Alligator Tales: Robert Mugge discusses the making of “Pride and Joy: The Story of Alligator Records”

By on June 29, 2016

In 1992, filmmaker Robert Mugge followed up up his film Deep Blues — about the blues traditions of Mississippi — with a tribute to Alligator and its roster of top contemporary blues artists from Chicago and elsewhere. The resulting film, Pride and Joy: The Story of Alligator Records, presents musical highlights from one of the 4-plus-hour concerts (March 12, 1992 at Philadelphia’s Chestnut Cabaret) that made up the tour, glimpses of Alligator’s Chicago offices, and profiles of key performers and staff members. Watch it now on Night Flight Plus!

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Robert Mugge gave Night Flight this exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the making of his film:

In 1991, I completed work on Deep Blues for producers Eileen Gregory and John Stewart (the brother of executive producer Dave Stewart of Eurythmics). I also helped to prepare the film for broadcast over Britain’s Channel 4, for U.S. theatrical release, and for a series of festival screenings, including a January 1992 screening at Sundance.

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At the same time, I pulled together audio materials for Robert Palmer and Lee Manning to use in creating the film’s soundtrack CD for Atlantic Records. Otherwise, I spent late 1991 and early 1992 wondering how I could possibly follow up the highest-profile project to date of my ongoing career as so-called “music filmmaker.”

As if in answer to that question, I received a phone call from someone I had never met — Bruce Iglauer, the larger-than-life founder of Alligator Records, which I knew to be the world’s most successful blues label. Bruce had heard about the release of Deep Blues and had a simple message for me: We should know each other! I agreed, and we became fast friends.

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Bruce Iglauer

In short order, Bruce revealed he was planning a belated 20th anniversary tour for his label which he had begun in 1971 with the release of his “labor of love” LP, Hound Dog Taylor & The Houserockers. The tour would feature performances by top Alligator artists Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks (with talented son Ronnie Baker Brooks), Elvin Bishop, Katie Webster, and Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials. Instantly, I saw that a film about Bruce’s Chicago-based label and its 20th anniversary tour would make the perfect sequel for Deep Blues.

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Producing a film about Chicago’s legendary Chess Records would also have been fun, but Chess had long since ceased to function. Alligator, by contrast, was happening now, and its major role in the Chicago blues scene would, by implication, permit me to follow a film on Mississippi blues with one on Chicago blues, even if not all of the artists on the label (or even on the anniversary tour) were based in the city.

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Bruce and I bonded over the notion of chronicling the tour, and he quickly put me in touch with David Steffen, head of newly-founded BMG Video, because David, too, had expressed interest in such a project.

Together, the three of us never raised as much money as we would have liked. But by pooling our resources, we did at least manage to film one major stop on the tour – the March 12 show at Philadelphia’s Chestnut Cabaret near the University of Pennsylvania – followed by several days of shooting at Alligator’s Chicago offices, its nearby warehouse, and a local recording studio.

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The title, Pride and Joy: The Story of Alligator Records, was inspired by the song “Pride and Joy,” which Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials performed for us in Philadelphia and which I selected to open the film.

As to the “story” of Alligator, I decided to have Bruce tell that himself while leading us on a tour of his facilities, interacting with his employees, and offering heartfelt, late-night reflections at his desk.

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Add to that some brief but pointed interviews with headliners of the tour, and a hard- rocking Chicago recording session with Lil’ Ed and his band, and we produced what I believe is a solid portrait of Bruce and his label at that time, inclusive of alligator toys, clothing, and sculpture gifted from fans throughout the world, as well as Bruce making “alligator sounds” with his teeth.

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Of course, for me, perhaps the greatest joy of the project was getting to hang with Bruce, there in Chicago at the end of each day’s shooting. Night after night, Bruce would take me to clubs where, inevitably, heads would turn and excitement would build, simply because of his presence.

While with Bruce, I never had to pay a cover to enter, and I got to see incredible shows by the likes of Albert King and Otis Clay (backed by Teenie, Leroy, and Charles Hodges). On such occasions, I witnessed the magic of the Chicago blues scene, and I recognized, in it, the energy source that drove Bruce’s label, even as he gave back just as much as he received.

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Months later, as I finished editing and post-production, Bruce, David, and I continued working together on the release of BMG’s videocassette and laserdisc of the film, along with Alligator’s 2-CD set of music from the Philly and Chicago tour stops. For all of these products, Bruce’s staff created wonderful artwork showing a multi-colored tour poster set against ragged remnants of posters from the past.

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To me, the image suggested then (as it does now) that the label, the tour, and the film were all just recent steps in the long continuum of Chicago blues culture. And even today, as MVD and I, with Bruce’s help, are releasing a remastered version of the film on Blu-ray, we are re-using that same incredible artwork, while also including, as bonus audio, all the songs from the CDs that were never included in the film itself.

Truly, in spite of the years it took me to arrange a new release of this film, our pride and joy, like the label that inspired it, continue on.

© 2016 Robert E. Mugge/All photos courtesy of Robert Mugge

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Be sure to check out Night Flight’s post on Robert Mugge’s Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise and The Kingdom of Zydeco too!

About Robert Mugge

Robert Mugge has been making feature-length documentaries and music films for the past four decades. According to France’s Libération, “Mugge is nothing less than the best music filmmaker on the planet." Among the better-known of his 34 films to date are DEEP BLUES, GOSPEL ACCORDING TO AL GREEN, SUN RA: A JOYFUL NOISE, BLACK WAX with Gil Scott-Heron, SAXOPHONE COLOSSUS with Sonny Rollins, ENTERTAINING THE TROOPS with Bob Hope, HELLHOUNDS ON MY TRAIL: THE AFTERLIFE OF ROBERT JOHNSON, THE KINGDOM OF ZYDECO, BLUES DIVAS with Morgan Freeman, and NEW ORLEANS MUSIC IN EXILE. His latest productions are ZYDECO CROSSROADS: A TALE OF TWO CITIES and STEVE BELL STORYTELLER: A NEWSMAN LIVING HISTORY. Since 2005, his production partner has been Diana Zelman, to whom he is now married. For five years, he was an Endowed Chair Professor at Ball State University, and for two years he was Filmmaker in Residence for Mississippi Public Broadcasting. Many of his films, both old and new, are currently being released on Blu-ray or DVD by MVD Visual. Much more about Mugge's career is available at www.robertmugge.com.