*If You Have To Know (Mack, Drummond, Jennings & Vaughan, Mack's Flying V Music/Barnyard Music/Warner-Tamerlane Publishing/Blue Sky Rider Songs, BMI & Ray Vaughan Music, ASCAP)
*If You Have To Know (Mack, Drummond, Jennings & Vaughan, Mack's Flying V Music/Barnyard Music/Warner-Tamerlane Publishing/Blue Sky Rider Songs, BMI & Ray Vaughan Music, ASCAP)
Original 1996 liner notes
In the middle of a March night in 1992, a chartered bus pulled away from a small warehouse in a seedy neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side and headed for the interstate highway. Its storage bays were packed to the gills with guitar amplifiers, drums, keyboards and luggage, and on its seats were sprawled eighteen dozing musicians.
The musicians were among the cream of the blues world. From Chicago came three bands—the gritty-voiced Queen Of The Blues, Koko Taylor, and her hard-edged Blues Machine; the slashing guitarist Lonnie Brooks and his rocking band; and the rollicking slide guitar boogie-meisters Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials. From Louisiana came the Two-Fisted Mama herself, Katie Webster, equally able to destroy audiences at the solo piano or fronting a full band. From California came rock/blues pioneer guitarist Elvin Bishop, whose brilliant playing is equaled only by his ‘good ol’ boy” sense of country humor. Between them, they represented the blues from its more raucous and rocking to its most subtle and sublime.
They were hitting the road together under the banner of their record label, as The Alligator Records 20th Anniversary Tour, heading out for three weeks of one-nighters, barnstorming across the Midwest and the East Coast, riding all day and playing for four or five hours every night. It was like the legendary tours of R&B hitmakers during the 1950s, when star followed star onto the bandstand and wild shows were followed by exhausting all-night bus rides. But unlike those old tours, this one was linked by the fact that each artist had been recording, some for almost 20 years, for a company that was devoted not to hits, but simply to recording one kind of music—the blues.
In a way, these musicians encapsulate the whole story of Alligator Records. Our roots are firmly in the raw Chicago blues tradition, but over our 25 years we’ve branched out to include music from Louisiana, California, Texas, Virginia, Georgia, Florida, New York and even Australia. Alligator’s musicians represent the whole spectrum of blues, from the tough Chicago sound to zydeco, roots rock, West Coast jump and swing, Delta and Piedmont style acoustic blues, West Texas shuffle and socially conscious New York funk.
Alligator Records was born in Chicago, inspired by the music that I heard in the little clubs on the South and West Sides in the black neighborhoods, where the city’s (and the world’s) greatest blues bands made music for their local fans. The blues clubs had been the heart of Chicago’s black music scene for over 30 years before I arrived there as a “blues pilgrim” back in 1970. These weren’t show lounges or theatres, but corner bars and taverns, often in grimly depressed neighborhoods, that put a chain across the doorway on weekends and charged fifty cents or a dollar to hear some of the most intense, fiery and deeply emotional music you can imagine.
In the last decade the blues has become honored worldwide as one of America’s proudest cultural achievements and most exciting (and fun) forms of music. Blues sounds have become a staple of TV commercials and movie soundtracks, and it seems like half the world’s rock bands include a token blues tune in their shows. The blues is no longer the property of late night Southern radio stations and weekly shows on your public broadcasting outlet. Even Billboard has a bi-weekly blues sales chart. Although most blues artists still ply their trade in bars, it’s not unusual to see them in major concert halls or even on national late night TV shows (where our own Koko Taylor, Charlie Musselwhite, Luther Allison, Elvin Bishop and Albert Collins have appeared). Blues artists tour virtually everywhere, from Europe to Africa (where Kenny Neal played for a month under the sponsorship of the U.S. government), from Alaska to Argentina (where the annual Alligator Blues Festival draws thousands of people a night), and from Israel to Japan to Australia to Turkey to Hong Kong. Blues is enjoying its widest popularity ever, but it’s a popularity that’s taken the music further and further from its roots in the neighborhood clubs, country juke joints, house parties and fish fries. The blues should be raw emotion. It should have looseness and humor and improvisation and give-and-take between the musicians and the audience. In most of the ghetto clubs where I first heard the blues, there were as many musicians in the audience as on the bandstand (if there was a bandstand), and everyone knew everyone else’s name. Sitting in wasn’t a special event; it was the norm.
When the Alligator Records 20th Anniversary Tour hit the road, it was a carefully rehearsed show. But that wasn’t really the concept; we wanted the show to capture the spontaneity and spirit of those little Chicago clubs. And over the weeks, it happened. One some nights Lil’ Ed joined Elvin Bishop for a dual-slide jam; on other nights Katie Webster sat in with Lonnie Brooks for some Louisiana swamp boogie. Then Lonnie might join Koko for a rockin’ Chicago standard or two. Finally, at the end of the evening, everyone crowded the stage for a jam, with each singer and player grabbing a moment in the spotlight to show their stuff. (Some of these moments have been captured on an album appropriately called The Alligator Records 20th Anniversary Tour and in a video called Pride And Joy: The Story of Alligator Records, produced and directed by Bob Mugge.)
