If Crown and King records typified the sound of 1950s blues, and Chess ruled supreme from the 1950s into the 1960s with Delmark closely rivalling its fellow Chicago label from the mid-1960s onwards, then one could argue with some conviction that the modern era in blues began in earnest with the creation of Alligator records in 1971. Blues was then at something of a crossroads with the emergence of soul music making major inroads into what had formerly been called R & B and with rock music ruling the roost, and groups such as the Rolling Stones both looking forward with innovative new sounds and looking back towards the blues tradition for inspiration. Into this maelstrom arrived one Bruce Iglauer, a native of Cincinnati, but whose love of the blues, Fred McDowell in particular, led to a blues pilgrimage to the Windy City where he became permanently resident. Enthralled by the vibrant club scene of Chicago, Iglauer had the foresight to set up a label that looked back to the overlooked greats of blues music and provided them with a much needed voice, while at the same time looking forward to the future, nurturing young talent. It was this all-encompassing and level-headed policy that paid dividends in the long-term and is the subject of this handsome overview of the label’s musicians. Previously, Alligator has celebrated its twentieth and twenty-fifth anniversaries, but this was by no means an overnight success story. In fact, it took the good part of a decade before Alligator became fully established and in the early days margins were so tight that just one record was released per annum.
This two CD set celebrates some of the most enduring musicians and an integral part of the label’s success was the living Chicago blues series which is exemplified here by the contribution of Jimmy Johnson on, ‘Your turn to cry’. Major commercial success came with the signing up of Koko Taylor in 1975 and her offering, ‘Voodoo woman’, was a clear indication that Alligator was going up in the world. Even Mavis Staples was not averse to recording for the label and here it is a storming interpretation of, ‘Will the circle be unbroken’, a song that she was only too familiar with from her work as part of the Staples family. Further hits followed and included the likes of Roy Buchanan, Albert Collins and the white blues-rock of Johnny Winter, all ably represented here, while harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite conjures up a storm on, ‘The well’.
The roots of the blues and its diverse constituent parts were not overlooked, however, and this encompassed gospel, folk-blues and even country-blues. That gospel and blues are inextricably linked is illustrated here by the mellifluous harmonies of the Holmes Brothers on ‘Amazing grace’ while the latter styles are covered by singer Delbert McClinton on, ‘Givin’ it up for your love’.
Bruce Iglauer always had an eye to the future and this was illustrated by the ‘new bloods’ anthology. From this, Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials offer up, ‘Hold that train’, and more recently Shemekia Copeland has hit big time, exemplified here by, ‘Devil’s hand’. Other younger musicians worth investigating on this sampler are Selwyn Birchwood and Toronzo Cannon. One of the most interesting of recent artists is soul-blues singer-songwriter Curtis Salgado who has recorded a series of acclaimed albums. From his more recent work, ‘Walk a mile in my blues’, lays down the tightest of rhythm sections and some superbly soulful vocals.
Key to the longevity of the label has been that Bruce Iglauer has maintained the same guiding principles and with a dedicated team, Alligator has gone from strength to strength in the twenty-first century. Blues fans will marvel at the array of talent on board, and neophytes could do a lot worse than investigate this excellent value for money thirty-seven track anthology (with no repetition of tracks from the previous anniversary albums) if they think they may just be interested in the blues and would like to sample an overview of diverse styles for a fuller flavour.