Blesok no. 26, May-June, 2002
An Obligation to Keep the Blues Alive
Interview with Bruce Iglauer
VI: When you look back now, after 30 years of work, what is the feeling of what you've done and what you've achieved?
BI: I'm very proud of what Alligator has done to increase the visibility of blues and to bring some very good artists to greater public attention. I always believed that the potential size of the blues audience was much greater than other labels thought (especially 30 years ago) and I always have wante dto reach new fans. So seeing Alligator become the biggest blues label also has meant seeing the blues audience grow overall. This is a great feeling.
As a producer, I'm very proud of the albums that I've been involved with artistically. That means more than half the Alligator catalog, including recordings by Son Seals, Hound Dog Taylor, Fenton Robinson, Koko Taylor, Albert Collins, Lonnie Brooks, Johnny Winter, Roy Buchanan, Lonnie Mack, Lil' Ed, Little Charlie, CJ Chenier, Katie Webster, Kenny Neal, and many, many more. I hope I've been able to push these artists to find new parts of their talent of which they were unaware, to create more, and to communicate better.
For me, blues is much more than a form of musical entertainment. It is a healing music, a music that soothes the soul. I hope that some of the records I've helped bring to the public have soothed souls.
VI: Did you expect to achieve such success and what was your idea when you released your first album by Hound Dog Taylor?
BI: I had NO vision for how large Alligator would grow when I recorded Hound Dog back in 1971. My dream was to sell enough of his records to record another artist. Later, when I had five artists and was acting as label, manager, agent, song publisher, publicist, radio promo man and shipping clerk, I dreamed of having one employee. Later I dreamed of moving the label out of my apartment. Now I have 17 employees, 200 albums, two small buildings, and 30 years. And still my dream is to make another record, and another and another.
VI: Where do you see yourself and Alligator in the next 30 years?
BI: That's a tough question. In 30 years I'll be 84. I hope I'll still be producing records and running Alligator. Blues is going to change a lot in the next decades. It may small very little like blues sounds today, but it will still have the tension and release, the healing quality, the lyrics that sing about real life, and some sense of being part of the tradition and the flow of yesterday's and today's blues. I hope that my ears will be big enough to hear the 'new blues' as it arises, and that the 'cutting edge' blues artists will be on Alligator. As we are the biggest blues label, I feel that, to some extent, the future of the blues is partly in my hands. So I feel a big responsibility.
VI: You have recorded and produced many blues people. Who were your personal favorites and why?
BI: This is a very hard question. My records are like children to me; I am attached to them all emotionally. I guess that my earliest times in the studio, when each record was an adventure, are still some of my favorites. When I think about my most exciting times in the studio, I guess I'd think of:
–My first Hound Dog Taylor record, which was my first production job. I knew the band and their songs intimately, but they still pulled out two songs I had never heard them do before. I had to make the whole record in two nights, so all things had to go perfectly.
–My only Professor Longhair record. He was such an idol for me, and it was a dream for me to record him. He was very gentle and personable to work with, but with a very high standard for himself. He'd ask for take after take, trying to perfect his own performances. When it turned out that he died on the day we released the record, I felt it was some kind of way of his saying to me that he had made the record he really wanted to make (he told me it was his favorite) and therefore could die.
–Showdown! Albert Collins and I were very close, and he was my biggest artist at that time, along with Johnny Winter and Roy Buchanan. Dick Shurman (my co-producer) and I had a vision of how good the album could be, but when it unfolded in front of us it was better than anything we anticipated. The love between the musicians was expressed in the music, and I don't think I ever had more fun in the studio
–the first Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials album, recorded in three hours with no expectation that we were going to do an album (just a few songs for an anthology). It was so rough and raw! I burned up a lot of adrenalin that night.
–and there are many more.
VI: Did you develop close, friendly relationships with your artists which are still of lasting character or it used to be just sort of business connections?
BI: I always want to have more than a business relationship with my artists. Sometimes I succeed, and other times we just do business. But many of my artists have been guests in my home, like Saffire, Bob Margolin, Lil' Ed (who lived with me for some weeks), Dave Hole and many others. Koko Taylor (who says that I'm like another husband to her) and Lonnie Brooks have entrusted me with the management of their careers. Son Seals and I saved each other's lives (and the lives of some other people too) in a train wreck in Norway in 1978. The members of Saffire and I are good friends, and we discuss many things besides music (politics quite a lot). All the musicians on Alligator have my home number, and often call me on the weekends or at night to discuss things that concern them. I like to record musicians whom I like and respect as people, and hope they feel the same about me.
VI: Are there any artists whou you wanted to have on the label, but for some reason it did not happen?
BI: Many. In particular, Joe Louis Walker (that could still happen), Jimmy Johnson (he signed with Delmark when I signed Lonnie Brooks after we made the Living Chicago Blues series, Sugar Blue (when he was very young), and more. But mostly I guess the artists I would have wanted to record were dead when I started Alligator. In particular, Elmore James and Sonny Boy Williamson.
VI: Running an independent blues label obviously has some advantages and disadvantages. What can you say about that?
BI: The big advantage is that I can make all my own artistic decisions. I choose who to sign, how many albums to make, whether to continue to work with the artist (even if he/she is not selling many albums) and especially what to keep in print (which I decide is everything). If I were with a major label, they would force me to take most of my catalog out of print when it got old, and I couldn't make albums with the artists I wanted to unless they were selling a lot. the big disadvantage is that I'm always worried about money, and I can never spend as much as I'd like either in the studio or in the promotion/marketing/advertising.
