In 1971, US astronauts drove a Moon Rover along the lunar surface, Phillips introduced a crazy little thing called the VCR, and — oh yeah — Alligator Records released a Hound Dog Taylor LP, thus entering the blues music business. Stylistic fashions may come and go, but like it or not, people will always get the blues. Strangely enough, there is a twisted job security in becoming a blues musician, because humans are eternally drawn like moths to the flame when it comes to seeking out artists who can express their deepest sadnesses. During the intervening years between Taylor then and the likes of Shemekia Copeland now, as the music business Big Boys chased everything from the singer/songwriter sounds of the ’70s, to the nasty Southern crunk rap of modern times, Alligator Records remained a constant source of mighty fine blues music. Like the alligators it’s named after, this label has sharp teeth and good survival instincts.
This 35-song collection focuses exclusively on Alligator debut recordings from its essential label artists. After releasing approximately 2,800 songs over the years, choosing the 35 best would be a difficult task, to say the least. According to the CD booklet enclosed, a few of these performers had never recorded before coming to Alligator, whereas others arrived at the label in order to revitalize their careers or make some of their most personalized and/or traditional recordings.
It’s also worth noting that this new collection excludes selections from the label’s Living Chicago Blues series, as well as its all-star summit meetings, such as Showdown!, Harp Attack!, and Lone Star Shootout. Nevertheless, there’s still a whole lot of greatness contained within these two discs.
There are a few especially big names from the blues circuit represented here, although this is not always the best place to explore some of them. “Are You Losing Your Mind” by Buddy Guy is included, but it is by far not the best thing he’s ever recorded. His scattered electric guitar solo comes off as just a little too spontaneous and loose, and nowhere close to tight. Professor Longhair’s New Orleans piano work is also not quite up to par on his “In the Wee Wee Hours”. He’s sounded far better in other places. It’s too bad these compilers couldn’t have included something else that showed off Longhair’s fancy, rippling piano runs instead. In contrast, Koko Taylor’s female authoritativeness during “I Got What It Takes” is a far better contemporary example. The compilers should have added to these stars’ luster, in the cases of Guy and Longhair, rather than taken away from it.
Speaking of the amazing Koko Taylor, there are also plenty of other women represented along with Taylor. These women with the blues include Katie Webster, Safire–The Uppity Blues Women, Shemekia Copeland, and Marcia Bell.
Naturally, the most of these blues songs concern the sinful side of love and life. Yet Alligator still makes a little room for some gospel music as well. The wonderful Holmes Brothers are heard singing “Speaking in Tongues”, and Mavis Staples, of the famed Staple Singers, closes out this two-disc overview with “A Crying Man’s Plea”. Corey Harris not only covers Blind Willie Johnson’s gospel classic “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning”, but does so in a stripped-down, acoustic slide guitar fashion, which separates it distinctly from the rest of the highly amplified music found on the set. Additionally, C. J Chenier & the Red Hot Louisiana Band’s contribution is neither blues nor gospel, but instead the Zydeco of “Bad Luck”.
Alligator’s first Hound Dog Taylor recording took place in downtown Chicago’s Sound Studios, so it follows that much of this music has a distinctly amplified Chicago blues flavor to it. There are plenty of wonderful guitar string-benders sampled within, including Albert Collins, Johnny Winter, Tinsley Ellis, and Luther Allison.
Any label with a Harp Attack! series also knows its way around harp players, which is why harmonica blowers are found in great supply here, too. These participants range from James Cotton, who contributes “High Compression”, to Charlie Mussellwhite who gives us “River Hip Mama”.
Trends appear and disappear, sometimes almost as quickly as they arrive. But quality music — such as the blues — is eternal. The fine people at Alligator started their record company as a boutique label, and then built it into a successful commercial venture. Blues can also be trendy, it’s true, such as the revival it experienced in the ’60s with groups like the Rolling Stones and Cream. Even today, modern rock outfits like the White Stripes bring attention to this time-tested genre through many of their recordings. Alligator is a lot like the tenacious creatures it was named after: they may not be the most visible of God’s creations, but whenever you spot these proud beasts, you can’t ignore them and must respect them. The same respect that goes for the blues should also be paid to Alligator.