A Big Bite of the Blues

The myths about blues music—that it's outdated and all sounds the same—are dispelled by The Alligator Records 25th Anniversary Collection. Alligator is recording the variety and vitality of the blues, present and future. The myths are history.

This double-CD collection lets you hear 38 different artists, and the liner notes indicate countless more playing backup (Stevie Ray Vaughan with Lonnie Mack, for instance). Three cuts are previously unreleased, which is a treat in itself, and the rest are available on complete collections from each artist. It's like having your own listening booth to check out Koko Taylor's soul, Son Seals' baritone, Cephas and Wiggins' Piedmont picking, or Michael Hill's lyrics.

The spectacular music on this collection isn't the only reason to buy it: The reputation and history of Alligator Records are worth supporting as well. In 1971, Bruce Iglauer, a white guy from Cincinnati who fell in love with the blues as a university student in Wisconsin, recorded and then pressed 1,000 copies of Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers with a $2,500 inheritance check. (Iglauer's first contact with the blues was hearing Mississippi Fred McDowell in 1966.) As the first album sold, Iglauer was able to record the next one (Big Walter Horton); as it sold, the next one came out (Son Seals), and so on.

Until 1978, Iglauer only recorded Chicago blues musicians. Albert Collins was the first from beyond the Chicago scene, and zydeco musician Clifton Chenier's 1982 I'm Here! won Alligator its first Grammy award (though not its first nomination). Johnny Winter's decision in 1984 to return to his blues roots brought Alligator's first listing in Billboard's "Top 200" with Guitar Slinger.

Alligator's catalog now contains 150 titles, a slew of Grammy nominations, and 51 W.C. Handy awards. Luther Allison's 1995 recording, Blue Streak, appeared in Guitar World's "Top Ten" albums last year and just won a Handy award this spring (as did Allison's song included here, "Cherry Red Wine," and Allison himself in three categories, including Blues Entertainer of the Year). And far from its Chicago-only days, now Alligator is recording blues musicians from all over the world. The name Alligator—derived from the way Iglauer clicks his teeth to the beat when he likes a song—has become synonymous with quality blues.

EACH SONG ON THIS collection is significant in its own way. The Charlie Musselwhite selection, "Stingaree," is a rare opportunity to hear this harp-master play guitar. The Albert Collins recording, with protege Johnny Copeland, is a previously unreleased track—even more valuable since Collins died in 1993. So also is the Roy Buchanan version of "Jack the Ripper," newly released here, a reminder of a talent that ended in 1988. C.J. Chenier is continuing his father Clifton's zydeco tradition with his Red Hot Louisiana Band covering "Man Smart, Woman Smarter."

Corey Harris, playing guitar in the Delta tradition, received three W.C. Handy nominations for his 1995 debut recording. Not bad for a guy in his mid-20s who didn't grow up in Mississippi and developed his technique in Africa! Steady Rollin' Bob Margolin is everywhere in the blues scene—writing his own songs, playing backup guitar for blues legends on the road, and penning a column for Blues Revue magazine.

Dave Hole, a blues-rock guitarist, will record his fourth Alligator CD this year and has already toured the United States twice. He learned the blues listening to records in his home in Perth, Australia. Saffire–The Uppity Blues Women are making history and forging the future with their female band. And Michael Hill's Blues Mob is singing the lyrics of the future: "I can't recall a time when so many children had the blues."

Long John Hunter, at 64 a newcomer to Alligator, is represented by the song "T-Bone Intentions," illustrating what is known as the "wide open El Paso sound." This one, along with William Clarke's tune "The Complainer's Boogie Woogie," are great to dance to, and Clarke's LA swing style captures another stream of the blues. Carey Bell's "Low Down Dirty Shame" is Chicago blues at its best (he was once the harmonica player in the Muddy Waters Band), and the Lonnie Brooks selection, with Johnny Winter sitting in, is a rocking toe-tapper. The cover of Aretha Franklin's "Baby, Baby, Baby," with Roy Buchanan on guitar and vocals by Delbert McClinton, is especially memorable. According to the notes, this beautiful ballad was recorded in "one heart-stopping take."

Musicians always talk about the tension between their enjoyment of the time they spend playing for enthusiastic crowds and the down-side of the biz—lining up gigs and traveling. Alligator Records helps to bridge that tension by making the music available outside of club gigs. And perhaps Alligator recordings, and the enthusiasm evident in Iglauer's notes, will get new listeners out to a live show. He says it this way: "Blues should be raw emotion. It should have looseness and humor and improvisation and give-and-take between the musicians and the audience." That's as good a definition of popular culture as I've heard lately!

The Alligator Records 25th Anniversary Collection. By various artists. Alligator Records, 1996.

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