“When I die they’ll say, ‘He couldn’t play shit, but he sure made it sound good!”
—Hound Dog Taylor
There’s nothing pretty about Hound Dog Taylor’s sound. Not the style, not the equipment. Favoring cheap knock-off guitars, Sears and Roebuck amps, and live shows that bordered on pure chaos, Taylor fired a raw, million kilowatt injection into the Chicago blues scene with his hell-bent, off the rails style.
And because a young clerk named Bruce Iglauer saw him play one night, Taylor became the early centerpiece of what is now the largest independent blues label in the country.
Hound Dog Taylor’s story is one of holding on, credit past its due, and the adage that you’re never too old. He wasn’t a musician of any kind until his twenties, wasn’t a full time player until his forties, and was barely known outside of Chicago until the last four years of his life, before he passed away at 60 (or at 58, depending on which version you get).
He deserved better, but he got his due in the end. And he did it with a style that sounds sloppy as hell—slapdash and funky and uniquely contagious. Even his slower songs have edges like honed steel. Taylor became a legend in the most productive blues city on the planet by making music that felt like it might fall apart at any moment, and making it with a wink and a smile.
Hound Dog Taylor at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival.
Like a lot of Chicago music stories, this one leads back to Delmark Records. The Chicago institution has been a central piece of American jazz and blues since the late 50’s, and it’s where a 23 year-old shipping clerk and music fanatic named Bruce Iglauer was working when he decided to start his own label.
Iglauer wasn’t an instant fan of Taylor. He’d seen him at a blues jam in 1969, where Hound Dog was attempting to play with a bunch of random musicians. The songs kept falling apart, but Taylor would simply laugh, tell a joke, and launch into another song that would fall apart.
According to Iglauer in his wonderful 1998 interview with Jason Gross, Taylor invited him out to a Sunday afternoon gig he played. The gig was at Florence’s Lounge at 5443 S. Shields on Chicago’s South Side, and it was a revelation for Iglauer. He walked in to see Hound Dog with his own band (The Houserockers) featuring Brewer Philips on second guitar and Ted Harvey on drums, blazing through one out of control song to the next with a sound that seemed destined to break apart, or break the whole building apart.
Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers quickly became Iglauer’s favorite band, and he tried to sell Delmark on the idea of producing an album of the group. The label passed, so Iglauer took a small inheritance and started his own label for the express purpose of making a Hound Dog Taylor record.
He called the label Alligator Records.
It’s doubtful anyone outside of Chicago would know about Hound Dog Taylor if it hadn’t been for Iglauer and Alligator Records, but it’s also likely that Alligator wouldn’t have existed without Hound Dog. And that by itself is a great story. But to speak only of the symbiotic nature of artist and producer and label is to ignore the story of the artist himself, one of the strangest and most joyful artists in history of blues.
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Let’s start with the hands, because it’s the kind of strange detail that makes even someone who doesn’t much care about the blues sit up and listen.
Theodore Roosevelt Taylor came into the world with six fingers on each hand.
The six-fingered hand is part of the mythology. And with Hound Dog Taylor, the myths all run concurrently with the facts. Yes, he had six fingers on his right hand, but no, he didn’t use the sixth one to play. Yes, he had a sixth finger on his left hand as well, which he reportedly cut off one drunken night with a razor blade. God knows why.
He also had enormous thumbs, and the legend is that he could bar all six strings with them. Maybe so.
Even his birth date was in question, Some sources say 1915. Some say 1916. Some say 1917. Take your pick.
He didn’t play guitar at all until he was in his twenties, but he took his guitar with him when he left Natchez, Mississippi to Chicago in 1942, reportedly after the Klan burned a cross on his lawn. He played around Chicago while working subsistence jobs, playing mostly on the street honing his technique, until he happened upon one of the great wellsprings of American music: the legendary Maxwell Street Market.
Maxwell Street Market (image: Chicago Tribune)
I could do a whole post on Maxwell Street. There are books about it, and it’s a location whose mere mention evokes smiles and wistful gazes from Chicagoans of a certain age. Started by Jewish immigrants in the late 1800’s, the market was a several-block long Sunday outdoor flea market that provided an introduction to business for a variety of immigrants, whether they be from Poland or Sweden, Macedonia or Mississippi. You could find anything on Maxwell Street: Fruit, grilled meat, hubcaps, watches, suits and hats, shoes, cutlery, tires. It was all there, pouring out of the stalls, mostly legitimate, and available at prices that were always negotiable. One of the stalls bore a name that became the title of a documentary on the history of the market: Cheat You Fair.