VI: What is your opinion on current blues scene and how do you predict its future?
BI: This is a very big, difficult question. I of course can't predict the future. I know that the blues is at a crucial time. With John Lee gone and BB quite old now, there is no clear figurehead for the image of blues worldwide in the future. When BB is no longer able to tour, many people will say 'blues is dead'. And the image of blues is very old fashioned now (when I was younger, blues was exotic and aggressive and exciting and different… but now it is heard a lot in movies and commercials and everyone knows a blues riff or two. They understand the outside but not the inside). So blues needs young artists who have current words to sing and stories to tell. It needs to have a broad definition, so that a younger audience won't think it sounds too old fashioned. It needs to break away from the traditonal chord changes, grooves and stories, but it must keep the emotional healing quality of blues, and it must stay in touch with the tradition but not copying it. My great fear is that blues will turn into the new version of Dixieland jazz, with songs done in the same manner over and over, no new songs, aging artists performing Sweet Home Chicago for tourists.
VI: Alligator Records and yourself are getting exposure everywhere, but it's not much known about your private life. Are you married, children? Are they supportive and liking the blues as you do?
BI: I was married briefly in the 1970s to a female blues fan. She had great taste in music but the marriage was doomed. I was a bachelor through the late 70s, 80s and 90s. In 1995 I married a wonderful woman who likes blues but not more than other kinds of music. I had known her for many years. She has two adult daughters whom I care for a lot. Her daughters have children, so I went from being a bachelor to a grandfather of six!
My wife lives north of Milwaukee, about 100 miles from Chicago. So I spend the week in Chicago and some weekends in Wisconsin with my wife. I'm there now. She has had a career in the legal system (providing services for crime victims and witnesses) and has written some laws and two books for children. Recently she has been teaching at a university here, but right now she is temporarily retired.
VI: When people hear your products, most of them know and say:” Yeah, that's the sound of Alligator!”. And no matter if it's blues, r&b or soul tinged material, there's something about the production that make people say that. Would you agree and if so, how do you manage to do that?
BI: I have heard this many times and I really disagree. I think that some of the albums that I myself produced or coproduced have some similar characteristics but this is also because I worked with some of the same engineers and studios for many years, and they became part of my 'sound'. As far as the records produced by others, their sounds vary a lot. The only thing in general I would say is that I like a big dynamic range, a 'physical' mix that you can feel as well as hear, a lot of 'transparency' so the instruments are quite clear, and a lot of ambience, so you feel the instruments and band in a room. I like a lot of live performance feel in my albums. It seems right for blues.
VI: Is there any special studio where you do recordings, do you have some special requirements regarding ecording facilities, equipment…?
BI: Not at the moment. I did my first six albums at the same studio and with the same engineer (Sound Studios in Chicago with Stu Black) then changed to a better situation (Curtom Studios with Freddie Breitberg) and then again (Streeterville Studios with Justin Niebank, and later the same studio with Jay Shilliday and David Axelbaum). But as I began to record more national artists and proportionally less Chicago artists, I have worked at a lot of different studios. Right now probably my favorite is Dockside in Maurice, Louisiana. I don't have one engineer that I'm in love with right now, but Jay Newland, who did Shemekia Copeland's albums in New York is close.
VI: Your Anniversary CDs are quite popular among blues fans (hope that many more will follow!), do you personally pick the tracks (tough job I guess?) which are your favorites or you try to make some overall picture of your recent production?
BI: I always pick the tracks myself, and it is a hard job. My staff gives me input about their favorites and I listen to them to some extent. There are certain tracks that I have a strong emotional feeling about even if they weren't the most popular song on the album. There are others that I just think are very good performances.
Today blues is getting exposure averywhere in the world and that's what's keeping it alive I think, though some blues purists claim that only black people can play the blues. Your opinion? I think that older black people who grew up in the blues tradition and the blues culture bring something to blues that many younger artists, black or white, don't bring. There is a difference between learning blues from listening to live musicians when you were young, and learning from records. Also, blues and gospel singing are closely related, and I think many of the best blues singers learned a lot about how to sing in black churches. I don't think there is a white blues singer who is as good as the best black blues singers. I also think that many (not all) black blues artists put more emphasis on lyrics and singing than white artists. But it seems to me that if you can FEEL the blues, then you should be able to perform the blues if you have musical talent. The feeling comes first.
VI: How do you see the future of the blues and Alligator's place in it?
BI: Blues is at a crucial 'moment' right now. With the last of the people who grew up in the 'blues culture' (like BB, Koko Taylor, Son Seals) getting old fast. There are still some younger black artists who learned from hearing live music, but most have learned from records, which makes them more like the white artists (and like me). With John Lee Hooker dead, this leaves BB as THE symbol of blues in the world. No one has stepped up to replace/succeed him, though Buddy Guy is the closest. But when BB retires or dies, the world may say 'the blues is dead.'
We need younger artists with a fresh, modern vision of blues (including lyrics and rhythms) that speaks to the concerns and sensibilities of a contemporary audience. Blues cannot become stagnant. My worst fear is that blues will become like Dixieland jazz–a formula of familiar songs played in familiar ways. Blues must maintain its intense, healing element, which is the element that distinguishes it from other kinds of music. I hope Alligator will be the vehicle for some of these new artists to make their statement. As the most successful blues label, we have an obligation to keep the blues alive, fresh and relevant.
VI: Where do you see yourself and Alligator in the next 30 years?