I can’t tell you how thrilled we are with the initial reaction to Shemekia Copeland’s new album, Wicked. Between the radio play for “It’s 2 A.M”, the great press coverage including a feature on her on National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” show, and her touring this fall with B.B. King, she’s standing on the verge of becoming the best known young blues artist in the country. And, contrary to what you might read in some blues online chat groups, the reason she’s selling so many records is her talent, pure and simple. Shemekia’s been riding up and down the highway singing her heart out since she was 17; she wasn’t somehow “manufactured” by her label. Anyone who’s seen Mekia live will testify that she delivers wonderful, totally soulful real blues every night on the bandstand, and was doing so before she ever recorded. We were just lucky enough to sign her before some other label discovered how great she is. Check out her tour dates on our web site at www.alligator.com.
I’m very pleased to announce the signing of two of the South’s finest bluesmen. In 2001, we’ll be releasing new albums by both Michael Burks, the pride of Arkansas, and Sherman Robertson, the Houston guitar wizard who was just featured in Living Blues. I caught both of them live this summer (Michael at the Chicago Blues Festival and Sherman at the Pioneer Valley Festival) and was knocked out by their power, confidence and musical maturity. I wasn’t planning to sign two new artists this year, but their performances left me with no choice. Michael will record in Memphis in November; Sherman will probably be in the studio in Austin in December. And look for Johnny Winter and Roy Buchanan Deluxe Editions of in late January, including previously unreleased tracks and the other Deluxe Edition features, like mini-poster, extra length and state of the art remastering.
I told you last time about the trial by fire that Johnny Winter put me through during the Guitar Slinger sessions. But after we got settled in at Streeterville Studios with Justin Niebank at the controls, Johnny got truly creative. He had initially cut a few tracks without vocals, and he molded one of them into a new version of Clifton Chenier’s 50s hit, “My Soul.” After we struggled to figure out the lyrics from the original record, Johnny had the idea of slowing down the tape to sing backgrounds which became “girl voices” when we sped up the tape again. Then, late one night, he decided to cut the slide solo with a very, very low tuning which required a huge big E string. It was after 11 p.m. but Johnny was hot to get this idea on tape, so I began calling guitar players at home. I finally found Steve Freund, who amazingly had some super-heavy strings and was willing to come down to the studio. Johnny set up the guitar and whipped off one of his patented slide solos that fit the tune perfectly.
Dick Shurman and I pushed Johnny hard on his vocals. He had fallen into the “white boy growl” mode of singing over the years, and we wanted him to sing more and growl less. Johnny doesn’t have a big voice, but he has a great feel for getting a blues story out, with a real good vibrato. To me, Johnny’s three Alligator albums represent a turning point in his singing. He really showed his vocal chops on the slower numbers, like “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”. But most of all, with Guitar Slinger, he reaffirmed the depth of his blues roots after spending most of the preceding decade in the rock world. Johnny has been true to his roots ever since, and happier for it.
Releasing a Johnny Winter album was also a turning point for Alligator. Before Johnny, the media pretty much treated us as a blues label for blues fans only. Radio in particular had really ghettoized us. With Johnny, because of his fame from the 60s and 70s, we were suddenly perceived as real players. Plus, Johnny helped all his labelmates to get more radio attention. Meanwhile, being with Alligator gave him the credibility with blues fans that was so important to him. It was a stormy relationship, but we all won in the end.
Next time, James Cotton.