Alligator Records celebrates its 50th anniversary with blues gold from the vaults

It’s been a half-century since Bruce Iglauer scraped together $2500 and changed the course of blues music in America.

Bruce Iglauer with his (and Alligator’s) first recording artist, Hound Dog Taylor. (Nicole Fanelli photo)

But it seems like only yesterday that a young, hippily hirsute Iglauer joined Chicago’s Delmark Records, then left to produce “Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers,” the 1971 debut album of Theodore Roosevelt “Hound Dog” Taylor.

That album became Iglauer’s Alligator Records, and what has since become arguably the world’s premier blues label. And also introduced the label’s motto: “Genuine Houserockin’ Music.”

At least that’s how it feels to me. I imagine Bruce has passed those 50 blues-filled years somewhat differently than I have. Shoot, I’m still listening to the 30th anniversary set.

To celebrate this milestone, Alligator is releasing a 3-CD set (58 songs) or 2-LP set (24 songs) June 18, titled “50 years of Genuine Houserockin’ Music.” That’s a lot of music, especially on the CD side, plus a 40-page booklet!

It takes a lot of music to even begin to outline the blues (and blues history) that Alligator has given us. The label’s catalog of more than 300 albums is an audio time capsule of Chicago blues — and other styles like Piedmont blues and jump blues — that should help preserve the music for future fans.

The CD set kicks off with Taylor’s original and joyously raw “Give Me Back My Wig” from that prescient first album that became Taylor’s signature song.

It wraps up, 58 songs later, with “The Chicago Way,” by a “young” Toronzo Cannon, who at 53, should certainly be part of Alligator’s next 50 years.

In between is blues and rootsy music from past and present greats, including Hound Dog Taylor, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, J.J. Grey & Mofro, Koko Taylor, Johnny Winter, Tommy Castro, Marcia Ball, Albert Collins, Luther Allison, James Cotton, Toronzo Cannon and a cast of not quite thousands more. Plus, all of it remastered for our modern, more digitally sensitive ears.

Bruce Iglauer with Albert Collins. (Alligator Records photo)

There’s not really any “new” music here to write about. It should be more than enough of a recommendation to say that this music simply samples some of the best of 50 years of Alligator. That’s sort of like taking the cream off the top and finding even more cream underneath.

But it’s great to look back and listen to great tracks from Fenton Robinson (“Somebody Lend Me A Dime”), Son Seals (“Telephone Angel”), Luther Allison (“Soul Fixin; Man”) and the Holmes Brothers (“Run Myself Out Of Town”). They should send you deep into your Alligator blues library for more.

I know there’s a picture of an alligator in the label’s logo. And now I know why. I’d never heard the story before, but Iglauer talked about it an interview with the Chicago Sun Times:

“Alligator was my nickname,” Iglauer said, “and it comes from this funny habit I have of listening to music and unconsciously, not knowing I’m doing it, playing drum parts by clicking my teeth together. I’ve got this weird last name — Iglauer — which nobody can spell or pronounce. And then beyond that, alligators come from the South; blues, the music I love, is all Southern-rooted.”

Thanks to that music that he loves, Iglauer’s passion is our gain.

Congratulations, and don’t stop now. You’re just getting warmed up.

More about Alligator:

There’s a long interview with Iglauer in Blues Music Magazine, a short TV video interview, and what I hope is the complete list or albums released by Alligator.

Even more houserockin’ music:

Alligator will add to its 50th throwdown with a vinyl reissue of “Natural Boogie,” the raucous second LP from Taylor and The HouseRockers. Released in 1974 as the fourth title in Alligator’s catalog, this is the first vinyl pressing of “Natural Boogie” in more than 30 years. Iglauer produced the original, as he has done with many of the label’s albums, and supervised its remastering.

One final look:

Roadhouse album review: “Where and When” is passionate acoustic blues from Kelly’s Lot

Kelly Zirbes, or Kelly Z as she is sometimes known, has been performing her unique blend of folk, Americana and roots music since 1994, with a band (Kelly’s Lot) that can be two people, or as many as eight. She has 15 albums to her credit, but her newest release, “There and Then” (Self-release, June 11), is the first to focus entirely on the blues.

