Q) Could you say where you were born a little about your early formative years and what was is that caused you to get interested in the blues?
I loved music all my life but I wasn’t exposed to the blues until I was 18. I had gotten caught up in the folk music ‘revival’ of the 1960s and had an acoustic guitar and a harmonica in a rack and I was actively bad at trying to copy the music of commercial folk singers who were popular at that time. (I knew almost nothing about the traditional music that had inspired a lot of them).
In January of 1966, I traveled by bus to Chicago from Appleton, Wisconsin, where I was a freshman at Lawrence University. I knew the University of Chicago had a folk festival and my sister went to school there, so I decided to attend the festival and stay with her. I didn’t realize that this was a festival of traditional folk music, not the kind of commercial folk that was popular then. At that festival, I heard Mississippi Fred McDowell, and it changed my life. I felt like he was reaching out across 20 rows of seats and grabbing me by the collar and shaking me and saying “Wake up! This is for you!”
Of course I was a middle class kid from a comfortable, well-educated family living in the suburbs of Cincinnati and Fred was a Southern black man with little formal education who had grown up in poverty. But somehow the raw honesty of his music, the completely unvarnished quality, the songs that clearly came from his real life, all spoke to me. It made all the music I had been listening to up until that time–the Broadway show tunes my mother loved, the Top 40 rock on the radio, the commercial folk music–begin to seem fake and phony.
I went back to Appleton and ordered the Fred McDowell album on a tiny label called Arhoolie. It took the record store nine months to locate a copy. Meanwhile, hearing the Paul Butterfield Band led me to electric Chicago blues and I bought albums by Muddy and Little Walter. I also found recordings by the country bluesmen who had been rediscovered in the 60s–Skip James, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt. Blues records were hard to find and I bought the few I stumbled across.
That summer, still interested in folk music as well as blues, I went to Canada to the Mariposa Folk Festival. There I heard Johnny Young, Big Walter Horton and Sunnyland Slim. I also picked up a Canadian folk music magazine called “Hoot” and at the end of some blues album reviews, the writer gave me life-changing advice. He said something like “If you ever go to Chicago and want to hear blues in the clubs on the South and West Sides, go to the Jazz Record Mart at 7 W. Grand and Bob Koester, the owner of Delmark Records, may take you out to hear some real Chicago Blues.”
Q) You moved to Chicago when and what was the reason for you moving to the city and when first in Chicago what did you do?
In 1969 I convinced my university to bring a blues band for a fall concert, and to allow me to book the band. Armed only with the knowledge that Bob Koester and Jazz Record Mart existed, I took the bus to Chicago and headed to 7 W. Grand. I met Bob and immediately fell under his spell–he was a charismatic, very smart man who seemed to know everything about blues and jazz. And Bob took me to Theresa’s and the Blue Flame and other clubs.
I began coming down every weekend that I could and eventually booked Howlin’ Wolf to play at my school. The concert was great but poorly promoted and not very well attended. I decided that with good promotion, a lot more people would come out to hear the blues, even in Appleton Wisconsin. I scraped together $600 and booked an almost-unknown artist named Luther Allison who had an album about to be released on Delmark. With a lot of promotion (including using my radio show on the college station), the concert sold out. Luther’s performance was absolutely thrilling. He played for three hours and then we invited in all the people who hadn’t been able to fit in and were still waiting, and he played for another hour, ending up with only three unbroken strings on his guitar.
Right after that was the first draft lottery, and because I had a lucky birth date, I was relieved of the threat of getting sent to Vietnam. I came down to see Bob the following week, armed with my posters from my sold-out show, and talked him into offering me a job as the Delmark shipping clerk (supposedly part time) for $30 a week. I intended to stay on the Chicago blues scene for a year, and I’m still here.
Q) You worked at Jazz Record Mart for awhile from when to when and you were also part of the early Living Blues editorial team and how did that come about?
