Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer honored in Washington for 50th anniversary of Chicago blues label

Alligator was Bruce Iglauer’s “brainchild,” born after Iglauer, 75, fell hard for the blues he heard at clubs on Chicago’s South and West Sides in his twenties.

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Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer (from left), blues artist Shemekia Copeland and Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., gather at event in Washington, D.C., honoring the label’s 50th anniversary.

Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer (from left), blues artist Shemekia Copeland and Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., gather at an event in Washington, D.C., honoring the label’s 50th anniversary.

Lynn Sweet/Sun-Times

WASHINGTON — If I can’t be in Chicago to hear the blues (“Sweet Home Chicago” is my walk-up song when I bat for my softball team), the blues came to me last week, in a celebration marking the music and the man, Bruce Iglauer — the founder of the Chicago-based independent blues record label Alligator Records — who for more than 50 years now, makes sure the genre endures.

“I’ve been trying to explain to Bruce all night that this night is about him” and his “tremendous accomplishment keeping Alligator going for over 50 years,” said blues great Shemekia Copeland, an Alligator recording artist for some 25 years.

“It’s amazing. You’ve lasted from disco to macarena. Not a whole lot of labels can say that,” said Copeland, who the day before snared a best contemporary blues album Grammy nomination for her latest, “Done Come Too Far.”

Alligator records founder Bruce Iglauer was honored recently by the recording industry for his lifetime of fostering blues music.

Bruce Iglauer founded blues label Alligator Records in 1971 in Chicago.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The Nov. 16 event was hosted by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) at its downtown headquarters with the American Association of Independent Music — known as A2IM — and Exceleration Music. The RIAA’s loft-like space became a blues club as Copeland, with guitarist Arthur Neilson, performed. The hors d’oeuvres paid homage to Chicago, too: tiny deep dish pizzas, small Italian beefs and hot dogs.

Alligator, as Richard James Burgess, the president and CEO of A2IM, noted, was Iglauer’s “brainchild,” born after Iglauer, now 75, moved to Chicago, a self-described “blues pilgrim.” He fell for the blues he heard at clubs on Chicago’s South and West Sides — in the city’s Black neighborhoods — in his 20s.

“Bruce has done more for the blues and its related genres over the last 50 years than any other person I can think of,” Burgess said. “And bear in mind this was a period during which the blues was rarely a frontline genre.

“...Not only did Bruce preserve, perpetuate and progress the blues as a genre, but his contribution is also geographically important since Chicago blues occupies a particularly critical place in the development of rock music.

“Chicago, of course, was where the great migration converted acoustic country blues into the electric blues that in turn inspired the early ’60s British blues revival movement that produced some of rock’s biggest and most enduring acts such as Rolling Stones, Cream and Led Zeppelin,” he said.

From his start watching acts at Theresa’s, Florence’s and Pepper’s Lounge, Iglauer would go on to record blues legends Hound Dog Taylor, Son Seals, Koko Taylor, Buddy Guy, Magic Slim, Junior Wells and many others through the decades.

“The blues is a unique art form, it’s the trunk of the tree from which has sprung many branches. It is quintessential among American Black musics, born of African roots and raised in the harshness of Black American life through the early half of the 20th century,” Burgess said.

Guitarist Arthur Neilson and blues artist Shemekia Copeland perform in Washington, D.C., at a recent celebration honoring Alligator Records and its founder Bruce Iglauer. 

Guitarist Arthur Neilson and blues artist Shemekia Copeland perform in Washington, D.C., at a recent celebration honoring Alligator Records and its founder Bruce Iglauer.

Alligator’s 50th was marked last year when Mayor Lori Lightfoot proclaimed June 18, 2021, as “Alligator Records Day” in Chicago. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., on Dec. 30 put in the Congressional Record a short Chicago blues history and Iglauer’s role in advancing the “American cultural legacy of Chicago blues music” through his Alligator label, based in East Rogers Park.

At the Washington event, Schakowsky sat next to Iglauer as he was being honored, and when it was her turn to speak she recalled how back in the day he used his savings to record Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers. Alligator Records, she said, did “something no one else did do, no one else could do.”

Summing up the Alligator story of the last 50 years, Iglauer said his mission remains, “to bring the sound of Sweet Home Chicago from those little West Side clubs, to hundreds of thousands of people.

“You know, Koko Taylor used to say, ‘bless the bridge that carries you across.’ And what I’ve tried to do with Alligator is be the bridge that unites the artists with their potential audience with people who love them if they ever hear them.”

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