It’s an acoustic effort — just my luck to write about two excellent acoustic albums in a row, following Donna Herula’s sparkling “Bang at the Door” — with six originals written by Kelly and rhythm guitarist Perry Robertson that effortlessly capture the essence of their blues ancestors. Five other songs are taken from the considerable works of those ancestors, and given exemplary treatment.

There are three critical interlocking parts to this album — the lyrical content of all the songs, originals and covers; the whipsmart band (the Lot) of Doug Pettibone on sinuous lead guitar, David Grover on bass and Robertson; and blues-baked vocals by Zirbes.

From the opening track’s liquid guitar notes of the original what doesn’t kill you makes you “Stronger,” Kelly’s Lot sets the tone for what’s to come — an album filled with the musical strength and passion of the blues.

The rest of the album alternates between their creative originals and their selection of songs from the great blues talents of Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Cora “Lovie” Austin and Ma Rainey.

Here are the album notes on how these songs came to be written or selected (consider this a public service, since many of you are streaming your music and never get to see all the work that went into the CD or vinyl packaging. It certainly has nothing to do with me looking for easy content. And I’ve added a few notes of my own in italics.)

1) Stronger – Kelly and Perry were inspired to write this song by everything happening in the world. So many are feeling down, depressed, and trapped. We wanted to remind them that maybe these challenges will make us all stronger. A hopeful song to help us come out of a tough situation. (The best blues can be very hopeful, despite their reputation to the contrary. This is a beautiful example.)

2) Somebody In My Home – Kelly chose this song from Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Arthur Burnett) for its slow-moving groove and message about infidelity and who’s to blame. We all want love in a relationship but without it we may stray. Howlin’ Wolf writes the lyrics as the person who didn’t love their partner enough, which created a path for his lover to welcome someone else into his home.

3) Heaven – Kelly wrote the lyrics to this song after hearing Perry fiddling around on the guitar. Took them about 15 minutes from fiddling to finishing the song. They like to think of this song as a spiritual that doesn’t want to surrender. The truth is we don’t want to miss out on things when it is our time to leave this earth. (There’s a stirring call and response here with the band.)

4) Jealous Hearted Love – Cora “Lovie” Austin wrote this, and Ma Rainey made it known. It’s one of Kelly’s favorite Ma Rainey tunes and Lovie’s lyrics about jealousy make for some smiles instead of the ‘pit in your stomach’ jabs you get when you feel it. (Sample lyric that encourages smiling: “Got a range in my kitchen, cooks nice and brown, All I need is my man, to turn my damper down.”)

5) Lost – Perry challenged Kelly with a few guitar riffs to sing slower than she was used to and these words just came out. Depression is universal and those who feel it also know what it’s like to be lost. (“Lost on a lonely road…” is how it begins.)

6) Nature – Another great twist by Howlin’ Wolf. His lyrics explain how it is natural for a man to be lookin’ around or even being unfaithful. The twist is singing it as a woman who also has that choice. The upbeat vibe makes for a little fun.

7) Where And When – This song was written for a project Kelly did about grief. But it was also inspired by the idea that we don’t spend enough time with each other. (The shuffling blues melody is perfect counterpoint to the message.)

8) Stones In My Passway – Kelly knew she had to do this song by Robert Johnson because everyone can find a message in these lyrics. We all have stuff that gets in our way including those who love us and promise to respect us. You can also find a darker message too if you look for it, but it will come from your own experience because these lyrics let you do that! (One of Johnson’s best, I think. A universal message.)

9) That Fool – Kelly and Perry wrote this to express the deep sorrow of loving someone who doesn’t love you back and the quest to find a way to stop doing it. (The eternal quest.)

10) Black Eye Blues – The hard part about covering this song is Kelly’s mother lived the same experience as ‘Miss Nancy Ann’. Domestic violence is too common of a thread in our world, but these lyrics and upbeat music give some hope in finding strength and hopefully making the decision to leave. (Also a Ma Rainey song. An interesting sidelight or two: The original recording featured the prolific and influential Tampa Red on guitar and Georgia Tom Dorsey on piano. Dorsey later changed his tune a little, and became known, with some accuracy, as the father of gospel music.)

