I had a great time at the Rawa Blues Festival in Poland last month. Both Toronzo Cannon and Shemekia Copeland tore up the festival. Shemekia has had that larger-than-life charisma ever since she began her career as a teenager. At Rawa, she delivered songs from all her Alligator albums, including the latest, the Grammy-nominated Outskirts of Love. Watching Toronzo grow from a solid Chicago club performer into a thrilling bluesman worthy of any festival stage has been one of the pleasures of the last year. He had cut two fine albums for Delmark before he joined Alligator, but The Chicago Way announced him as a world-class talent with a whole lot to say. You can see highlights of Toronzo’s and Shemekia’s Rawa Festival sets on YouTube.
The night before the festival, I marveled at the city’s brand new concert hall, where Keb Mo played with the city’s symphony orchestra. Corey Harris opened the show playing solo. Corey may be the most soulful interpreter of Delta blues presently performing. Although he is no longer with the label, his four albums on Alligator are among the hidden gems of our catalog.
After returning from Poland, I had a chance to catch two shows by Alligator’s most recent signing, Moreland & Arbuckle, performing songs from their Alligator debut, Promised Land Or Bust. With just guitar (regular and cigar box), harmonica, drums and vocals, they create a huge, raw, propulsive sound. Their stripped-down format is inspired by the Mississippi Hill Country players like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, but they meld the Hill Country sound with a rock ‘n’ roll energy level and their own memorable lyrics. Moreland & Arbuckle will be touring the UK in January and Australia in February. I’ll be joining them at The Great British Rock & Blues Festival in Skegness, England on January 21, along with Marcia Ball and Toronzo Cannon. Shemekia was also booked for the festival, but she had to cancel because that’s just after she’ll be giving birth to her first child. Congratulations, Shemekia!
Right now we’re preparing for the early February release of the appropriately-named Elvin Bishop’s Big Fun Trio, which unites Elvin with vocalist/percussionist Willy Jordan and guitarist/pianist extraordinaire Bob Welsh. It’s loads of unpretentious fun. I’ll tell you more about it next time.
Sadly, we lost a member of the Alligator family last month when Ted Harvey, the great old school shuffle drummer who was one third of Hound Dog Taylor & The HouseRockers passed away at the age of 84. Ted, who also played with Jimmy Rogers and J.B. Hutto, was in demand for his drive and his no-frills style. Offstage, he was one of the nicest, most outgoing guys I’ve ever known, always full of fun.
Also in October, Ray “Killer” Allison, who played drums on Alligator albums by Buddy Guy, James Cotton, Koko Taylor, Carey Bell and Dave Hole, died suddenly at the age of 60. Ray was a walking party, always laughing, and brought his gigantic energy and good spirits to every gig and every session.
In the roughly 40 years I’ve been writing these letters, I’ve only managed to tell The Alligator Story only from 1971 to 1988. I’ve told you a lot about the artists and recordings, but I’m not sure I’ve painted a clear picture of the growth of the label. During those years Alligator moved from my one room apartment to a two room apartment, then to the house where I still live, and finally to two rundown north side Chicago storefront buildings. The staff grew from just me to now being sixteen strong, with many loyal staffers having been part of the Alligator family for over twenty years (one over thirty-five). Those people bust butt every day behind the scenes, doing marketing, publicity, radio promotion, advertising, national and international sales management, graphic design, finance, royalties, TV and film licensing, new media, shipping and overseeing CD manufacturing. Plus, we have our two-man mail order department with its catalog online at www.alligator.com. It’s a labor of love for everyone here, but it seems like only I get the spotlight. It’s important that you know that Alligator is not one man, but a team of dedicated men and women, all working to carry on our mission of bringing you the best in blues and roots rock.
More next time,