Dear Friends,

We’re thrilled by the initial reactions to Shemekia Copeland’s brand new album, Talking To Strangers. In the first week of its release, it was ranked the #1 blues CD in the country by Billboard magazine’s Blues Chart, was the most-added record overall in the commercial Adult Album Alternative radio format (unheard of for a blues record), and Shemekia joined her producer, Dr. John, to open for the Rolling Stones at the historic Aragon Ballroom in Chicago! It’s quite a way to debut a new album! Now she’s on the road opening a series of dates for Buddy Guy. In the last couple of years, Shemekia’s huge voice, raw energy and larger-than-life stage personality have gained an even greater level of shading and subtlety; Talking To Strangers is her most mature album yet.

There will be no new Gator releases for the rest of the year, but we’ll be issuing Dave Hole’s first live album early in 2003, which includes highlights of his recent U.S. tour. I’ve heard the unmixed songs, and they capture Dave’s amazing slide playing and in-your-face guitar sound even better than his studio recordings. Plus, we’re in pre-production for new CDs by Marcia Ball, Michael Burks and The Holmes Brothers. We’re also working on a series of very low-priced samplers to feature some of our finest guitarists, harp players and Chicago artists. You can expect some other surprises from us next year, too. Meanwhile, if you haven’t checked our web site at recently, you’re missing out on some great Alligator bargains, as well as a very exciting contest to win an XM satellite radio!

I was telling you last time about the making of Koko Taylor’s fourth Alligator album, Queen Of The Blues, back in 1985. After Koko and I chose songs together,we needed to rehearse basic arrangements for all the tunes, since our guests were going to be able to join us only in the studio.

We rehearsed in the basement of Koko’s little bungalow on the South Side. It was cramped, but we managed to jam Koko and the basic rhythm section of guitarist/ arranger Criss Johnson, bassist Johnny B. Gayden, drummer Ray Allison and keyboardist ‘Professor’ Eddie Lusk (whose death some years ago at a very young age robbed Chicago of one of its most dynamic blues personalities). Koko’s husband, the late Robert ‘Pops’ Taylor, supervised all of us, and wasn’t the least bit shy about giving suggestions about how each song should go, because they had to be perfect for his beloved ‘Bunch’ (as he called Koko). Koko doesn’t play an instrument, but Criss built the arrangements around her singing. She might sing a rhythm or bass line, and he would pick out the notes on guitar, making sure that he exactly duplicated her phrasing. Koko grew up in the Delta, and the subtly syncopated Delta grooves are second nature to her. And if Criss didn’t nail them just right, she’d insist on going over each one until he understood her every nuance. As soon as the groove was established, Criss began working up the lines for each player, and everyone (including Koko, Pops and myself) would throw in our ideas about how we heard the songs, so each song grew almost by committee effort. Because we were doing new versions of songs that had been previously recorded, it was important to all of us that we find fresh new ideas for them. I remember in particular that we were stumped trying to find a new bass line for the Howlin’ Wolf classic, Evil. It was a song I had always wanted to hear Koko record; her big, growling voice reminded me of the Wolf’s. I went to bed one night after rehearsal and woke up in the middle of the night actually singing a bass line for the song. I had the presence of mind to turn on a cassette player and record it, and brought the tape to rehearsal the next day. Johnny Gayden managed to interpret my off-pitch singing to the correct bass notes, and an arrangement was born. I’m proud to say that this version of Evil ended up in two feature films, “Adventures In Babysitting” and “Mercury Rising.”

More next time,

Bruce Iglauer