The two-record set you’re holding is an effort to give many of the key players in the Alligator Story their moment in the spotlight, to show a little of the “stuff” that inspired me to sign each of these wonderful musicians. Maybe the best way to listen to this collection is to imagine it like the finale of our 20th Anniversary Tour (or a late night jam in a Chicago blues bar), with each musician fighting his or her way to the bandstand to show off their best. But all of our musicians are capable of so much more than can be shown in one recorded performance, so choosing the artists and songs for this collection wasn’t easy. No matter what choices I made, I couldn’t include them all.
Chicago has, for most of this century, been considered the world capital of the blues. Chicago’s migrants from the Delta brought the blues with them, and Chicago’s tough, loud streets energized and pumped up the Delta blues, making them a unique Windy City product. Alligator began as a Chicago blues label, and for our first ten years we recorded almost exclusively Chicago bluesmen and blueswomen.
Five years ago, in the notes for The Alligator Records 20th Anniversary Collection (which I hope you already own!), I told you about the “birth” of Alligator at Florence’s Lounge on the South Side, where HOUND DOG TAYLOR & THE HOUSEROCKERS played for hours on end every Sunday afternoon. Hound Dog was our first artist, and for this collection we dug into the vaults to find a previously unreleased track of his Genuine Houserockin’ Music. Hound Dog died back in 1975, but his wall-of-distortion slide guitar sounds just as wonderfully ragged now as it did in 1971 when this track was cut. (And Hound Dog’s legend lives on; his six-fingered left hand graced the cover of Guitar Player a couple of years ago.) We’ve tried to make Hound Dog’s raw power, deep feeling and the pure joy of his music our touchstone, infusing every record we release.
Hound Dog’s friend SON SEALS has been with Alligator since 1973. When I signed him, he was an unknown youngster who didn’t even own his own amp, but his ultra-aggressive guitar sound and angry vocals already marked him as something special. Now he’s considered one of the giants of his generation, “The Bad Axe” himself, and blues fans come from everywhere to catch his sweaty performances in Chicago clubs (since in the last few years he’s chosen to take himself off the road and appear almost exclusively locally).
KOKO TAYLOR, on the other hand, is almost never off the road. She’s the world’s best-known blueswoman; in the last few years she’s toured in South America, Europe, Japan and even appeared in Turkey. Plus, she usually plays 150 shows a year in the U.S.A.! Since her dramatic recovery from a near-fatal van accident while on tour in 1988, she’s reached the peak of her popularity. From recording duets with B.B. King and Buddy Guy to national TV shows (not only in the U.S.A. but also in Europe and even Brazil) to the declaration of Koko Taylor Day in Chicago to appearing with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant to opening her own hometown club, Koko has finally become a true international blues icon after a recording career that spans almost 35 years (22 of them on Alligator). But for all her popularity, neither Koko’s personality nor her music has picked up a bit of the slickness that occasionally has smoothed out other blues artists who have reached a world audience. Koko’s still proud to be a country-born former sharecropper and cleaning woman, and her music is infused with the strength she’s had to muster up just to get through her life. She passed the age of 60 a few years ago, but she still burns across the stage like she did 30 years ago when Willie Dixon discovered her sitting in with J.B. Lenoir. By the way, that’s another unvarnished Chicago giant, James Cotton, backing Koko on harp on Evil, cut back in 1985. James cut two tough Alligator albums of his own in the mid-1980s.
FENTON ROBINSON is one of the unsung heroes of Chicago blues. With his subtle, probing guitar and soaring voice, he represents the smoother side of the city’s blues style. In fact, though he originally hails from Mississippi, Fenton’s style has more in common with the swinging, Texas string-benders than his Delta contemporaries. Fenton’s a wonderful songwriter, too. He’s composed a dozen blues classics, but none better known than Somebody Loan Me A Dime, originally recorded as a 45 in the late ‘60s and re-recorded as the title track of his first Alligator release in 1974.
In 1977, when Alligator was operating out of my house and had only one employee and nine albums, I embarked on a project that turned out to be one of the most important and exciting of my career. I had realized pretty quickly that I would never be able to record a full album by every one of the terrific blues bands that I was hearing nightly in the Chicago clubs, so I decided to record three or four songs by as many as I could and release them in a series of anthology albums called Living Chicago Blues. Those six albums (now four CDs), cut over a three-year period, gave me a chance to work with 18 different bands and open the door for many of them to break out of the Chicago club circuit and tour nationally and internationally. The Living Chicago Blues series is one of Alligator’s proudest achievements.
