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Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer on 50 years of celebrating the Blues

(SOUNDBITE OF HOUND DOG TAYLOR SONG, "GIVE ME BACK MY WIG")

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Began 50 years ago - Bruce Iglauer wanted his boss, the late Bob Koester from Delmark Records, to release music from Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers. Bob Koester declined. Bruce Iglauer decided to strike out on his own, and Alligator Records was born.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIVE ME BACK MY WIG")

HOUND DOG TAYLOR: (Singing) Give me back my wig. Honey, now let your head go bald.

SIMON: That's Hound Dog Taylor's "Give Me Back My Wig," heard on the first record released by Alligator in 1971. And since then, the Grammy-winning label has featured artists that include Albert Collins, Marcia Ball, Robert Cray and Charlie Musselwhite. The founder of Alligator Records, Bruce Iglauer, joins us now.

Thanks very much for being with us, Bruce.

BRUCE IGLAUER: Thanks for inviting me.

SIMON: So what was it about Hound Dog Taylor that made you say, I'm going to strike out on my own and start Alligator?

IGLAUER: It was the happiest music I had ever heard. You know, Hound Dog didn't do slow, cry-in-your-beer blues. He did blues to make you drink your beer and get up and dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOUND DOG TAYLOR SONG, "GIVE ME BACK MY WIG")

IGLAUER: It was so raw, and it was so spontaneous. It was just three guys, two electric guitars and a drum set playing cheap equipment in a club that didn't even have a stage. And the music just made me want to dance...

SIMON: Yeah.

IGLAUER: ...And jump up and down. And it needed to be shared. It felt so great.

SIMON: You tipped us off to some tracks that we ought to listen to as we look back on 50 years of Alligator. Let's listen now to a woman - what an extraordinary voice - Koko Taylor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING GONNA BE ALRIGHT")

KOKO TAYLOR: (Singing) Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Everything, everything, everything going to be all right.

IGLAUER: You know, Koko - she was known as the queen of the Blues. But she didn't start her life that way. She started her life in intense poverty down in Tennessee.

SIMON: Yeah.

IGLAUER: She had to drop out of school in third grade to work on the family farm and take care of other people's kids. She came to Chicago in the back of a Greyhound bus with her future husband and, as she said, 35 cents and a box of Ritz crackers. She worked labor jobs. She worked as a housemaid. She worked as a laundress. And she would go out on the weekends and sit in in the blues clubs on the South Side and the West Side. I met Koko in 1972. And we began recording. And we worked together for 35 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M A WOMAN")

TAYLOR: (Singing) I'm a woman. I'm a ball of fire.

IGLAUER: I remember when she wrote "I'm A Woman." She called me up, and she said, you got to hear this. Come down to the house. And I drove down to the South Side. And she sang it a cappella in her living room. And I knew right then that it was going to be a blues anthem and that women were going to request it everywhere.

SIMON: Yeah.

IGLAUER: And that's exactly what happened.

SIMON: Let me ask you about some of the great, smoking guitar slingers. Let's listen to the great Albert Collins.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBERT COLLINS SONG, "TOO TIRED")

IGLAUER: By the time I met Albert in the mid-'70s, his career had slacked off. And like Koko Taylor, he had no band.

SIMON: Yeah.

IGLAUER: But he was such a great, fabulous guitar player. He played with bare hands, bare fingers. And his fingers were like steel. His whole hands were like big calluses - and Albert's huge amp turned up all the way. We were recording in a studio that had been made out of an old savings and loan. And the only way we could keep Albert's amp from leaking into every other microphone was we put it in the safe.

SIMON: (Laughter) Well, that'll do it, right?

IGLAUER: It worked fine.

SIMON: Yeah.

IGLAUER: It was amazing to me that he wasn't deaf. But, you know, I've known a few guitar players like that who play guitar from the toes up. They play guitar...

SIMON: Yeah.

IGLAUER: ...With their whole bodies - not just with their hands and arms. And Albert was like that. But offstage, he was soft-spoken and funny and very modest.

SIMON: Wow. OK - Shemekia Copeland.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLOTILDA'S ON FIRE")

SHEMEKIA COPELAND: (Singing) She's coming for you. Hear the chains rattle. Turn you into a slave - another piece of chattel. Across the seas, stormy waters show no mercy. She was Satan's daughter.

SIMON: This is "Clotilda's On Fire."

IGLAUER: It's a song about the very last slave ship that came to the United States - to Mobile, Ala., just before the Civil War. By that time, importing slaves was illegal, but they did it anyway. And in order to hide it, they burned the ship in the harbor after they unloaded the slaves. It was rediscovered only a few years ago. And it brought back all the memories of how close we still are to those years of slavery. Later in the song, she sings, we're still living with the ghost.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLOTILDA'S ON FIRE")

COPELAND: (Singing) We're still living with the ghost.

IGLAUER: And I think this last summer, we saw a lot of that. But she actually recorded it before Black Lives Matter. And it was held because of the pandemic. Shemekia came to Alligator when she was only 18. When I first heard her, if I had closed my eyes, I would have told you she was 40 years old and had lived a tough life for 40 years because there was so much knowledge in her singing. And she's just gotten better and better. I love the fact that she's getting outside of the traditional blues subject matter and singing songs that are for today's audience and tomorrow's audience. And I'm looking for more artists like that for the future of Alligator.

SIMON: Speaking of which, you got a brand-new release - Christone "Kingfish" Ingram from Clarksdale, Miss.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "662")

CHRISTONE KINGFISH INGRAM: (Singing) I come from a river town, talkin' 'bout nothing to do. Skeeters come out when the sun goes down, gets awful sticky too.

SIMON: He's 22 - world of living in that voice.

IGLAUER: Oh, yes, absolutely. Actually, he recorded his debut album when he was 18. He grew up in Clarksdale, right in the heart of the delta, right down the road from the legendary crossroads. However, he didn't learn blues from old men sitting on their front porches. He got fascinated by blues when he saw Muddy Waters on television when he was about 9 years old and convinced his family to buy him a guitar. And he just pours out the emotion.

SIMON: That's why the blues abide, isn't it, Bruce?

IGLAUER: Well, the blues was designed not to make you feel bad. When I first came to Chicago in 1970, a patron at one of the blues clubs said to me, you listen to the blues to get rid of the blues. You know, blues was created by horribly oppressed people down South - Black people down South. But the magic is that the music speaks to people all over the world. And it makes them feel better. It squeezes the pain out of you. It's a healing music. It's a music that's been easy for me to dedicate my whole career to. And it's a music that just keeps feeding me emotionally.

SIMON: Bruce Iglauer - 50 years at the head of Alligator Records. And you can hear a lot of that history in their three-CD set, "50 Years Of Genuine Houserockin' Music."

Bruce, thanks so much for being with us.

IGLAUER: Thanks for inviting me.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTONE KINGFISH INGRAM SONG, "662") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.