Each year the Tribune recognizes a handful of Chicagoans as its artists of the year. This year, Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer is among them. Here's why:
The Chicago Blues Festival reserved its final night last June for a birthday party: homegrown label Alligator Records was turning 40.
Tough West Side blues was played by Eddy Clearwater, Lonnie Brooks shouted “Sweet Home Chicago” like it was more than just an obligation, and Shemekia Copeland roared – even without a microphone, she projected to the back row of seats fanning out from the Petrillo Bandshell in Grant Park. Behind the scenes enjoying it all was the label’s founder and do-everything-guy, Bruce Iglauer.
It was a rare moment for Iglauer, allowing himself to briefly acknowledge what he and his staff and countless artists have built over four decades. Then it was back to work. A few weeks ago, the blues devotee who started his label out of his North Side bedroom in 1971 was talking excitedly about a couple of his latest signings, including Joe Louis Walker, whose forthcoming album, “Hellfire,” sounds like one of the best in his career.
Iglauer has launched or resurrected numerous careers in his tenure, releasing classic albums by artists including Copeland, Brooks, Koko Taylor, Albert Collins, Johnny Winter, Son Seals, Luther Allison, Corey Harris, the Holmes Brothers, Mavis Staples and Charlie Musselwhite.
Though the music industry has been hit hard in the last decade, Alligator has continued to release a steady stream of music – more than 250 albums – and pay out $500,000 annually in royalties to its artists. Iglauer has done everything from producing recording sessions to writing press releases, and remains a tireless proponent of a style of music that captivated him at an early age and never let go.
In a city that is home to dozens of independent labels, only Delmark Records has a longer track record than Alligator. Iglauer was working at Delmark when he first saw Hound Dog Taylor; he was so determined to record the blues guitarist that he cashed in a $2,500 inheritance and started his own label at age 23.
Before he worked his way into the nationwide distribution network that he has now, Iglauer would sell albums out of his car trunk. His faith in Taylor was amply rewarded when “Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers” went on to sell tens of thousands of albums. It not only helped pay Taylor’s rent for years to come, it effectively put the label on the map and broadcast its approach: “clean recording of dirty sounds,” as Iglauer once said.
The challenge for Iglauer now is how to keep the label healthy with sales of recorded music declining annually and blues commanding less than 1 percent of the American market. Yet, even after 40 years working nearly every day, he remains an enthusiast. Thoughts of retiring or working for the ACLU take a distant back-seat to blues advocacy. He long ago knew that running a blues label consigned him to a lifetime of tip-toeing on the brink of insolvency. But Iglauer has always seen a greater mission: providing a support network for life-affirming music that might not otherwise be heard.
“Somebody has to be a patron of the arts below a certain economic line,” he told the Tribune earlier this year. “That is our role. Koko (Taylor) used to say, ‘never curse the bridge that took you across.’ We need to be that bridge for a lot of artists.”
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