EDDIE SHAW was already a key player on the West Side scene when he cut Sitting On Top Of The World for the first volume of Living Chicago Blues. He had fronted his own bands with his honking sax and cut local 45s, recorded as a sideman with Magic Sam, Luther Allison and Howlin’ Wolf, and led Wolf’s backup band, The Wolf Gang. For years he operated a series of taverns all over the tough West Side. (In fact, the very first blues bar I visited was Eddie’s little storefront joint on West Madison Street. Later, when the bar was under different management, I almost lost my life on the street outside and if it hadn’t been for some quick action with a tire iron by Carey Bell, The Alligator Story might have been a lot shorter). Eddie brought the members of Wolf’s band with him to the studio, including the marvelous Hubert Sumlin on guitar. Eddie has gone on to make albums for other labels, and he’s still touring constantly. Plus, his band is still called The Wolf Gang.
One artist who recorded for the Living Chicago Blues series in 1978 has been with Alligator ever since. LONNIE BROOKS began his career in the late ‘50s in his home state of Louisiana, and I used to see him at the rough-and-tumble Avenue Lounge on the West Side. His Living Chicago Blues session, and the albums that followed, springboarded him out of the ghetto clubs. By the time he cut Got Lucky Last Night in 1986, he was touring all over the world and had perfected his mix of high energy Chicago blues, Louisiana funk and good old rock ‘n’ roll. At that time Johnny Winter was a member of the Alligator roster and was recording right down the hall from Lonnie at Streeterville Studios. Since Johnny had literally sat at Lonnie’s feet during some of Lonnie’s early Louisiana recording sessions, it was no problem convincing Johnny to come down the hall and rock a while with his early idol.
The follow-up to the Living Chicago Blues series was a single album cut in 1986 that introduced ten of Chicago’s unknown or lesser known young bands. It was called The New Bluebloods, and from it came three artists that we signed—The Kinsey Report, Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials and Maurice John Vaughn. We did two albums with THE KINSEY REPORT before they moved on to a different label. LIL’ ED, road-weary after ten years of grueling touring and night after night of wild three-hour shows, disbanded The Blues Imperials in 1995. (He still appears as a single artist with his old bandmate Dave Weld’s group.) But the Imperials got back together for one day in the studio last year to record a song for a soon-to-be-released tribute to Hound Dog Taylor. Ed’s version of It’s Alright puts event Hound Dog’s ripping slide tone to shame! Houserockin’ indeed.
MAURICE JOHN VAUGHN was a veteran sideman with A.C. Reed and Son Seals before putting out his own self-produced Generic Blues Album (now reissued on Alligator). He’s a soft-spoken, dryly humorous guy who’s a double threat on guitar and tenor sax and also one of Chicago’s finest blues songwriters, a man not afraid to place tongue firmly in cheek with his lyrics. He’s been working on a new album for release later in 1996.
In the five years since the release of The Alligator Records 20th Anniversary Collection, Alligator has signed more and more non-Chicagoans. In fact, we’ve only brought four Chicago artists to the label in that time, three of them harmonica players.
BILLY BOY ARNOLD was a pioneer blues-rocker (when the term had a little different meaning), recording hits on his own in the mid-‘50s for the Vee Jay label after beginning his career with Bo Diddley’s sidewalk band. His classics like I Ain’t Got You and I Wish You Would were covered by the first generation of English blues bands. By the ‘80s, Billy was almost out of the blues business, working at day jobs and occasionally going to California or Europe to tour with bands there. But his two recent triumphant comeback albums for Alligator have thrust him into the spotlight again, and he’s back on the road, often appearing with Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin, where they gloriously revitalize the sounds of classic ‘50s style Chicago blues.
SUGAR BLUE, on the other hand, has been one of the most visible bluesmen of the last two decades, carving a wide swath through the world blues scene with his high-powered and sometimes controversial harmonica pyrotechnics and his outspoken personality. From his days as a street musician in New York to recording with the Rolling Stones to his ten years on the Chicago scene, he’s shaken up the world by redefining what blues harp means. By coincidence this song, which he chose to open his Blue Blazes album, is his updated version of one of Billy Boy Arnold’s ‘50s hits.
It’s hard to describe CAREY BELL as an Alligator “newcomer.” When I first came to Chicago, he was already recording for Delmark and leading the house band at Big Duke’s Flamingo Club, one of the grungiest joints on the West Side (I spent dozens of happy nights there.) He left Big Duke’s to take the coveted harmonica slot with the Muddy Waters Band, a slot held at various times by other guys who have recorded for Alligator—James Cotton, Big Walter Horton and Junior Wells. Carey appeared on our second album ever, backing his mentor, Big Walter Horton. He cut four outstanding songs for the Living Chicago Blues series. Years later, he joined James, Junior and Billy Branch on our Harp Attack! supersession. But Carey had never recorded a full album for Alligator until 1994, when we assembled an all-star band that inspired what most fans agree is his best album (and he’s cut as a leader or sideman for a dozen labels).
