Bruce Iglauer & Patrick A. Roberts
Release date: 2018
The University of Chicago Press Review by Mark Baier
The story of the blues is impossible to tell without also telling the story of Alligator Records. The venerable label has, since 1971, not only been instrumental in promoting blues music as a commercial idiom, but also set standards, both musical and ethical, that competitors can only aspire to meet. Of course, none of this could have happened without the courage and vision of Alligator’s founder, Bruce Iglauer. Bitten By The Blues, published by University of Chicago Press and co-written by Iglauer and Patrick A. Roberts, is the first-hand recounting of the journey Bruce and Alligator have taken; it is essential reading for even the most casual of blues lovers.
The story starts in the late ‘60s when Iglauer, a theatre major at Lawrence University in Appleton WI, started making regular pilgrimages to Chicago in order to hear first hand the blues music he had fallen in love with. Inspired by Vanguard Records’ influential Chicago the Blues Today, a young Iglauer found himself like a bee to honey buzzing around Bob Koester’s Jazz Record Mart, basking in an atmosphere that venerated the small but vibrant blues community.
It was a time dominated by the burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll explosion, and one that had seemed to forget the artists and genres that were the foundation of everything being built upon it. The idealistic Iglauer was determined to rectify this and bring the real thing, Chicago's blues, to a wider audience of his peers. What started as a desire to bring authentic Chicago blues to Lawrence for campus dances quickly became a mission to bring Chicago's finest cultural export to a much wider audience and Alligator Records was born. In an act of fate that Iglauer could only have dreamt about, his decision to record Hound Dog Taylor, a virtual unknown outside the small neighborhood clubs in the city's hardscrabble South and West Sides, resonated with independent FM radio stations across the country. Iglauer proved to be a tireless crusader and promoter, logging countless hours in his Chevy Vega, stacks of LPs crammed in the back.
Bitten By The Blues is littered with fascinating tales of this heady time and his mission, one that as much chose Iglauer as he chose it. Iglauer emerges as a messenger chosen to spread the word and deeds of Chicago blues, and time after time he proves himself to be an exemplary prophet, earning the trust of artists and fans along the way. Blues artists historically had been mistreated by record labels and unscrupulous promoters and Iglauer not only won their confidence but exhibited a courage to defend them that was unheard of at the time. His love of the blues transcended the music and was notable for his recognition of the humanity of those playing it. Never one to be content calling the shots from an office or skybox, Iglauer was just as likely to be driving from gig to gig as he was to be writing the checks and directing the recording sessions. Bitten By The Blues is not only a lesson in how to successfully run an independent record company, but also a primer in doing it ethically and honorably. It is a tale of people and product, with the two inexorably intertwined. Bitten by The Blues reveals that Iglauer never forgot that central truth.
There are intimate backstage stories galore as well as cautionary tales of trying to operate a profitable business in a sea of uncertainty. The music business has been aptly described (by gonzo writer Hunter S. Thompson) as "a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side." Iglauer acknowledges all of that and how he negotiated this veritable minefield. Though he didn't realize it at the time, it took a substantial amount of courage and principal to prevail.
The day to day anecdotes of the artists themselves (including Koko Taylor, Son Seals, Luther Allison, Albert Collins, Johnny Winter and many more) and the challenges this personal attention demanded are the joyful moments when juxtaposed against the realities of operating a record company profitably. Alligator’s evolution, initially revolving around a small cadre of local artists, in time reached across the country and ultimately spread worldwide in its scope and vision. Iglauer seemingly never dreamed of building this empire, he was too busy doing it. Bitten By The Blues recounts the many ways which the music business will drive someone to penury. Iglauer’s success is equal parts being blind to these diversions as it is being obsessed with them.
Ultimately Bitten By The Blues is the story of one man’s youthful passion and the subsequent lifelong voyage this musical spirit takes him on. It's a journey that has resulted in Grammy awards and nights spent sleeping in the car. It's a journey that tested his character and brought joy to his heart. It's a journey that makes it hard to imagine a world without Alligator Records and the contribution it has had on the music community. It's a journey mapped by providence and sheer willpower. If Alligator’s most recent releases are any indication, the Blues are very much alive and well; with Bruce Iglauer and Alligator Records championing the music’s journey into the unknown, it is in eminently good hands.