When I moved to Chicago, there was a group of blues fans who congregated at Jazz Record Mart (Delmark was in the basement). They included Jim O’Neal, his future wife Amy van Singel, photographer Diane Allmen, Tim Zorn, Paul Garon (collector of pre-war blues 78s) and myself. Of all of them, I almost certainly knew the least about blues.
We all had seen copies of the UK blues magazines–Blues Unlimited and Blues World. From time to time we’d complain about the fact that there was no American blues magazine. So in February of 1970, about six weeks after I moved to Chicago, I called a meeting at my one-room apartment for those who wanted to get serious about an American blues magazine, Jim, Amy, Diane, Tim and Paul showed up. We plotted out the first issue at that time.
We decided to call it Living Blues as we wanted to chronicle the current blues scene, primarily in the black community (at that time, for example, there were perhaps 40 clubs in Chicago that had blues on the weekend. Most big cities had blues clubs, but they were neighborhood clubs in heavily black areas, and got almost no mainstream media recognition.) We didn’t want Living Blues to be a magazine about old records and historical research, or about white blues-rockers.
Although I organized the first meeting (and typed a lot of the first issues), Jim emerged as the person who should be editor, and Amy took over production. I was in charge of advertising and the (very limited) distribution. It was Jim and Amy who guided the content and made the magazine vital. Eventually Jim sold it to the University of Mississippi, who still publish it after 48 years, with the very good Brett Bonner now acting as editor.
Q) We all know you started Alligator so as to record Hound Dog Taylor. What was it like to expand the label beyond that initial release. Were you / the label living from release to release and what was it that caused you to record other Chicago blues acts beyond Hound Dog?
When I recorded Hound Dog (in two evening sessions), I was still working for Delmark (though now we had agreed it was a full time job and I was being paid something like $70 a week). I was living in an efficiency apartment and sleeping on a mattress on the floor. I had managed to initially press 1000 copies of the Hound Dog album (at least half for radio and press) and quickly began selling enough to manufacture more. Of course I had to collect money from my distributors to be able to do so! For at least the first six or seven years of Alligator, each record had to pay for the next one.
Q) When was it that you thought the label was on a sound financial footing which would enable you to expand the artists/ recording roster?
It was at least eight or nine years. I ran the company by myself until 1975 when I got a part time employee. I think my first full time employee was hired in 1977, by which time I had bought a small house (where I still live) and was running the label from there (in a residential neighborhood where you can’t legally run a business out of a house).
After Hound Dog died in 1975, I didn’t really have a good-selling artist or album and Alligator was existing mostly on sales of his three records. Koko had not yet become a blues icon, Son Seals was just emerging and I struggled to sell Fenton Robinson records. Every dollar that came in was going to pay the pressing plant or the royalties. I think I was taking $100 a week for myself. I often got discouraged and sometimes thought of quitting, but I was too stubborn….and too inspired by the music that I was hearing that absolutely had to be recorded.
Q) I believe it was 1978 that you got Albert Collins onto your label how did that happen and I assume that the label was doing well at that time?
Actually Alligator was still struggling, though not as much as it had been. Koko Taylor’s second album, The Earthshaker, was much better received than her first one, I Got What It Takes. Son Seals’ reputation was building. The label, with one employee and myself, was a pretty modest undertaking.
It was my friend Dick Shurman who brought Albert to Alligator. He and Albert had become friends when Dick lived in Seattle in the late 1960s. Dick had an opportunity to send a bluesman to Europe to play with a Dutch band, and he contacted Albert. Albert flew into Chicago before the tour, and we arranged two gigs for him. As Albert didn’t have his own band at the time, he did one show with Lonnie Brooks’ band and one with Jimmy Johnson’s.
