it directly to track on the fly.”

The label’s name, Iglauer says, partly stems from the inability of some folks to pronounce his last name. And, over time, as he signed acts to the label, Iglauer says he got to know his artists through their music.

“Alligator was my nickname, and it comes from this funny habit I have of listening to music and unconsciously, not knowing I’m doing it, playing drum parts by clicking my teeth together,” said Iglauer. “I’ve got this weird last name — Iglauer — which nobody can spell or pronounce. And then beyond that, alligators come from the South; blues, the music I love, is all Southern-rooted.

, poses for a portrait in his office in Edgewater on the North Side, Wednesday afternoon, June 9, 2021. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
Bruce Iglauer, founder and head of the independent blues record label Alligator Records, is photographed in his office earlier this month.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

“[The blues] is grown-up music, for sure. Toronzo was raised by his grandparents who were blues fans. His mom was a teenager when he was born and she wasn’t ready to be raising kids. Lil’ Ed is a nephew of — in my world — a famous Chicago musician named J.B. Hutto who recorded starting in the 1950s and recorded into the early ’80s.”

Billy Branch, a singer and harmonica player, says Alligator Records emerged in an era when the music and its record companies were abundant. He calls the label “the last man standing.”

“There were quite a few Chicago labels, and Bruce has maintained a catalog of some of the greatest artists that ever lived,” said Branch, who first recorded music for the label in 1978. “I’m happy to say I was a part of maybe a dozen or more different Alligator recordings.”

Alligator Records artists Koko Taylor (from left), Son Seals and Lonnie Brooks.
Alligator Records artists Koko Taylor (from left), Son Seals and Lonnie Brooks are shown in an undated photo. The three artists are among the blues legends featured on the Chicago label’s roster.
Alligator Records

After garnering a stockpile of awards, fame and prestige, Alligator’s roster in recent years has produced music with a social justice aspect.

For instance, the aforementioned Cannon, a retired CTA bus driver and guitarist, has a song named “Insurance,” which details the horrors of not being able to afford health insurance, and Nick Moss’ “Sanctified, Holy And Hateful” is about how religion is utilized to fuel hate.

Alligator’s history and influence has made an impact on blues artists everywhere — and that bears fruit in the label’s current roster.

Cannon says he was influenced by several Alligator artists, not knowing they were all on the same label.

“When I first started practicing, I’d look to the famous guys to learn from,” said Cannon. “I didn’t know there was an Alligator Records. I didn’t have any concept of record companies. I was just buying stuff that sounds good.”

Ingram, a guitarist, joined Alligator in 2019. He says it’s not only an honor to be associated with blues heavyweights, he revels in carrying on the tradition.

“It’s humbling for me. I owe a big, big chunk of my career to the blues greats,” said Ingram, a Mississippi resident. “It’s awesome to be a part of something that’s stamped down in history, and can never be erased. I’m very grateful for the opportunity I’ve been given.”