One of the defining features of the market in the years after World War II was its street performers. Maxwell Street became a proving ground for young musicians and, as the years went on, a mainstay for established acts. Especially blues acts. You could walk through the market on a sweltering July day and suddenly look up to see Muddy Waters. Then stroll another block and see Howlin Wolf, Eddy Clearwater, Little Walter, Koko Taylor, or even some superband compination of all of them.
(Maxwell Street Market even got the full Hollywood treatment in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers, with John Lee Hooker doing a set on the street. The extended version of that scene is a wonderful document of the market in the late 70’s.)
Like a lot of transplanted blues musicians, this is where Hound Dog Taylor cut his teeth. He eventually became well-known in the scene and took the leap as a full time musician in the late 1950’s. He recorded his first single, “My Baby is Coming Home” for Narvel “Cadillac Baby” Eaton’s Bea and Baby Records in 1960, and went on tour with Koko Taylor and Little Water as a backup guitarist in 1967.
Koko Taylor sings “Wang Dang Doodle” in 1967. Hound Dog Taylor is behind her playing guitar.
He was popular and likeable, a laughing, joking, friendly guy who drank a lot and smoked too much. And he had enough chops to be taken seriously in the greatest blues scene the world has ever known. But even though his early recordings are solid, he’d be a footnote in the history of Chicago Blues if not for his albums. And those recordings never would have happened if Bruce Iglauer hadn’t seen him. And Iglauer would never have seen him, or wanted to produce him, if Hound Dog Taylor didn’t put on some of the most legendary live shows in town.
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This is where the holding on comes in, and where I think Hound Dog Taylor is such a special artist. This wasn’t a guy who was trying to make it big. He was already a grown man when he picked up his instrument, and was pushing into middle age when he devoted himself to it full time. And yet his sound became less refined and more raucous as he aged. By the time Iglauer saw him, he hadn’t done any new recordings in three years, and pretty much no one outside of Chicago’s South Side knew who he was.
And yet those shows just became more and more explosive. Everything was stripped down and cheap. The band was often inebriated and the guitar sound was thick with distortion. They played to a room full of howling fans who ripped up the dance floor as the band (who never rehearsed) tore through shows that would last up to three hours without a break. A set by Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers wasn’t just a show, it was an endurance test.
I’m not amazed that an artist could summon up that kind of energy for a live show, or even that they could do it as they got older. What surprises me about Hound Dog Taylor was that he was able to do this, again and again, with such optimism, even though he must have felt that everyone outside of the room had long since stopped looking at him.
He’d recorded. He’d toured (backing other people, but still), and he must have thought his best days, or least his chances at fame, were behind him. But he would still go to clubs and tear the roof off because that’s how he played. It didn’t matter if no one was listening, or that it was sloppy as hell. The sheer hell-bent momentum of his music makes it feel as much like punk as it does like blues (the band would later be referred to as “the Ramones of the Blues.”)
Hound Dog Taylor with Muddy Waters in 1972.
And one day Bruce Iglauer heard him, and wanted to record him. Taylor’s first two albums, Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers and Natural Boogie were solid sellers, as was the live album Beware of the Dog, released a year after Taylor’s death from lung cancer. In addition, Hound Dog’s connection to other great artists like Koko Taylor encouraged them to sign with Alligator Recoprds as well, giving the label additional stars to help the label stay solvent in those early touch-and-go years before it became the largest independent blues label in the country.
I’m sure there’s a lesson in there about holding on and doing your thing because you never know who is listening. But I don’t think it applies to Hound Dog Taylor. What I love most about Taylor is that it didn’t seem to matter whether anyone was listening or not. This was his sound, and every account of the band centers around the sheer joy in Hound Dog’s performances. If he’d done nothing but play small rooms on the South Side the rest of his life, I think he would have been a perfectly happy man.
But other people were listening, and because they amplified his sound, other people (like me) got to hear him. His style was profoundly influential on acts ranging from George Thorogood and the Destroyers to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. And Alligator Records, which doesn’t exist without Taylor, has spent the last five decades helping to shape the country’s musical landscape.
That’s a hell of a legacy for someone who started late and insisted to his death that he couldn’t play for shit. But it’s an earned one, if for no other reason than that he stayed true to the thing he wanted to do, and to the style he wanted to play. It takes some guts for a musician to intentionally make his sound uglier as he gets older. And it takes a one-of-a-kind artist to make that ugliness into something beautiful, original, impossible to copy, and fun.
For more information on Maxwell Street Market, check out this resource of articles provided by the City of Chicago.
Also, check out the Alligator Records homepage.