I had been an Albert fan for years, but had only seen him live once; I mostly knew his records, which weren’t nearly as good as the live show I had seen. When I heard him live again, it was thrilling. He was one of the most exciting and intense guitar players I had ever seen. He played in a weird minor key tuning and as loud as hell, but he could be subtle and melodic too. Plus I liked his conversational, low-key singing style. I wanted him on Alligator, but Albert wanted an advance of $1000, and I had never paid that much up front to an artist (though I had paid a lot more in royalties after sales were made).
Albert’s career was at a low point; as I said, he had no band, and his last album was on a label called Tumbleweed that had quickly folded. I wasn’t sure if there was an audience out there for Albert. But I went ahead, producing Ice Pickin‘ with Dick.
It turned out to be one of the most popular Alligator releases ever. I began managing and booking Albert. He liked the band that Dick and I had chosen for him, co-led by singing drummer Casey Jones and singing bass player Aron Burton, that he adopted them as his touring band. Aron named them The Icebreakers. Ice Pickin’ was the first of seven albums that Albert cut for Alligator, including the Grammy-winning Showdown! that paired him with Johnny Copeland and young Robert Cray. Albert was the first non-Chicago artist that Alligator recorded, and he changed our image from being a Chicago blues label to being a national blues label based in Chicago.
Q) The Living Chicago Blues series came out around the same time which was a huge step for the label. How did this six album series come about and what was the artist selection process?
When I was discovering electric blues, my ears were opened by Chicago – The Blues – Today!! on Vanguard Records. This three-LP set, produced by Sam Charters, was released on a label primarily known for acoustic folk music. I loved the format–three bands per album, each performing 3-5 songs.
When I moved to Chicago and discovered the wealth of unrecorded and under-recorded blues musicians, the idea for a new series with the same format seemed obvious. After I started Alligator, I dreamed of recording some of the talent I was hearing every night in the South and West side clubs. I knew I couldn’t make albums with each, but three albums in the multi-artist format seemed possible. I wrote a list of potential artists, and there were over 40 that easily came to mind. But this was a big financial risk (three sessions per album, three bands to pay, and mostly unknown artists) as well as a test for me as a producer.
Luckily, I had recently made a licensing deal for the UK and Europe with the Swedish-based Sonet Records, a very successful company whose owner, Dag Haeggqvist, liked being “patron” to jazz and blues labels, though he had made his fortune on pop and rock releases. I asked him for some financial help and he was happy to give it. So, armed with $11,000 from Sonet plus all the Alligator money I could scrape up, I approached my ‘hit list’ of nine artists. As these artists–Jimmy Johnson, Eddie Shaw & The Wolfgang, Lonnie Brooks, Pinetop Perkins, Carey Bell (who did have an album on Delmark), Johnny “Big Moose” Walker, the young Billy Branch & Sons Of Blues, Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson and Left Hand Frank–didn’t have a lot of other recording opportunities, and I wasn’t asking for exclusive contracts, all of them said ‘yes.’
The first three albums, cut in 1978, did so well that I produced three more. All the tracks are now available on four CDs. I’m very proud of this series as it announced the depth of blues talent in my adopted home town, as well as making me a better producer by working with eighteen more artists. I still feel bad about the other 22 artists I didn’t get a chance to record, though quite a few made albums after that.
Q) You dabbled in reggae for a short time. Could you expand on this please?
I became interested in reggae in the early 70s, drawn to it like so many of my friends were by the urgency of the music, the socially conscious lyrics, and the raw, direct feel. As an African-rooted music, reggae seemed to have a lot in common with blues. Like blues, it had two audiences–the new young fans who had discovered it in the late 60s and early 70s, and roots audience who had grown up with the music (in the South for blues, in Jamaica for reggae). It seemed a logical extension for me to add reggae to Alligator. Between 1980 and 1985, I released 13 reggae albums and an EP.
I helped arrange and promote tours for Mutabaruka, the dub poet, and for Pablo Moses and the Revolutionary Dream Band. I didn’t produce any of our reggae albums–they were recorded in Jamaica and England. I’m very proud of them, especially the albums by the UK band Black Slate, Mutabaruka, The Abyssinians, Augustus Pablo, Joe Higgs and Pablo Moses. But I had a tough time operating in the reggae world.
