Perfect Sound Forever

Hound Dog Taylor

Bruce Iglauer interview
by Jason Gross (June 1998)

"When I die, they'll say 'he couldn't play shit, but he sure made it sound good!' " That was the self-written epitaph that bluesman Theodore Roosevelt 'Hound Dog' Taylor left behind. Though he'd been gigging around his native Chicago for years, it wasn't until a fan named Bruce Iglauer was moved by his raw shouting vocals and searing slide guitar that something happened that would change the lives of both men and many others. Iglauer made the bold move to not only get Taylor recorded but to release the record himself. This great public service turned out to be the beginning of Alligator Records, the label that documented a lot of important blues artists of today and yesterday, proving that the music was far from dead.

Taylor himself died of cancer in 1975, just as momentum was building with Alligator and his own career. His music is something that surely lives on as witnessed by a 1997 CD Hound Dog Taylor- A Tribute featuring Vernon Reid, George Thorogood, Elvin Bishop and Son Seals among others.

As Alligator is still going strong after more than 25 years with many Grammy awards and nomiations chalked up, I talked to Bruce about his old friend Hound Dog and their years of work together.

PSF: When did you first hear about Hound Dog?

I didn't hear about him so much as I just met him in the late spring of 1969. I had come down to Chicago from my college in Wisconsin to find a blues band to play for a homecoming concert. I went to the Jazz Record Mart which I heard about in a folk magazine and was also the home of Delmark Records. It was like this little magic portal to the South and West Side blues scenes. There was no blues in white neighborhoods at that time and there was no advertising for the black clubs. So you would catch rumors of who was playing where from these little pieces of paper taped up on the wall at the Jazz Record Mart.

I went there and met John Fishel, who was a student at the University of Michigan- he was getting ready to put on the very first Ann Arbor Blues Festival (which is a wonderful festival). John was working at the Jazz Record Mart in the basement in the job that I later had as a shipping clerk. John volunteered to take me out to the West side to a club called Eddie Shaw's (later of the Howlin' Wolf band). We spent the evening at this club, which was a little storefront bar for a 'Blue Monday' jam. There were a lot of musicians hanging around- Jimmy Dawkins, Otis Rush, Little Addison and Hound Dog.

Hound Dog sat in because it was a jam. Everybody sat it, except that they had two rather bad musicians that they paid to keep kind of a rhythm section together. It was a disaster. Nobody could follow him, he couldn't play with any of them. He would start songs for 15-20 seconds, stop and try to start another thing. Then he'd tell these incomprehensible jokes, crack up in the middle of the joke and bury his face in his hands. He'd light a Pell Mell, tell another weird joke, put the Pell Mell on the mike stand, start into another song that would fall apart instantly. But he was so funny looking- a tall, gawky guy, very thin, huge toothy grin. Everybody naturally loved him. I just kind of assumed that he was a clown. I thought that nobody took him seriously as a musician but they liked him because he was a cool guy. He was a funny looking, funny acting guy. So I kind of wrote him off in my mind and didn't think about him again.

I began coming to Chicago on a pretty regular basis on weekends with Bob Koester, who owned Jazz Record Mart and Delmark (and still does), and going out to the black clubs. At the beginning of 1970, I moved to Chicago and took a job at Jazz Record Mart. I was hanging out at the black clubs every night and I kept running into Hound Dog with great regularity. He kept telling me that I should come to his gigs. He mentioned that he was playing at a place called Florence's Lounge on the South Side. It was a Sunday afternoon gig and nobody else had a gig on Sunday afternoon that I knew of. I went down there around February and my whole concept of Hound Dog Taylor got turned around. I saw him in a band with Brewer Philips on second guitar and Ted Harvey on drums, with their equipment on the floor, no bandstand- they moved a table out of the bar. They played for three hours straight. People were dancing in the aisles and on the seats and lots of people were sitting in. Lots of people were really drunk and they were shooting dice outside and the energy level was fantastic. Everybody knew Hound Dog and the music was totally raw and absolutely infectious. That's when I reassessed Hound Dog Taylor.

PSF: What set him apart from other blues musicians?

Lots of things. Hound Dog was sort of a throw back. He didn't use a bass because bass players couldn't keep up with him. Like what had happened before in other blues bands, he used a second guitar for bass lines. There was a drive that you couldn't get out of a Fender bass. The sounds were so raw and distorted- Hound Dog played on 50 dollar Japanese guitars through Sears Roback amplifiers and cracked speakers. The whole attitude was 'Who gives a damn? We're just playin' for fun.' No finesse. There was a lot of blues feeling but there was no attempt to be the least bit smooth, the least bit sophisticated. The music basically could have been played at a juke joint in Mississippi next door to where Muddy Waters was playing in 1949. It was totally unvarnished by virtue of the energy level and the distortion. It spoke very clearly to rock and roll fans which is one of the reasons that Hound Dog had success in the last few years of his life outside of the blues word, when he was recording for us.