11) Ship – The phrase, “My ship is about to come in” morphed into this song about waiting for your ship when all along it is waiting for you to get on board. (Just the right thought to conclude this excellent album.)

Kelly’s Lot has been around for more than a quarter-century, which is a tribute to both the quality of the songwriting and excellent musical production. This album, for example, is rich with interplay between two talented guitarists (and a bass, of course!), all layered warmly around thoughtful lyrics and expressive vocals.

Listen to it soon.


Here’s a video of “Heaven”:

Roadhouse album review: Donna Herula creates an acoustic gem with “Bang at the Door”

I have to confess that prior to a few weeks ago, I had never heard the vibrant, rootsy acoustic music of Chicago singer/songwriter Donna Herula. My loss, of course.

She released a self-titled debut album of her finger-picking styles in 2009, and a follow-up in 2011 titled “The Moon Is Rising: Songs of Robert Nighthawk.” Since then, she has performed regularly in Chicago and worldwide, but her new album, “Bang at the Door,” (self-release, May 21) is her first studio effort in ten years.

The release of this sparkling album is a double treat: hearing her for the first time, plus enjoying the dynamic range of her songwriting and finger-picking skills.

In the space of eleven finely crafted originals and three unique covers, Herula displays a fluid range, moving from irresistibly jaunty rock (“Bang at the Door”) through folk music reminiscent of the ’60s (“Promise Me”) to straight-ahead blues (“Can’t Wait to See My Baby“).

Herula and her bandmates create a combination of lyrical sensibility and musical authenticity that makes you feel that this music has leapt right from a time out of mind onto the digital stage.

“Not Lookin” Back” is almost a ’50s jazz combo standard. “Got No Way Home” features rollicking piano, harp and liquid guitar that offer tasty blues, “Movin’ Back Home” dips into a lighthearted old-timey ragtime, “Got What I Deserve,” is a countryish ode to what appears to be unexpected motherhood, “Who’s Been Cookin’ in My Kitchen” is one of those delightful little slightly salacious double-entendre blues things, “Something’s Wrong With My Baby” is a bittersweet bluesy ballad.

The three covers are excellent versions of Bukka White’s “Fixin’ to Die,” Lucinda Williams’ “Jackson,” and Blind Willie Johnson’s magnificent “The Soul of a Man.”

Pay close attention to Herula’s guitar work throughout. No matter what the style — Delta, fingerpicking, slide — she brings an effortless authenticity to the music. Her vocals follow suit, and the combination makes the music go down easy. She deserves a much wider audience.

Special guests on this session include Anne Harris (violin), Daryl Davis (piano), Doug Hammer (piano), Bill Newton (harmonica), Tony Nardiello (singer/guitarist), and backup-singers Katherine Davis and Rebecca Toon.  The CD was produced by Jon Shain and recorded by FJ Ventre (also the upright bass player) at Good Luck Studio in Chapel Hill, NC.

If you want to hear how Herula sounds mainly on her own, working entirely in blues (and it’s very good), check out her album “The Moon Is Rising: Songs of Robert Nighthawk” for some enjoyable time travel through the visceral music of Robert Lee McCollum, or Robert Nighthawk.

And there’s an excellent interview with her on the Acoustic, Folk and Country Blues website by Frank Matheis, where she talks about how she came to be who and where she is.

