Roberts co-authors ‘Bitten by the Blues,’ story of Chicago-born Alligator Records

Patrick Roberts, associate professor in the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations, is celebrating the Oct. 30 publication of “Bitten by the Blues: The Alligator Records Story.”

Roberts is the co-author of the book with Bruce Iglauer, who in 1971 launched what is today the largest independent blues record label in the world.

The book paints a vivid picture of some of the extraordinary musicians and larger-than-life personalities who brought “America’s Music” to life in Chicago nightclubs. It also offers an expansive history of 50 years of blues in Chicago and around the world.

Roberts recently answered questions from Ed News.

How did you get involved in co-authoring this book?
I first met Bruce Iglauer, president and founder of Chicago’s Alligator Records, in 2010 at an event for a book I had just published with pioneering blues disc jockey Richard Stamz (“Give ‘Em Soul, Richard!: Race, Radio, and Rhythm and Blues in Chicago,” 2010, University of Illinois Press). I had a few Alligator records that I absolutely loved, and I figured Bruce must have great stories to tell about the blues music world in Chicago that would make for a fascinating book. Fortunately, I managed to convince him of that, and slowly but surely “Bitten by the Blues” took shape, with the University of Chicago Press expressing interest in the project almost from the beginning.

What was your role?
I like to say that this is our book, and Bruce’s story, as told in Bruce’s voice. My job was to first get the story out of him and onto paper, and then, much like a qualitative researcher, shape all that raw material into some kind of coherent, narrative that we could work with. From there, it was a process of continual refinement – Bruce and I working together to rewrite passages, add material, delete material. In a way, to translate the spoken word into the written word.

Patrick Roberts
Patrick Roberts

What will readers learn?
I think about this question terms of what I hope the reader will experience, and what I hope they experience is a sense of immediacy as they read about the many blues clubs that once dotted Chicago’s South and West Sides. I hope readers will experience a sense of excitement as they read about the music being made in those clubs and in the recording studio. I hope they experience the many joys and frustrations that go into pursuing your passion, as Bruce did when he founded Alligator Records back in the early ’70s. I hope readers develop an appreciation not just for the music, but for the artists themselves. Of course, this book isn’t just about the blues; it’s also about Chicago, about entrepreneurialism, about the recording industry, and about the mysteries of creative expression. I hope readers will find take-aways in all those stories.

How much did you learn about the blues? How much did you already know?
As I mentioned, I wrote another book a few years ago that was related to rhythm and blues music, so I had a basic understanding of some of the history and key musicians. What I learned in working on this project is that blues isn’t one monolithic entity. The genre is as richly varied as any art form. One of the great virtues of Alligator Records is that they aren’t afraid to push those boundaries. It doesn’t always work commercially, but it usually does as an artistic statement. And I learned about more than blues music. The book also goes into great detail about the recording industry, how things work in the recording studio, and how the record business has changed over the last fifty years. And it has changed radically.

Bruce Iglauer and Patrick Roberts
Bruce Iglauer and Patrick Roberts

Who is your favorite blues artist, and why?
I’m partial to older, less polished blues. Stuff that has a lot of rough edges and rawness, but also can groove pretty good, either vocally or instrumentally. My favorite Alligator artist is easily Hound Dog Taylor, the first artist on the label. Hound Dog was a slide guitar player, and on his left hand, he had six fingers, including his thumb. Most slide players wear the metal slide on their ring finger. Hound Dog wore his slide on what normally would have been his pinky, but which in his case was much stronger due to the presence of that sixth finger. This gave him a pretty unique style. Hound Dog plays a central role in Part I of the book, and he is an absolutely fascinating character.

What was the most surprising part of this process?
This book isn’t an oral history, or a series of great anecdotes strung together. It’s a chronicle, a memoir that I was helping someone else write. So each step of the way I had to think a lot about the translation of memory into the spoken word, and then into the written word, the polished word, the published word. And I think at each stage of this process, I was surprised by how elastic language can be. That’s kind of what makes blues music such a compelling art form for me – simple, highly subjective language being used to express complex, universal “truths” about the human condition.

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