If Alligator has had one success story among its Chicago artists in the last couple years, it’s the explosive revival of LUTHER ALLISON’S career. It was promoting Luther that got me into the blues business. I brought his West Side trio up to my little Wisconsin college in 1969 for an amazing four-hour concert. He had just cut his debut album on Delmark Records, and my aggressive concert promotion convinced the Delmark founder and guru, Bob Koester, that I might be worthy of a job as the label’s shipping clerk. Luther’s career skyrocketed in the early ‘70s, sparked by incendiary shows at the Ann Arbor Blues Festivals. But a combination of poor career choices, unsupportive labels (after he left Delmark) and the lean years that the blues faced during the disco boom led him to seek a new home base where the audiences would appreciate him more—Paris. He became one of the great blues attractions in Europe, but was almost forgotten in the States. But with his Alligator debut, Soul Fixin’ Man, and a series of sensational U.S. tours, including a show-stopping performance at the 1995 Chicago Blues Festival (followed by a fabulous jam with his idol, Otis Rush), Luther has been relaunched in the U.S.A. and is on the way to becoming a blues superstar here. It seems appropriate that Alligator is relaunching his career in America after Luther launched my career a mere 27 years ago!
Louisiana has been second only to Chicago as a home for Alligator musicians. From New Orleans to Cajun country, Louisiana has fostered a huge variety of Alligator music, including down home blues, R&B, zydeco and swing. The first album we cut outside of Chicago was Crawfish Fiesta, the magical final statement from PROFESSOR LONGHAIR. “Fess” was the rockin’ rhumba piano wizard from New Orleans whose death in 1980 at the age of 59 (on the very day we released his album) was one of American music’s greatest losses. He’s usually remembered for his wildly syncopated R&B-flavored band recordings like Big Chief, but the track we’ve included here, with tuba bass by Walter Payton and Johnny Vidacovich playing a snare drum with a piece of cardboard taped on top (Dr. John’s idea), is a rare glimpse at the quieter, more introspective side of the late Professor.
Speaking of wizards, CLARENCE “GATEMOUTH” BROWN, who lives in Slidell, Louisiana, is a monster player of guitar, fiddle, harmonica and even piano. As he’s the first to remind you, Gate can do it all, from blues to jazz to zydeco to country to Western Swing to ballads. He’s an American institution with a career that spans fifty years. And, as anyone who saw him open for Eric Clapton on the From The Cradletour can testify, Gate still has 100% of his talent. If you’ve ever met him, you know he’s got 100% of his highly opinionated wit, too! We’re Outta Here is the final track from the second of two albums that Gate cut for us in the early ‘90s.
C.J. CHENIER, who made his Alligator debut in 1995, is clearly the heir to the zydeco crown—not only because his father, Clifton Chenier (who has his own Alligator album) virtually invented zydeco, but also because of C.J.’s own prodigious talents on accordion, alto sax and vocals. He’s shown the ability to update the zydeco tradition, bringing in elements of rock and funk and country and jazz and even calypso without losing zydeco’s “bon ton roulet” essence. Off the bandstand, C.J. is a shy and soft-spoken man. On the bandstand, he and The Red Hot Louisiana Band are explosive, offering the ultimate Louisiana party music. We’re looking forward to another C.J. release before the end of 1996.
KENNY NEAL, from Baton Rouge, is another son of a famous blues father. He learned harp from his dad, Raful Neal (who has a single Alligator album of his own), whose recording career began back in the 1950s. Kenny learned guitar from local legends like Rudolph Richard and from his years as Buddy Guy’s bass player. Kenny’s honed his craft on the road, playing over 200 nights a year. These days, in addition to cranking out fiery riffs on the world’s most battered Fender Telecaster and blowing harp in the spirit of Slim Harpo and Lazy Lester, Kenny has added Hawaiian lap steel guitar to his instrumental repertoire. we’ll be featuring it on his next album. Besides touring all over the U.S., Europe, Africa and Argentina, Kenny is Alligator’s bonafide Broadway star. In 1991, he led the cast of Mule Bone, a musical play written in the 1920s by Zora Neale Hurston with music by Taj Mahal and lyrics by Langston Hughes. This year Kenny’s been on the road with label mate Tinsley Ellis, and their late night guitar and harmonica jams have the fire that most players can only dream of.