PSF: How was he as a bandleader?

Whatever they (the Houserockers) had a show, they didn't rehearse. That was sort of a rule. They followed that rule very closely. They also followed the rule that you REALLY shouldn't perform unless you had a reasonable amount of alcohol. He set an example for that. In that regard, he was sort of an exemplary bandleader. His concept of the band was that he would get a gig, call up the other guys and tell them where to be and they'd get there on their own and get home on their own. When they were on the road, he bought a vehicle big enough for the three of them. I remember the time that he got mad at Ted and Brewer. Brewer called me from Ohio and said 'Hound Dog left us here. He went home.' I called Hound Dog and he was home and I asked him what happened. He told me 'I said I'd take 'em to the gig but I didn't say I'd bring 'em BACK from the gig.' As a bandleader, he made his own rules and they were very loose. Having a fistfight with somebody else in the band would fall within the band rules. That was acceptable and in fact, sometimes encouraged.

PSF: What made you risk everything to record him?

First of all, I didn't have much to risk. I risked 2500 dollars which was my entire inheritance, the price of a fairly cheap car at the time. It wasn't as if I was throwing away my life. I did it because I couldn't convince Bob Koester at Delmark to do it. This guy was like my father figure and I said 'if he's not going to do it, I'll show him and I'll do it.' A lot of it was just adolescent spite and love of the band. I felt that they had to have a record. My thought was only to record this record. I never thought that this was going to be the beginning of a label or a career or anything like that. 'I'm going to do this and I'm going to do this now and I'm going to turn people on to my favorite band.' It wasn't much more complicated than that except I had an idea of how to turn people on to my favorite band.

PSF: When you met him and had these plans, where was his career at the time?

He had been playing all his life. He was 55 years old when I met him. He had been playing since he was a teenage in Mississippi and Chicago. I assumed that if I hadn't come along he would have just as soon played in taverns for 15, 20 bucks a night for the rest of his life. He probably didn't think about it beyond that. He was amazed not only that I wanted to make a record with me but that I'd PAY him. It never crossed his mind that he'd get paid to make a record.

PSF: What kind of aspirations did you have for him?

I knew that there was this new kind of radio called 'progressive rock radio.' They would play a little bit of blues. It was when rock and roll first got onto FM and there were no rules. DJ's were programming their own shows and it was much cooler than it is now. Often, there were no program directors, no play-lists. People just played what they thought was good. I knew that I could get something going with that kind of radio. I picked the perfect window of opportunity- it was totally by dumb luck. It was one of the loosest moments of progressive rock radio at one of its first peaks of popularity. Years before, they would have played the records but there wouldn't have been enough stations with that format. By a couple of years after that, the stations would have never played a middle-aged black artist. They were playing young white guys.

So I just came along at the right time and I was very aggressive with the media. I became Hound Dog's manager, booking agent, driver, publicist and his producer. I was his bridge. I didn't think about failing. I was thinking about how we were gonna succeed.

PSF: What kind of person was Hound Dog?

There were two or three different personalities hiding in him like there are hiding in a lot of us. On the bandstand, he was much like the guy that I saw out there at Eddie Shaw's. He had a huge grin, he was constantly happy and he'd laugh and joke with the audience. He would put on a show stomping his feet, sitting down (it would have been just as good if he was standing up). He'd screw up his face, swing his guitar around and he'd just be having a wonderful time. He wanted to see people laughing and grinning and DANCING.

Off the bandstand, he could be very angry and vindictive, especially to the guys in the band. He had a very short temper. When people didn't see him, he'd attack them. I saw the guys on the band pull knives on each other at various times. But sometimes he'd also attack them as amusement. One time when we were driving across the country (I'd usually drive since I was the sober one), Ted was in the front with Brewer and Hound Dog in the back. Hound Dog woke up at 6 in the morning with a cigarette in his hand and slapped Ted in the back of the head and yelled 'wake up and argue!' They drove across the country once arguing whether WOPA was an AM or an FM station for about 700 miles (of course it was both).