Often artists were not signed to any one label, and recorded for anyone who would pay them. There was no sense of label loyalty and I found myself competing with other records by the same artists. Arranging tours was very hard, with visa problems and logistics issues. I didn’t always have the stamina for shows that started at midnight. The artists needed a lot of help, and I found much of my time consumed by taking care of their problems, problems American blues musicians could have solved on their own. Plus, I much preferred alcohol to marijuana, so the blues world seemed more hospitable to me. Basically, the business of reggae wore me out, though the music could be great. But we released some damn fine reggae albums.
Q) The label then went onto great success with a variety of artists. How do you select what artist may appear on the label?
I keep a very small active artist roster–about 15 artists or bands. We can’t pay attention to more artists than that at a time, because we promote and publicize every single gig that our artists play. This is one way that Alligator is different from pretty much every other label in any genre of music. And lots of our artists have been with us for a long time–Marcia Ball, Shemekia Copeland (with a short vacation at another label), Tinsley Ellis (who also took a vacation from Alligator), Rick Estrin & The Nightcats, Tommy Castro, Elvin Bishop, Roomful of Blues and our senior artists, Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials.
A number of artists have been with us for two or more albums–Selwyn Birchwood, Coco Montoya, and the recently returned Eric Lindell. In the last year, we’ve signed The Cash Box Kings, The Nick Moss Band Featuring Dennis Gruenling and Lindsay Beaver.
So, what do I look for? First, passion.
I want artists who lay it all out there, bringing honest emotion to every performance, live or in the studio. Very few Alligator artists are “cool” performers. They don’t hold back.
Second, originality. I want artists who either create outstanding original material or are very moving interpreters of other writers’ songs.
Third, roots. I want artists who are firmly rooted in the blues tradition, but who are taking the music in a new or personal direction so they don’t sound just like the artists who came before them. This can range from more traditional blues artists like Lil’ Ed, who learned from his uncle, the great J.B. Hutto, to Eric Lindell, a roots rocker who was inspired by Junior Wells and the way Buddy Guy played on Hoodoo Man Blues, but also brings elements of roots rock, country and R&B to his music.
I also want to know that the artist can take care of business–can lead a band, can be reliable, will be available for the dozens of interviews we ask our artists to do, doesn’t have significant problems that will derail his or her career, and has a great work ethic. But the ultimate test is–does the music move me? Do they make music that will move other people too? Will their music stand the test of time and sound good in 10 or 20 or 50 years?
Q) Son Seals/ Lonnie Mack/ Johnny Winter/ Michael Burks and so the artist list goes on and on. You must on reflection be very proud of your labels achievements over the decades?
I’m extremely proud of what Alligator has come to mean in the blues world. I hope we are the mark of quality for any blues fan. On the other hand, I wish there were more competing labels, so more qualified artists would have conduits for getting their music to the world other than self-releasing or hoping to attract the attention of one of the labels still dedicated to this music.
With Blind Pig having been sold a couple years ago and presently being virtually inactive, the future of Delta Groove being in question since the death of its owner, and Delmark just having been sold to two jazz musicians (so we don’t know what its future as a blues label will be), Alligator is one of the “last men standing” in the blues.
Meanwhile, the overall blues fan base is not growing. Individual artists like Joe Bonamassa and Gary Clark Jr. have large fan followings, but their popularity doesn’t seem to do much to create fans for the blues as an overall genre of music (as much as both of them would like it to). Younger listeners are hardly being exposed to blues within the mainstream media. They have to seek it out on specialty radio shows, smaller publications and online. No longer do contemporary rock stations play a much blues-based music. The mainstream of popular music has become, to a great extent, either dance-pop or hip-hop.