KATIE WEBSTER, the flamboyant Swamp Boogie Queen, began her career as a teenage studio pianist in the 1950s in Lake Charles, Louisiana. She played on literally hundreds of records (including the original Sea Of Love) before hitting the road as a sidewoman with Otis Redding. Katie retired from music in favor of motherhood, but she reemerged as a star in Europe in her 40s before signing with Alligator in 1988. Her rolling piano, soulful vocals and outrageous stage presence made her one of our most popular artists. (You should have seen her performing solo on the 20th Anniversary Tour show in Montreal, barefoot at the edge of the stage, leading 2000 Canadians in a blues sing-along. For that matter, you should have seen her on the tour bus, flirting with everyone in pants and keeping us roaring with laughter with her “bad” mouth.) But in 1993, while she was on tour in Greece, Katie suffered a stroke that stole some of the power from her left hand and eventually much of her vision. Everyone assumed that she would never play in public again, but no one reckoned with her determination and her love for both her music and her audience. In 1994, bedecked in spangles and feathers, Katie led her band onto the main bandshell stage of the Chicago Blues Festival and brought the whole audience to its feet. With her sheer force of personality and talent, Katie Webster proved that she is still and always will be the Swamp Boogie Queen.
Texas, like Louisiana, is the home state of a heaping helping of Alligator talent. The Lone Star State is where blues meets country meets rock meets jazz to create Texas roadhouse music. It’s also the home of the wildest of string-bending guitarists.
JOHNNY WINTER cut three classic albums for us back in the mid-1980s, when he turned his back on his rock ’n’ roll success to get back to his blues roots. Since then, Johnny has stuck with the blues. His Alligator sessions, cut in Chicago with the cream of the city’s players and occasional special guests, brought out a depth of emotion that Johnny hadn’t shown on record since his earliest albums. Love, Life And Money, originally cut by Little Willie John, features Dr. John on piano, who also gave so much of his talent to our Professor Longhair record.
LONG JOHN HUNTER is one of the latest additions to the Alligator family. After honing his chops in Port Arthur (where he was idolized by the young Lonnie Brooks), Long John moved to West Texas and became the king of the wild, wooly and wide-open El Paso/Juarez scene, playing there for over 25 years. Going to Juarez to get drunk, gain your sexual experience and hear Long John Hunter in the Lobby Bar (not necessarily in that order) was a coming-of-age ritual for West Texas teenage boys. He was a legend on the prairies, but he rarely recorded and his glorious reputation was mostly by word of mouth. Like other Texas guitarists (Albert Collins and T-Bone Walker come to mind), John perfected the “less is more” school of playing, using eerie silences against clusters of notes for maximum impact. John emerged from West Texas a couple of years ago with an excellent album on the Spindletop label that earned him three tours of Europe. Unfortunately, Spindletop didn’t survive, but just this year we’ve released a new Long John Hunter album, Border Town Legend, and at the age of 65, he’s finally leaving West Texas to hit the road and take the wide open El Paso sound to the world.
Of course the best known Texan to record for Alligator is no longer with us, except in spirit. In November of 1993, Alligator and I and blues fans everywhere suffered a terrible loss. One of Texas’ greatest bluesmen, ALBERT COLLINS, The Master of the Telecaster, died of cancer. Albert recorded for Alligator for eight years and the records he made for us were the most exciting of a career filled with incredibly exciting music. His icy guitar attack, dry vocals, equally dry humor, and his sheer energy, will never be duplicated. Luckily he left us with a wonderful musical legacy. For this collection we went back into the vaults and chose an unreleased track from the Grammy-winning Showdown! sessions, which paired him with his famous protégés, Johnny Copeland and Robert Cray. Robert does appear on this Guitar Slim classic, but Albert is there in all his glory, with Johnny in strong support. We present this gem as a fitting tribute to a dear friend.
California’s burgeoning blues scene has brought Alligator all kinds of marvelous talent. They’ve been swinging the blues on the West Coast since the 1940s, with the emigration of black musicians from Texas and Louisiana to California. FLOYD DIXON brought his rollicking boogie piano style and warm, raspy vocals from Marshall, Texas back then, and he had hits on black radio for a decade. He toured nationwide (often on R&B tours much like our own 20th Anniversary Tour) until rock ‘n’ roll supplanted R&B. Then he settled down in L.A., gigging occasionally and hanging out with his old friends. Floyd and his pal (and guitarist) Port Barlow have been working on his Alligator debut for a year, and it’s finally finished and ready for release. We’ve included a preview cut in this collection, a new version of Floyd’s best-known song, Hey Bartender, featuring Eddie Synigal on tenor sax.
California sunshine also lured away two musicians who made their reputations in Chicago in the 1960s and have continued making great blues into the 1990s. CHARLIE MUSSELWHITE and ELVIN BISHOP were both among the first generation of bluesmen to reach beyond the black audience and bring young white kids into the blues. Charlie’s brilliant harp playing and laid-back vocals have set a standard of the blues for thirty years. But with his last Alligator album, In My Time, Charlie made a musical statement that revealed more of the true depth of his roots than any of his other recordings. He recorded his opus with inspired interpretations of all the sounds and styles that he’s absorbed since his childhood days hanging out with elderly blues veterans in Memphis. Stingaree is one of Charlie’s few recorded guitar tunes, and he reveals the subtlety and shading of a master. On this tune you can hear the influence of his pal John Lee Hooker (who was best man at Charlie’s wedding). In My Time has moved Charlie from his role as a highly respected journeyman into that of an icon in the blues world. It’s one of our finest releases of the last five years.