Here are videos of two songs on “Bang at the Door”:

Track list (with descriptions from the album)

  1. Bang at the Door:  Pop/rock blues about a late-night visitor
  2. Pass the Biscuits:  New Orleans style about relationship between musician and DJ host
  3. Can’t Wait to See My Baby: Chicago-Blues style duet about the excitement of love
  4. Promise Me: Folk song about the loss felt when a loved one is in prison (with slide guitar and mandolin)
  5. Not Lookin’ Back: Jazz combo about leaving a partner with a drug addiction
  6. I Got No Way Home: Chicago blues jam with piano, harmonica, guitar and three-part harmonies
  7. Black Ice: Brooding slide guitar instrumental
  8. Fixin’ to Die: Traditional Delta Blues with slide guitar solos (cover)
  9. Jackson: Ballad with acoustic guitar and slide with male lead and harmonies (cover)
  10. Movin’ Back Home: Comical ragtime song with call and response
  11. Got What I Deserve:  A woman’s view on the tribulations of motherhood (with Anne Harris on fiddle)
  12. Who’s Been Cookin’ in My Kitchen:  Double entendre solo, acoustic blues
  13. Something’s Wrong With My Baby:  Heartfelt vocals, desperation with loving a partner with depression
  14. The Soul of a Man:  Blues gospel with harmonies (cover)

All songs written by Donna Herula except track 8 (Booker T. Washington “Bukka” White), 9 (Lucinda Williams), 11 (Jon Shain & Donna Herula), and 14 (Blind Willie Johnson).

Here are the 2021 Blues Music Awards winners

Here are the Blues Music Awards winners, announced at ceremonies last night (June 6), listed in bold, with the nominees in each category:

B.B. King Entertainer of the Year
Shemekia Copeland 
Rick Estrin 
John Németh 
Sugaray Rayford 
Lil’ Ed Williams 

Album of the Year
100 Years of Blues, Elvin Bishop and Charlie Musselwhite 
Rawer Than Raw, Bobby Rush 
Rise Up, Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters 
Too Far From the Bar, Sugar Ray & The Bluetones featuring Little Charlie 
Uncivil War, Shemekia Copeland

Band of the Year
Anthony Geraci & The Boston Blues Allstars 
John Németh & The Blue Dreamers 
Rick Estrin & The Nightcats 
Southern Avenue 
Sugar Ray & The Bluetones 


Song of the Year
“All My Dues Are Paid” – written by Kathy Murray, Rick Estrin, Frank Bey, Kid Andersen (performed by Frank Bey) 
“All Out of Tears” – written by Walter Trout, Marie Trout, and Teeny Tucker (performed by Walter Trout) 
“Blues Comin’ On” – written by Dion DiMucci and Mike Aquilina (performed by Dion Feat. Joe Bonamassa) 
“Is It Over” – written by Don Bryant and Scott Bomar (performed by Don Bryant) 
“Uncivil War” – written by John Hahn and Will Kimbrough (performed by Shemekia Copeland) 


Best Emerging Artist Album
Hard Workin‘ Man, Andrew Alli 
Harlem, King Solomon Hicks 
Here I Come, Jose Ramirez 
High Risk Low Reward, Ryan Perry 
Peace In Pieces, Betty Fox Band


Acoustic Blues Album
Dustin Arbuckle & Matt Woods, Dustin Arbuckle & Matt Woods 
Prove It On Me, Rory Block 
Rawer Than Raw, Bobby Rush 
Three Pints of Gin, Richard Ray Farrell 
Traveling Man – Live, Watermelon Slim 


Blues Rock Album
Ain’t Done Yet, Savoy Brown 
Ice Cream In Hell, Tinsley Ellis 
Mike Zito and Friends – Rock ‘n’ Roll: A Tribute to Chuck Berry, Mike Zito 
Mississippi Suitcase, Peter Parcek 
Ordinary Madness, Walter Trout


Contemporary Blues Album
Cry Out, Kat Riggins 
My Blues Pathway, Kirk Fletcher 
Self-Made Man, Larkin Poe 
Stronger Than Strong, John Németh 
Uncivil War, Shemekia Copeland


Soul Blues Album
All My Dues Are Paid, Frank Bey 
Found! One Soul Singer, Sonny Green 
That’s What I Heard, Robert Cray Band 
Where Have All The Soul Men Gone, Johnny Rawls 
You Make Me Feel, Don Bryant 


Traditional Blues Album
100 Years of Blues, Elvin Bishop and Charlie Musselwhite 
Blueswoman, Nora Jean Wallace 
Every Day of Your Life, Jimmy Johnson 
Rise Up, Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters 
Too Far From the Bar, Sugar Ray & The Bluetones featuring Little Charlie