They also liked to tease each other about having sex with each other's wives and girlfriends. I remember when Brewer said about one of Hound Dog's girlfriends 'yeah, I knew her when she was a whore on 43rd Street.' In fact, it was a remark like that, directed at Hound Dog about his wife that led him to shoot Brewer in 1975, luckily not fatally.

PSF: What did you think of his first record?

It was very much the record I wanted to make. It sounded as close as I could make it to what they sounded like on the bandstand. Hound Dog was incredibly proud. He was just thrilled about the whole thing. To make an album, to see his picture on it, to have people come up to him and ask him to autograph it. He was sitting on top of the world. He was flabbergasted when I paid him royalties.

That was a very successful record. We've done about 100,000 copies of that record over the years. The first year, it sold 9,000 copies, which was absolutely unheard of for a blues record on an independent label. It was a huge number of sales. Delmark at that time would sell 1,500 copies of a new release.

PSF: What was Hound Dog doing between the first and second album?

I began getting offers for him to travel for tours. After I began to realize that he couldn't read maps or road signs and couldn't get anywhere himself, I began doing the booking, negotiating deals, issuing contracts. I still had my day job at Delmark at the time. He started going out to shows on a weekend then during the week for a day or two at a time, sometimes with me. He played some clubs, college dates and rock and roll shows. I remember him opening up for Mitch Ryder and Detroit. He did some shows with Big Mama Thorton in New York. We did one tour of Australia with Freddie King and did a lot of big venues. He worked quite a bit. Not as much as he wanted to- he would have been on the road all the time. The problem was that there weren't enough places for blues musicians to work. It was a very fallow time for blues. Every gig was like a God send.

PSF: How did you see the second record, Natural Boogie, as different from his first one?

It sounds a little bit different, relatively speaking. I hear it- I don't know if other people would. Hound Dog changed amps, there's a little more kick drum in the mix, different 50 dollars Japanese (Kingston) guitar with more knobs and switches (which he liked a lot). Hound Dog did the closest thing he could to WRITING a song for that album. He didn't read and write to speak of but he put together a song called "Sadie" when we were on the first East coast tour. We were at a gig at Yale and stayed at the home of the student promoting the concert. Hound Dog sat up the night with an acoustic guitar and came down to breakfast the next day and sang "Sadie." He had put the whole thing together. He was VERY proud of himself. That and "See Me In the Evening" were two songs that were really his creations. Those he felt great about. So he liked Natural Boogie a little better.

The songs on the first album he had just put together and evolved on the bandstand, which was very typical for the way his music went. He'd play a riff and it would be an instrumental for a while and then he'd put some words to it then he'd change them around. A song would develop over five years and grow and become something. Those other two songs were actually conscious efforts to be a songwriter. He liked Natural Boogie better because it represented more creativity on his part.

PSF: Was he part of the Chicago scene at that time or getting well known?

Well-known is a strong word. There weren't a lot of well-known blues performers at that time. You had B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Freddie King. After that, the list was damn short of the people that were on the college circuit. Luther Allison made a little noise after that and Magic Sam had died. It wasn't a big crowd. Hound Dog wasn't at the level of any of the people that I mentioned. He was a club artist who did some concert work. He did some shows with Muddy, one at a New York Folk Festival in Buffalo. I remember that because Buffalo was dry and Hound Dog and Brownie McGhee were both alcoholics. I literally had to break into a liquor store and steal some bottles of whiskey for them because they were too shaky to perform. I remember that we did leave some money though we did steal the liquor.

But mostly, he did clubs and coffeehouses. There were just clubs around the country that he'd play at, like Alice's Revisted here in Chicago or Joe's Place where he'd play for 14 nights in a row and it'd be full every night.

PSF: Why didn't he make it to the level of B.B. or Muddy?

A couple of reasons. First of all, he didn't have the track record. B.B. and Muddy had hits for 20 or 25 years so they were very well established artists while Hound Dog was strictly a club player. He was not taken real seriously as an artist. His slow blues were deeply emotional but he considered a lot of his fast stuff was rock and roll. He essentially perceived himself as a blues and a rock and roll musician. I don't think he would ever perceived himself as an artist, a self-conscious artist.

PSF: The third LP, Beware of the Dog, was put together before he died, right?

Right. We were working on that. He knew the songs we were doing. I think he had heard most of the song choices but he pretty much left that up to me. We had done the photo session and the record was pretty much ready to go before he died in '75.

PSF: Why did you decide to do a live album?

