Having moved to Chicago in January 1970 to work as a shipping clerk at Bob Koester’s Delmark Records, Alligator founder Bruce Iglauer initially started his own label for the sole purpose of recording Hound Dog Taylor after failing to persuade Koester to sign him (Taylor’s classic 1971 debut Hound Dog Taylor And The HouseRockers was also Alligator’s first). Taylor is represented here by Take Five, the smoking opener of his second album Natural Boogie from 1974, his stinging, distorted slide played on a cheap Japanese guitar, backed by Brewer Phillips on Telecaster, with Ted Harvey (on drums) producing an influential bass-less sound. Both Taylor and Iglauer favoured passion over polish and Alligator has continued to make its name by providing raw, spirited blues-based music over a catalogue of nearly 300 albums.
When Taylor went off on tour after the success of his first album, Son Seals took his gig at the Expressway Lounge in Chicago. Iglauer heard Seals there and signed him, releasing The Son Seals Blues Band in 1973, from which Cotton Picking Blues is drawn, showcasing Seals’ intense, howling guitar soloing.
Gale-voiced former Chess Records singer Koko Taylor became justifiably known as the Queen Of The Blues during her time at Alligator, and it’s clear why when listening to her belt out the tough Voodoo Woman from her Grammy-nominated 1975 label debut I Got What It Takes. Johnny Winter recorded a trio of albums for Alligator in the mid-80s, too, and his scorching blues-rock version of Elmore James’ Shake Your Moneymaker, from Third Degree, reunites him with his original rhythm section, bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Uncle John ‘Red’ Turner, recapturing the feel of his 1969 breakthrough.
‘Alligator made its name in raw, spirited blues.’
Alligator’s reputation doesn’t just rest on past glories from the 70s and 80s, though, as demonstrated by Shemekia Copeland’s afrobeat-influenced cover of her father Johnny Copeland’s Devil’s Hand, a highlight of her superb 2015 album Outskirts Of Love (declared the best blues album of last year by The Blues). Other standout tracks from recent years include former Paul Butterfield Blues Band guitarist Elvin Bishop’s wry Can’t Even Do Wrong Right, CTA bus driver Toronzo Cannon’s contemporary Chicago blues Bad Contract, and Moreland & Arbuckle’s harmonica-wailing, country-tinged blues-rocker, Take Me With You (When You Go).
Blues giants such as James Cotton (with Joe Bonamassa) and Albert Collins sit comfortably next to cult heroes Lazy Lester and Billy Boy Arnold and newer artists Selwyn Birchwood and Jarekus Singleton, and despite the non-chronological programming, everything flows. It’s not all straight blues – Mavis Staples’ excellent remake of the traditional Will The Circle Be Unbroken is soulful gospel, while ex-Stray Cats bass player Lee Rocker’s Crazy When She Drinks is rockabilly – but everything is united by a straight-from-the-heart delivery and an unvarnished sound.
This is an excellent and expertly selected sampler of a label that perhaps more than any other has helped keep the blues alive. Over four decades and countless sides later, Alligator still reliably delivers the ‘Genuine Houserockin’ Music’ the label’s slogan promises.