ELVIN BISHOP, on the other hand, moved a bit farther from his roots than Charlie. After his debut as lead guitarist for the legendary Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Elvin brought his gritty, down home Chicago guitar style to the Bay Area, added some strong country influences, pumped up the energy, and became a rock ‘n’ roller (but still, as he says, he “plays just as much blues as I could get away with”.) Although he’s a serious guitar player (especially on slide), Elvin’s a man who refuses to take himself too seriously, and his sense of country boy humor infuses his three Alligator albums as well as his joyful live shows. Elvin may be able to rock, but he’s never forgotten that one of his first gigs in Chicago in the early ‘60s was backing our own Hound Dog Taylor in dives all over the South and West Sides. You can hear a bit of the sound of the Dog whenever Elvin gets out that slide!
When George “Harmonica” Smith left the Muddy Waters Band and moved to California, he inspired a whole generation of blues harp players there. George’s huge sound, his control of octave playing, and his mastery of the big chromatic harmonica were unparalleled, and dozens of West Coast players have tried to infuse his spirit into their music. None has taken the Smith sound and made it “his own thing” better than Los Angeles’ WILLIAM CLARKE. Bill had just made his Alligator debut when we released our 20th Anniversary Collection and we couldn’t find space to include him. But since then he’s made two more equally thrilling records for us (with a fourth almost ready for release) and has moved from “local legend” status to that of being recognized as one of the finest harp players (and writers and singers) of his generation. His music swings like crazy and his live shows usually climax with Bill’s huge form kneeling on stage, covered in sweat and (as his first album title says) blowin’ like hell.
JOHNNY HEARTSMAN is a legend among fans of West Coast blues, a “guitarists’ guitarist” who is equally talented on flute and vocals. Though he’s mostly been a studio player, contributing dozens of timeless solos (like the one on Tiny Powell’s original My Time After A While, which heavily influenced Buddy Guy’s version), Johnny gigs on his own around Sacramento. His Alligator album was produced by Johnny’s close friend Dick Shurman, who also contributed so much as co-producer of our releases by Albert Collins, Johnny Winter and Roy Buchanan. Dick knew just how to inspire Johnny to career-defining performances.
Finally, I can’t leave California without mentioning our old friends LITTLE CHARLIE & THE NIGHTCATS. I told the Cinderella story of their “discovery” in The 20th Anniversary Collection notes, so all I’m going to say is that they’ve continued to grow musically in every way – they’re even better than when I “found” them. Charlie has matured into one of the finest of swing guitarists. Rick Estrin’s harp is matched only by the brilliance (and humor) of his songwriting, and their live stage show has won them converts worldwide. Blueprint magazine in the U.K. voted them “Best Touring U.S. Blues Band,” as anyone who’s seen them live can certainly attest. Plus, Rick has the best collection of outrageously colored matching suits and socks in the business!
For years, ever since we released the debut by the then-unknown young Son Seals, we’ve been committed to bringing forward the next generation of blues men and women, the ones who will write the story of the blues in the next century. We did it with Lil’ Ed, The Kinsey Report and Maurice John Vaughn on our New Bluebloods collection. More recently Tinsley Ellis, Kenny Neal, Lucky Peterson, William Clarke and Sugar Blue have stepped forward as key players in the future of blues.
Now, from New York City (not known as a blues hotbed) comes the rock-edged music of MICHAEL HILL’S BLUES MOB. Michael, like Dave Hole, came to me through the recommendation of Jas Obrecht of Guitar Player. In a sense, Michael is the first post-Hendrix style musician on Alligator (well, maybe I should include Sugar Blue). He knows the blues, but he filters them through his experience growing up in the 70’s in the mean streets of the South Bronx, and through the heartfelt social consciousness that infuses many of his lyrics. With his dreadlocks, ultra-modern plastic guitar and African-influenced clothing, Michael doesn’t look much like a traditional bluesman. But his passion reminds us that the future of the blues depends on its being relevant to a young, urban audience. Michael’s music speaks not only about lost love but also about finding hope in the midst of urban decay. And his guitar playing wails in the spirit of both Hendrix and Elmore James. His first album, Bloodlines, released in 1994, was Living Blues magazine’s Critics Choice as Debut Album of the Year. Michael has already toured Europe twice an even filmed an hour-long nationwide German TV show.
