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Music Reviews: An Alligator Records Anthology and Tim Buckley Live plus Johnny Ace and the Four Tunes

Alligator Records Marks Its 50th Birthday with a Sterling Anthology

It’s probably safe to say that most record labels exist first and foremost to make money. Over the years, however, there have been a handful of small, independent ones that have seemed at least as dedicated to preserving and popularizing great music as they have been to turning a profit. Arhoolie and Appleseed are two examples. Another is Chicago’s Alligator Records, which Bruce Iglauer started in 1971 to feature his favorite act, Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers, after the Delmark label, Iglauer’s employer at the time, opted not to sign them. 

Fifty years and multiple Grammy awards later, Alligator has issued around 350 albums—mostly blues but also blues-rock, Cajun, and reggae—from a wide assortment of artists. Now, to celebrate its golden anniversary, the label has released a three-CD set that delivers remastered versions of material from its entire catalog. The anthology comes with a booklet that includes a lengthy introduction and notes about each song by Iglauer.

Called Alligator Records—50 Years of Genuine Houserockin’ Music, the 58-track collection features nearly four hours of music from a long list of artists who are now household names—at least in households that favor the genres this label spotlights. Appropriately enough, Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers not only get a nod in the album’s title but open the set with a track that dates from Alligator’s first year: “Give Me Back My Wig,” with electric guitar work that suggests why Iglauer was so eager to record them. Also here are such performers as Koko Taylor, Son Seals, Johnny Winter, James Cotton, Lonnie Mack, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Roy Buchanan, and Elvin Bishop, to name a few.

You’d expect an album that draws on artists like these and that culls the cream of a 50-year crop to be high quality, and that’s just what this anthology delivers. Among the best of the best: “It’s My Fault, Darling,” by legendary New Orleans singer and pianist Professor Longhair; “Soul Fixin’ Man,” which features the guitar pyrotechnics of Luther Allison and is one of the set’s several live tracks; “Have Mercy,” from harmonica great Big Walter Horton with Carey Bell; “The Dream,” a collaboration by Albert Collins, Robert Cray, and Johnny Copeland; “Au Contrare Mon Frere,” which showcases Clifton Chenier’s wild accordion; and Bob Margolin’s infectious “Not What You Said Last Night.”

While the album underscores how long this label has been pumping out great music, it also offers a reminder that the blues are alive and well in its studios: about half of its tracks were recorded since 2000 and about a quarter were released in just the past three years. The average alligator dies in 30 to 50 years, but half a century after its birth, this particular Alligator seems to still be full of life.

Another Live Set from the Late, Great Tim Buckley

Though he has never quite achieved the recognition he deserves, Tim Buckley was one of the most important and adventurous singer-songwriters of the late ’60s and early ’70s. He died of a drug overdose at age 28 in 1975, leaving behind only nine studio albums (and a talented son named Jeff). Since then, however, the size of his catalog has more than doubled, thanks mostly to the release of a variety of live sets. 

The latest of these is Merry-Go-Round at the Carousel, which preserves performances at San Francisco’s Carousel Ballroom on June 15 and 16, 1968, when Buckley was arguably at his jazz-influenced creative peak. His vocals and guitar work are fine throughout, and his band—which prominently features bass as well as vibraphone and percussion—is compelling. 

Included are sublime performances of compositions that originally surfaced in 1969 on Happy Sad (“Strange Feelin’,” “Buzzin’ Fly,” “Sing a Song for You,” and “Love from Room 109 at the Islander”) and Blue Afternoon (“Happy Time”). Also here are “Wayfaring Stranger” and “The Father Song,” which first appeared on the posthumous Dream Letter and Works in Progress, respectively; and two previously unrecorded numbers, “The Lonely Life” and “Blues, Love.” The 13-track album runs about 80 minutes and comes with a promo code to download two songs that couldn’t fit on the CD: a second version of “Happy Time” and a reading of “Hi Lily, Hi Lo,” a number that first showed up on Dream Letter.

The performances were captured by Owsley Stanley, who is best known as the chemist who mass-produced LSD in the 1960s but also served as the Grateful Dead’s sound engineer and taped that band and other artists. The audio quality on this release is excellent though several of the recordings, including both versions of “Buzzin’ Fly,” appear to begin just a bit after the songs commence.

The album, which comes with a booklet that includes new interviews with Buckley’s bassist John Miller and lyricist Larry Beckett, is a must for fans. Newcomers to his music should check it out, too—and then move on to the rest of his extraordinary catalog.

Two Noteworthy Early Vocal Acts

If R&B singer and piano player Johnny Ace’s name conjures up anything for today’s listeners, it is probably Paul Simon’s mournful song, “The Late, Great Johnny Ace.” Ace’s music almost never shows up on the radio and his career happened a long time ago and lasted only until he shot and killed himself, apparently accidentally, in 1954 at age 25. By then, though, he had sold well over a million records and scored more than half a dozen well-deserved hits, including “The Clock,” “Pledging My Love,” and “Saving My Love for You.” 

They’re all on the well-annotated Collection 1952–55, a two-CD set that features both sides of all his important singles plus recordings made with the likes of Willie Mae Thornton, Johnny Otis, Bobby Bland, Junior Parker, Ike Turner, and B.B. King. Testifying to his prominence in the early 1950s are five contemporaneous tributes by other artists, including two versions of a song called “Johnny Ace’s Last Letter” as well as “Why, Johnny, Why,” “Salute to Johnny Ace,” and “Johnny Has Gone.”

Another new and noteworthy anthology from the same era, Singles Collection 1947–59, features the Four Tunes. A veteran of the Ink Spots started this vocal quartet, which had its biggest pop and R&B hit in 1953 with a million-selling version of Irving Berlin’s “Marie.” 

That recording joins 74 others on this three-CD set, which includes all their major singles for five labels from their peak years. Also here are two of the tracks they recorded with R&B singer Savannah Church, though not, for some reason, “I Want to Be Loved (But Only by You),” the most successful recording they made with her. Excellent extensive liner notes add context to the music. 

About Jeff Burger

Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains half a century's worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.

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