Acoustic Blues Artist
Dom Flemons 
Catfish Keith 
Harrison Kennedy 
Doug MacLeod 
Keb‘ Mo’


Blues Rock Artist
Tinsley Ellis 
Reverend Peyton 
Ana Popovic 
Mike Zito

Contemporary Blues Female Artist
Shemekia Copeland 
Samantha Fish 
Sue Foley 
Ruthie Foster 
Shaun Murphy

Contemporary Blues Male Artist
Selwyn Birchwood 
Chris Cain 
Rick Estrin 
Christone “Kingfish” Ingram 
J.P. Soars 

Soul Blues Female Artist
Annika Chambers 
Thornetta Davis 
Bettye LaVette 
Dorothy Moore 
Terrie Odabi 

Soul Blues Male Artist
William Bell 
Don Bryant 
John Németh 
Johnny Rawls 
Curtis Salgado

Traditional Blues Female Artist (Koko Taylor Award)
Rory Block 
Rhiannon Giddens 
Diunna Greenleaf 
Trudy Lynn 
Teeny Tucker

Traditional Blues Male Artist
Billy Branch 
Sugar Ray Norcia 
John Primer 
Jontavious Willis 
Kim Wilson

Instrumentalist – Bass
Willie J. Campbell 
Larry Fulcher 
Danielle Nicole 
Patrick Rynn 
Michael “Mudcat” Ward 

Instrumentalist – Drums
Tony Braunagel 
June Core 
Derrick “D’Mar” Martin 
Bernard Purdie 
Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith 

Instrumentalist – Guitar
Christoffer “Kid” Andersen 
Chris Cain 
Laura Chavez 
Kirk Fletcher 
Christone “Kingfish” Ingram 

Instrumentalist – Harmonica
Billy Branch 
Rick Estrin 
Dennis Gruenling 
Jason Ricci 
Kim Wilson 

Instrumentalist – Horn
Mindi Abair 
Jimmy Carpenter 
Doug James 
Mark “Kaz” Kazanoff 
Nancy Wright 

Instrumentalist – Piano (Pinetop Perkins Piano Player Award)
Mike Finnigan 
Anthony Geraci 
Johnny Iguana 
Bruce Katz 
Jim Pugh 

Instrumentalist – Vocals
Thornetta Davis 
Ruthie Foster 
John Németh 
Sugar Ray Norcia 
Sugaray Rayford 

Roadhouse album review: You really should have Tia Carroll’s elegantly soulful “You Gotta Have It”

It’s always been exciting to find a “new” artist, and then pass along that find so that others can share the excitement.

That’s what I’m doing here today, although bluesy, soulful Tia Carroll is definitely not a new artist. She’s just been singing her pipes off, hidden away in the San Francisco Bay Area for decades.

And now, thanks to the talented and musically prescient folks at California’s rootsy non-profit record label, Little Village Foundation, you can hear Carroll’s first blues album produced here in the U.S. of A., “You Gotta Have It” (June 1).

“Produced” is probably the wrong word to describe the magic worked by Little Village founder Jim Pugh, with his unerring piano and organ chops, plus his musical sensibilities. Also lending a fretful hand is the multi-talented guitarist and producer, Christoffer “Kid” Andersen.

But the focus should be the powerful and passionate music of Tia Carroll. She’s tender (“I Need Someone”), she’s tough (“Don’t Put Your Hands On Me,” a clever little R&B ditty by Rick Estrin, written for KoKo Taylor), she scorches and torches with the best (“Mama Told Me”), she’s hard-driving (“Ready to Love Again” by Kid and his also multi-talented spouse Lisa Andersen).

The Sons of Soul Revivers layer some soulful gospel flavor into the album, but especially with the Carroll’s take on the Staples Singers’ great “Why Am I Treated So Bad?” And then there’s Carroll’s loving caress of the soul-drenched lyrics of Z.Z. Hill’s “I Need Someone.” The magic just won’t stop.