Another part of the future of blues, surprisingly, is the resurgence of acoustic musicians. More and more artists have chosen to make their music without electric instruments and drums, to return to “blues unplugged” and get back to the essence of the earlier generations of artists (but not just to mimic the sounds of classic blues records). Three of the relatively recent members of the Alligator family have dedicated themselves to making purely acoustic music.
SAFFIRE—THE UPPITY BLUES WOMEN have been with us for six years now, and they just seem to get better with each album. Based in Virginia, Ann Rabson, Gaye Adegbalola and Andra Faye McIntosh have found a national and international audience that loves the way they combine contemporary “uppity” lyrics with the spirit of Bessie Smith, Sippie Wallace, Jimmy Yancy and Memphis Minnie. They’ve developed a passionate and ever-growing cult following that attends gig after gig. Of course they’re unique in being an all-female group, but their popularity isn’t based on their gender. It’s because their lyrics speak to such a wide audience (including a lot of women) and because all three of them are accomplished singers and players (who solo on five different instruments, not including kazoo) and because they can get an audience on its feet faster than most electric bands. Saffire has taken the elements of something old and created something new in the blues. By the way, the cut we’ve chosen here features Ann’s piano and vocal.
CEPHAS & WIGGINS had already cut six albums before signing with Alligator in late 1995. They carry on and update the tradition that they grew up with—the melodic fingerpicked guitar and acoustic harmonica duets of the East Coast Piedmont style. It’s a sound that combines blues with ragtime and even a taste of country, and John and Phil are the acknowledged masters of it. They’ve toured across the country and around the world, and we’re proud to have them as the latest members of the Alligator family.
COREY HARRIS is another “unplugged” Alligator newcomer, but unlike Cephas & Wiggins, he didn’t come to us with an established reputation in acoustic blues. Corey is only in his mid-20s, but he’s singing and playing Delta blues with the talent and authority of the first generation of Delta legends. It’s hard to believe that he didn’t grow up in Mississippi and that he perfected his guitar technique while teaching school in Africa. But with his debut album only a few months old and already nominated for three W.C. Handy Awards (the Grammy of the blues), Corey is already stepping forward as a key player in the new acoustic blues movement.
There are a few artists on Alligator who don’t fit neatly into any geographic or stylistic category. Their music bridges the gaps between hard blues, acoustic sounds, roots rock and even rockabilly. LONNIE MACK has long since climbed to the pinnacle among blues/rock guitar heroes. His career spans almost 40 years (he began recording as a teenager.) From his home in the hills of southern Indiana, he reached out to absorb and assimilate both blues and country and eventually to create one of the most original and exciting roots rock fusions of any modern American musician. Lonnie’s one of the most passionate of white soul singers and the whammy-bar driven sound and attack of his Gibson Flying V guitar are entirely his own. Other players are in awe of him, as was the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, who produced and played on the first of Lonnie’s three Alligator albums. If You Have To Know was the only cut to feature Stevie on both vocals and lead guitar, and you can hear just how much Lonnie influenced Stevie’s playing.
STEADY ROLLIN’ BOB MARGOLIN plays both electrically and acoustically and can handle everything from the deepest Delta slide to kickass rockabilly. He hails from Boston but lives in North Carolina. (Actually, like other Alligator artists, he mostly lives in a van and spends most nights in motel rooms.) Bob came out of the blues revival of the late ‘60s, but while his contemporaries rocked out, Bob looked back. He immersed himself in the old styles of blues and dedicated himself to become the perfect guitarist to back up the legendary players. When Muddy Waters came through Boston looking for a guitarist, Bob was his choice. Bob spent nine years with Muddy, learning the intricacies of Muddy’s phrasing and tone. Muddy is gone, but Bob has taken the intensity and slide sound of his mentor and made something very much his own from it. He’s never lost his passion to play with the old school bluesmen; his two Alligator albums include guest appearances by Nappy Brown, John Brim and Snooky Pryor. Bob is one of the hardest-working bluesmen around. His multiple appearances as both a leader and sideman on every stage at the 1994 Chicago Blues Festival made some fans think he had cloned himself! Bob has demonstrated an uncanny ability to play almost every style with feeling, whether playing his own set or backing Carey Bell, Jimmy Rogers, Snooky Pryor and Billy Boy Arnold at the same festival. It’s no surprise that it’s Bob’s guitar behind Billy Boy on Billy’s latest album.
TINSLEY ELLIS is another brilliant guitarist, one who fuses blues with a taste of Southern rock. Sine he blew out of his home town of Atlanta with his first Alligator album, Georgia Blue, back in 1988, he’s won a fanatic following by playing over 200 nights a year on the road. (Tinsley’s a road warrior supreme. In fact, a couple years ago he was complaining to his booking agent because he had one weekend off a year!) When he first began playing, under the spell of B.B. King and the first generation of Southern blues-rockers, Tinsley was strictly a powerhouse electric guitarist. But over the last few years, he’s chosen to reach for his acoustic guitar as often as his electric, and his live shows now feature both. With five Alligator albums under his belt, Tinsley’s music is still growing, adding new dimensions as one of the hottest guitar talents in the country.
