It’s somehow comforting when Lawrentians end up in high places — it’s proof that all these student loans might someday pay off in fame. Among these notable Lawrence grads is Bruce Iglauer ’69, who has operated the esteemed Chicago blues label Alligator Records since 1971.
Alligator has put out nearly 300 records, almost half of which feature Iglauer’s production, and though the label is consistently cited as the definitive source for local blues, he insists the operation has been “very bare-bones” since its inception. “Alligator is a small company — 15 employees besides me. No one makes a lot of money,” he said. “I operated the label from [my] house for 10 years.”
Though the enterprise may be run simply, Alligator has endured because of its basis in passion. Its formation resulted from Iglauer’s desire to get one of his favorite bands on record. Delmark Records, his former employer, didn’t seem interested in Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers, but Iglauer “fell in love with them — they had a very raw, rough sound and heaps of energy.” He produced their record himself, released it and Alligator thus was founded. The label still follows an expanded version of that same tale.
“That’s what I’ve been doing for the last 40 years,” said Iglauer. “Recording and releasing music by my favorite blues artists.”
His taste must be astute. The label’s roster is eclectic, to be sure, but also includes several surprisingly big names. Renowned players Buddy Guy, Johnny Winter and Albert Collins have all recorded on Alligator, as have recent favorites Mavis Staples and Buckwheat Zydeco. Three Grammy wins have validated Iglauer’s selections, and have given the label its staying power, along with “some good business sense and a lot of tenacity.”
Independence from the major-label system has helped keep Alligator a passion project. Iglauer has received offers to sell his company before, “but I could sense pretty quickly they perceived [it] as a commercial entity, not a musical one,” he said.
“I knew that if I sold, some of my favorite recordings, ones that sell more slowly, would be taken out of print. And I was sure there would be pressure to drop some of the artists that haven’t yet found a large audience.”
The personal decision-making process has helped keep the label growing and thriving into its 40th year and made Iglauer a mentor to other independent organizations, wherein he appreciates the opportunity to “help someone make brand-new mistakes instead of the ones I’ve made”.
Some of Iglauer’s willingness to venture comes from his time as a Lawrence student. He hosted the WLFM blues show and exercised his interest by bringing Luther Allison to campus in 1969. His tireless promotional efforts earned him his spot at the aforementioned Delmark Records — his entry point into the business of blues records, where his B.A. paid off “packing boxes of LPs and loading and unloading trucks.”
Iglauer’s determination to champion his beliefs also manifested in the Vietnam Opposition and Civil Rights Movements, in which his efforts included marches, SDS membership and a hand in the 1969 student takeover of administrative offices.
Academically, he “dabbled” in English, history and theater, and “was very much taken with a few faculty members,” Madame Koffka, Dr. Cloak, David Mayer and Hugo Martinez among them. The Lawrence Bubble seems like “a strange parallel universe” sometimes, but Iglauer learned some skills that, he admitted, have “served [me] well over the years.”
“I evolved from kind of a bookish nerd into a pretty politically and socially active lefty,” Iglauer observed.
Lawrence serves us all in different ways, and to see a fellow attendee achieve success is in many ways inspiring. Though we can’t all win Grammys, or storm President Jill Beck’s house, the Lawrence Difference will hopefully see us all as content and successful as Bruce Iglauer has been with Alligator Records.