The blues may be the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, but blues is not so much the roots of Taylor Swift or Childish Gambino. So there are very few ‘bridge’ artists to lead people to the blues. For these reasons, I’m very concerned about the future of blues recording and blues in general. We need visionary younger artists who can define blues for current and future audiences, and we need audiences with ears big to accept something other than traditional Delta or Chicago-style blues and blues-rock guitar heroes.
I love twelve bars and three chords and can listen to it all night long, but for most young listeners blues is repetitive and often the lyrics don’t speak to them. This has got to change or blues will become a museum piece. So my proudest achievements for the future will be to locate and record more of those visionary artists and help connect them with their potential fans.
Q) What has been the labels best selling releases?
Finally, an easy question–Showdown! by Albert Collins, Robert Cray and Johnny Copeland. After that, some of the best sellers are the first Hound Dog Taylor album, Johnny Winter’s Guitar Slinger and 3rd Degree, our first Marcia Ball album, most of the Albert Collins catalog, and Country Ghetto and the other releases by JJ Grey & Mofro.
Q) You employ a number of people for your label currently how many and when was that employment at its highest?
Right now there are 15 including me. At the highest point, in 1999, there were 21 plus me. Some of the shrinkage was due to jobs we didn’t need any more, like stuffing envelopes to mail out tens of thousands of press releases, which we do by email now.
Some was due to attrition. As people left, I combined some jobs. So right now we have: a sales manager (covering both national and international distribution), two radio promotion people, two press promotion people (one national/international and one for tour dates), a new media promotion person, a financial controller, an inventory manager (whose job it is to make sure we have exactly enough CDs in our warehouse and manufacture more as needed, but just the right number) a graphic designer, a head of mail order and two warehouse staff. And me to do everything else.
Q) You/ the record business has gone through various formats such as albums/ CD’s? cassettes now downloads and streaming. How do you adapt to such never ending changes and how do you stay ahead of all of this?
I don’t have much choice….I have to respond to the way people are experiencing music. I grew up on LPs and 45s, and for the first 15 years of Alligator we made LPs (and a few 45s that made no market impact). And we actually made a few 8-tracks (which also had no market impact). For a while, our entire catalog was also available on cassettes.
In 1985, I made a big gamble and bet the future of the company on compact discs. We had a hell of a time getting them manufactured (we made most of them in Europe and Korea) but it turned out to be a smart move and for a couple years the blues bins in most stores were full of our blue-boxed CDs. I like CDs–they’re hard to break and, if made with care, they sound like the producer intended them to sound.
With LPs, you have to distort the music to get it onto vinyl (I know lots of people love vinyl–I like the packaging and heft of it but I know enough about how you get music into the grooves to know that a carefully-produced and well-mastered CD will sound more like the producer’s or artist’s intent than an LP will.)
Still, to meet consumer demand we’ve released some key titles on LP over the last few years. The market for LPs isn’t as big as the publicity, but we like making our customers happy. It appears the future will be streaming, with people not owning music at all. This is hard for me to accept, and it’s hard for a lot of older consumers, but with cars and computers now coming without disc players, the market is definitely heading that way. So we’re dealing with all the key streaming services, even though they pay so little that it’s hard for a specialized label like Alligator to survive.
My hope is that as China and India open up to streaming services (it’s already happening) that we’ll make an additional number of fractions of a penny for millions more streams. So I think the future is not more money per stream but more people worldwide listening to streams. Of course, eventually we will have chips planted in our heads and just have to think about the song or artist or style we want to hear and it will play directly into our brains.
Q) What is the process for you/ Alligator finding new and young talent for your label such as Selwyn BIrchwood etc?
I am constantly watching and listening, and also hearing from friends around the country. I found Selwyn at the International Blues Challenge, where I also heard Jarekus Singleton (with whom we did a single album and has now chosen to go in some other musical directions). Lindsay Beaver, our latest signing, I saw with her old band, The 24th Street Wailers, at the Canada Blues Summit a few years ago. I still listen to demos as I can. Of course we maintain a small roster and I often have to pass on artists (young or older) if I don’t feel I can effectively promote them because I have too many commitments. This is one reason I wish I had more competitors, to open the door for young artists I can’t fit on our roster.