If any Alligator artist shows how far we’re willing to go to find original blues talent, it’s DAVE HOLE. Dave hails from Perth, the most distant city in Australia (and that’s the most distant from everywhere, not just from other Australian cities). Like so many of us, Dave originally learned the blues from records, but he’s no copycat. He’s brought something special to his rocking blues interpretations. Maybe it’s just because he plays so weirdly (slide on his index finger held over the top of the guitar neck), or maybe it’s the incredible energy level of his music, or maybe it’s his fantastic technique, but he’s found his own road within the blues tradition. He’s already played two successful tours of the U.S.A. (on the first one he drove 17,000 miles in nine weeks and played 46 shows, so he’s paid some highway dues.) He’ll be recording his fourth Alligator album later this year.
No Alligator artist spanned the gap between blues and rock with more audacity than the late ROY BUCHANAN. Roy was already an acknowledged guitar genius when he signed with Alligator in the mid-‘80s. He had broken out of his home town of Washington, D.C. with a public television special in the early ‘70s that made him a household name. Roy’s roots were in both country and blues, and he loved to play a melodic soul ballad as much as he loved to show off his amazing chops on a full-scale rocker. He was a gentle, complex guy and a reluctant band leader. The three albums we made with him, the last of his career, captured some of his finest moments in the studio. For this collection, we went back to the sessions for Hot Wires and found a previously unreleased version of Link Wray’s Jack The Ripper that shows Roy at his rip-roaring best. The other side of Roy’s talent, the tenderness of his ballad playing, was perfectly captured in his accompaniment behind Delbert McClinton on Baby, Baby, Baby. Roy had more groundbreaking records in him, but chose to check out of this world in 1988, and we never got the chance to hear them.
In the few years since that bus full of musicians pulled away from our warehouse to begin our 20th Anniversary Tour, the Alligator “vehicle” has just gotten bigger and fuller. Beginning as a humble one-man company in a one-room apartment, dedicated simply to recording some of Chicago’s blues bands, we’ve grown into one of the biggest blues labels anywhere. Now there are 22 of us on the staff working in two funky buildings, and a catalog of over 150 albums by blues artists from around the world. And with so many new artists joining our “family,” it seems very clear that the future of the blues and the future of Alligator will have many more happy years ahead. Twenty-five years? It’s almost impossible for me to believe. It seems like a minute or two. I’m already looking forward to The Alligator Records 50th Anniversary Collection!
Unfortunately, we were unable to include any samples of one of our proudest achievements on this collection. Over the last three years, we’ve been blessed to be able to reissue almost all of the blues and R&B recorded in the early 1950s by the wonderful little Trumpet label of Jackson, Mississippi. Trumpet was founded and operated by Lillian Shedd McMurry, an extraordinary woman who not only took care of business but also produced groundbreaking records, including the debuts of Sonny Boy Williamson and Elmore James. She also set a standard for fair and honest treatment of artists that was unprecedented in the blues. Lillian was forced to sell the Trumpet masters later in the 1950s, and we were eventually able to lease almost all the masters from the present owners with Lillian’s blessing. As this collection was being prepared, a legal controversy arose between the various owners of the masters that made it impossible for us to include any Trumpet sides here. I deeply regret being unable to honor the quality of Trumpet Records in this collection. I’m proud to say that Lillian has chosen to “adopt” me and Alligator as her spiritual heirs. Her footsteps are huge and I’m honored to try to walk in them. This collection is dedicated to Lillian Shedd McMurry —Bruce Iglauer
PS—You may have noticed that although Alligator’s 20th Anniversary year was 1991, the Alligator 20th Anniversary Tour didn’t hit the road until 1992. That’s because the tour was only made possible due to the overwhelming success of The Alligator Records 20th Anniversary Collection. Maybe that means you can look for a 25th Anniversary Tour on our 26th anniversary! Meanwhile, we’ll be arranging some special 1996 concerts. Hope you can join our celebration.
Not all the artists in this collection appear on Alligator worldwide. Luther Allison appears on Ruf Records in Europe. Both Luther Allison and Sugar Blue appear on King Records in Japan. Dave Hole is on Festival Records in Australia. All of these labels and artists have been kind enough to give us permission to include these tracks.
And a moment for goodbyes to the artists we’ve lost (to this world) over the years—Big Twist, Big Leon Brooks, Andrew Brown, Roy Buchanan, Clifton Chenier, Albert Collins, Left Hand Frank Craig, Blind John Davis, Queen Sylvia Embry, Big Walter Horton, Professor Longhair, Professor Eddie Lusk, Buddy Scott, Hound Dog Taylor and Valerie Wellington.