Not content with classy covers, Carroll has added three of her own powerful tunes: “Leaving Again,” “Even When I’m Not Alone” and and her inspirational “Move On,” with Brazilian bluesman Igor Prado.

It’s clear from this lovingly created album that Ms. Carroll has mastered her soulful craft. And it’s way past time for her music to be shared on a larger stage. Treat yourself to some soul music that’s really soul music. You’ve gotta have it.


Here’s a thoughtful interview with Tia Carroll by Greek blues writer Michael Limnios. (Yes, you read that right — Greek blues writer. He’s prolific and informative.

Here’s a version of one of the album’s songs, “Even When I’m Not Alone.”

Tracklist:

1. Ain’t Nobody Worryin’
2. Even When I’m Not Alone
3. Our Last Time
4. Don’t Put Your Hands On Me
5. Never Let Me Go
6. Leaving Again
7. Mama Told Me
8. Ready To Love Again
9. I Need Someone
10. Move On
11. Why Am I Treated So Bad

Roadhouse album review: Robert Finley pours his soul into “Sharecropper’s Son”

For someone who didn’t record an album until he was 63 in 2016 (Appropriately, “Age Don’t Mean A Thing”), soul and blues man Robert Finley is doing just fine, thank you.

You can tell just how well by lending an ear to his excellent third and most recent album, the autobiographical “Sharecropper’s Son” (Easy Eye Sound May 21), and absorbing his strong, tough vocal sensibilities — plus his spine-tingling falsetto.

This album is the second collaboration between Finley and Dan Auerbach, one-half of the Black Keys (who just released “Delta Kream” — Roadhouse review here) Their first was “Goin’ Platinum!,” released on Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound in 2017.

That prompted Auerbach’s observation: “He’s the greatest living soul singer as far as I’m concerned.”

Auerbach co-wrote and produced “Sharecropper’s Son,” along with Bobby Wood, and Pat McLaughlin, but its power comes from Finley’s passionate delivery.

From the opening bars of the gritty “Souled Out On You” to the closing gospel strains of “All My Hope,” Finley wraps his soul around music that gives you a mini-version of his life. “Country Child” and “Sharecropper’s Son” are especially compelling narratives. I don’t mean to overlook any of the cuts — they are all finely crafted, whip-smart blues and soul spun from a life full of both.

And then there’s the music. Finley’s backers lay down a soulful soundtrack that matches his vocals in their intensity. Auerbach lends his scorching guitar to “Souled Out On You,” with more help from Mississippi Hill Country slidemaster Kenny Brown, well-known for his teaming with R. L. Burnside. The band also includes Russ Pahl, Billy Sanford, and Gene Chrisman, plus horns, plus Nick Movshon of the Dap-Kings, blues artist Eric Deaton, and former Johnny Cash bandmate Dave Roe.

But I’m pretty sure that if Finley did this acapella, it would still be a great album.

And just so you know, Finley’s blues autobiography began with a thrift store guitar when he was 11, an Army tour, where he served as a band guitarist, returned to his native Louisiana busked as a street performer, sang in a gospel group, and worked as a carpenter.

Eventually, he was forced to retire from carpentry after becoming legally blind, and turned back to music. In 2015, Music Maker Relief Foundation, which supports aging blues musicians, discovered Finley busking in Arkansasand helped get him back on the road to music.

In 2019, Finley became a contestant for the fourteenth season of America’s Got Talent. AGT He reached the live shows but was eliminated in the semi-finals.

Here’s one of Finley’s appearances on America’s Got Talent in 2019:

Here’s “Souled Out On You”:

Track list:

1. Souled Out on You
2. Make Me Feel Alright
3. Country Child
4. Sharecropper’s Son
5. My Story
6. Starting to See
7. I Can Feel Your Pain
8. Better Than I Treat Myself
9. Country Boy
10. All My Hope

If these ten songs somehow leave you unsatisfied, check out his two previous outings, “Age Don’t Mean A Thing” and “Goin’ Platinum!” (I found all three of Finley’s albums streaming on Amazon Music.)