Q) How have you as an individual survived within the music industry over so many years?
A few ways–
1) I am committed to one genre of music, and one where I feel my ears are good enough so that I can choose top quality artists and help them make top quality records. Blues is the only music where I feel confident that I can make good artistic choices. If I tried jazz or pop or hip-hop I’d have to rely on someone else’s ears. (But–I usually consult with my staff before making signing decisions. They have good ears too).
2) We’re very media-centric. We service more radio, more press, more online media, etc. than any other than label in our genre, and we follow up on that servicing with emails and phone calls to make sure our artists and recordings get coverage. That’s been the philosophy of Alligator from day one.
3) We don’t live in the past. I loved it when there were good record stores in every city. I loved it when Progressive Rock and Adult Album Alternative radio played more blues and roots music. I loved it when a Stevie Ray could turn on many thousands of new blues fans. Those things aren’t going to happen again. I can bemoan the changes or deal with the new realities in how people experience music and how music can make money (if it can).
4) I’m surrounded by a great team of 14 people very dedicated to the label and our artists–people who know their jobs, are motivated and put in a tremendous amount of work. I get all the glory, but these amazing people (some who have been at Alligator 30 years or more) are essential to our success and survival.
Q) With the ever changing music industry and what seems to be the premise of the younger audience not valuing music monetarily as past generations have done, an example being folks wanting and getting music for nearly next to nothing via certain media outlets, how do you see the future of your label?
I think the future of all record labels is in doubt. All of us, from the multinational conglomerates to the one-person labels, invest a lot of money as well as a lot of energy into making a commercial recording and making the public aware of it. With the services like Spotify paying so little per stream, it’s very hard to make even a tiny profit. (Their payments vary somewhat, but typically we have to have a song streamed over 200 times to make as much money as if someone bought that one song from iTunes once). As I said, my hope is for the world market. Soon our music will be available to stream in China, and some of it is available in India. So I think there are a lot of potential blues fans and Alligator fans out there in the 2nd and 3rd worlds who just haven’t discovered our music yet…but hopefully they will. The emotional impact of the blues seems to work even when the listener can’t understand the words. But right now things are very, very tough for blues recording as a business.
Q) You have a book due out soon which I assume details out your music career and that of the labels?
Yes, it’s called Bitten By The Blues and is co-written with Patrick Roberts. It’s been a labor of love for over seven years. It tells stories of the artists and sessions and quite a bit about building Alligator as a business. I think most blues fans will really enjoy it and hopefully I’ve painted the pictures of the musicians, clubs and studios well. It will be out October 30 but is available for pre-order right now at Amazon and other sites. Also it’s available with a 20% discount on the pre-order with the code PRBITTEN20 at www.press.uchicago.edu. Patrick and I will be doing some question-and-answer sessions with book signings, one at the Logan Center Blues Festival on October 20 and another at SPACE in Evanston, IL on October 30 (along with a performance by Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials). Writing this book has reminded me again of what a blessed life I’ve had, being in the presence of blues greats and helping them reach a wider audience, and sometimes helping them make records that I believe will stand the test of time. Hound Dog, Son Seals, Fenton Robinson, Koko Taylor, Albert Collins, Johnny Otis, Professor Longhair, Michael Burks, James Cotton, Shemekia Copeland, Marcia Ball, Katie Webster, and the list goes on and on. How lucky can one guy be?
Visit Alligator Records’s website at: www.alligator.com
Interviewer Mike Stephenson is a UK based blues journalist and photographer who has been a blues fan all his life. He has written articles on and interviewed blues artists and reviewed blues events in Europe and the US primarily for Blues & Rhythm but also for other blues publications.