Hound Dog was a guy with a limited repertoire and knew only a few keys. It wasn't a if there was a huge amount of variety in his music. The music had great impact but a lot of it was just supposed to be plain fun. I didn't think that another studio album could show off a lot more of what he could do because there wasn't a lot more of what he could do. He was like John Lee Hooker- he did a few things really well. So a live album seemed logical. He had these recordings that he had done for WXRT at Northwestern University and then we allowed WMMS in Cleveland to tape him for their Thursday night concerts. I went in for the taping and I was so happy with what was going on at that little place (The Smiling Dog Saloon) that I decided that we should come back another couple of nights and record more.

There I had good quality, exciting, fun tapes of Hound Dog that caught a lot of his personality. It was kind of the path of least resistance. The live tapes were real good so why not put them out? I'm not a real complicated guy in this regard- if it's good, other people should hear it.

PSF: Had he lived a few more years, what would have happened with Hound Dog?

I doubt his music would have changed. He played what he played. His music didn't really changed between when I met him and when he died. Like a lot of blues musicians, he was what he was. I loved what he was so that was fine with me.

As far as more popularity, almost certainly. He was selling more and more records. He was working better and better places. Would he have gotten as big as Muddy or B.B.? I doubt it because of his refusal to take himself too seriously. Would he have gotten bigger? Absolutely.

There weren't blues festivals then. There were clubs and there were colleges. Blues musicians then did pretty much what they did now- they ran up and down the highway, playing clubs. There were less opportunities to do anything but play clubs. I suspect if he would have lived another 15 years, he would have played clubs for another fifteen years.

PSF: How did the last record of his, Genuine Houserockin' Music, come together?

I knew that I had other, in-the-can good studio material which deserved to see the light of day. People kept writing me and calling me, saying 'what else do you have of Hound Dog?' It took a long time before I could get far enough away from his death that I could listen to this material in any kind of a deliberate or reflective way. It was just too emotional- I kept crying.

When I listened to it, I realized that we did indeed have a lot of good material and why not put it out? I just organized most of my favorites. There's very little else left I feel is of the quality of what we released. There's some other good things- there's some live versions of some things we did in the studio. I don't think that they'd bring a lot more insight to Hound Dog. I think a few more tracks may see the light of day somewhere down the road but I don't think there's an album's worth of material. There's bootleg albums that people recorded in the backs of clubs are on labels that I won't mention by name- I will say that if it isn't on Alligator, then Hound Dog isn't getting royalties, except for a few tracks that we cut for Chess.

Genuine's weaker tracks probably aren't quite as good as the weaker tracks on his other records. But they're sort of a piece- each one of them brings you a little more pleasure and a little more insight into the artist. I would not pick one over the other. Obviously, the first two were done consciously choosing songs for an album.

PSF: How did the tribute CD come together?

As tribute records began to came around, people started asking me about it. People kept recording and performing Hound Dog's songs. I was tickled that his music was living on. It was really pressure from my staff who said 'you really ought to do something to remember Hound Dog.' There were so many artists that I could think of who enjoyed doing his music. It sort of grew out of hearing various gigs. Bob Margolin recorded a Hound Dog song and Elvin (Bishop) was talking about Hound Dog. George Thorogood was Hound Dog's driver on the East Coast during some of the tours and would open for Hound Dog for beer, playing acoustic.

It came together over a long period of time. I supervised most, but not all of the recordings- I was there for the Luther Allison session, the Sonny Landreth session, for Gov't Mule, for Magic Slim, for Cub Koda, for Son Seals, for Bob Margolin, for Dave Hole. There were actually a number of musicians that I asked to be involved who said no. I won't name them except I was very disappointed and surprised because it was a charity project for the Blues Community Foundation and Hound Dog's widow. We're making essentially nothing on this record. I couldn't believe that people would say no but they did.

I think Hound Dog would have loved most of the performances and liked the rest of them. He would have been incredibly AMAZED that people would have remembered his music almost 25 years later. He never considered that his music was for the ages, it was for RIGHT NOW. Luckily, 'right now' is a long time.

PSF: What do think he left behind?

Hound Dog's one of those guys who would say 'you listen to the blues to get rid of the blues.' I think he left a lot of getting rid of the blues. His music was to make people happy. Since his music still makes people happy, I think it succeeds brilliantly. Hound Dog's music is so unpretentious, so direct, so emotional, so much fun, it's like eating a great steak or having a great glass of beer or wonderful sex or anything that's a direct, enjoyable, non-intellectual experience. That's what Hound Dog's music is supposed to be. You're not supposed to think while you listen to it. He certainly didn't spend a lot of time thinking while he performed it. He just did it. It just came naturally from his soul, through his fingers and his voice and out.

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