Jerry Garcia famously managed to learn and play the guitar with one finger too few; following a childhood accident, he was left with just four fingers (on his right hand). Legendary bluesman Hound Dog Taylor, on the other hand, had the opposite dilemma: Born with a congenital deformity known as polydactyly, Taylor was famous among guitarists for having six fingers, and on both hands. Contrary to it being any type of fretting benefit, as is usual for the condition the extra digits were rudimentary nubbins and could not be moved. One night, while drunk, he cut off the extra digit on his right hand using a straight razor.¹
Theodore Roosevelt Taylor (yes, he was named after the 26th U.S. president) was born in the Mississippi Delta, but made his name, including his canine nickname, on the south side of Chicago. Playing the bottleneck slide guitar style popularized by Elmore James, Hound Dog gained a rabid local following performing blaring live shows at pocket-sized blues clubs while sitting on a folding chair, grinning madly, and stomping both feet on the floor. His band, The HouseRockers, was comprised only of Ted Harvey on drums, and Brewer Phillips, not on bass but on a second guitar supplying bass lines on his six-string Fender – to my knowledge the only trio to be so designed. The barrelhouse music was never anything close to fancy, but was sure-handedly powered by the ebullient Taylor, who cranked out his cacophonous sets on a cheap Japanese guitar fed through a busted-up old Sears Roebuck amp.
Bruce Iglauer, then a 24-year-old shipping clerk for independent jazz label Delmark Records, heard Taylor and his band at a regular gig at a juke joint called Florence’s Lounge, and subsequently tried unsuccessfully to convince his employer to sign Taylor to a recording contract. Instead, he used a $2,500 inheritance and created his own label, Alligator Records, to do so. The resulting 1971 album, the debut for both Taylor and the incipient record company, was designed to approximate the atmosphere of a Florence’s jam, and recorded live in just two days. It was named simply “Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers,” and became a hit in the niche blues market. Allmusic described it as “wild, raucous, crazy music straight out of the South Side clubs; one of the greatest slide guitar albums of all time”; Robert Christgau of Rolling Stone called the album “electronic gutbucket from the Chicago blues bars, and the rawest record I’ve ever heard”; and The Penguin Guide to Blues Recordings designated it as “loud, harsh, exciting, and boxy” (I really have no idea about that last descriptor, but taken in context I assume that it’s good).
The album did more than launch the band. Alligator Records, the label Iglauer founded specifically for the purpose of releasing Taylor’s music, has gone on to produce over 250 blues/rock albums, won multiple Grammy awards, and become known globally as the preeminent blues record label. Acknowledging both the origins and the importance of Taylor’s band for his company, Iglauer made “Genuine HouseRockin’ Music” the promotional motto for Alligator. The record itself was filled out with several Elmore James covers, but the rampaging Hound Dog Taylor original, ‘Give Me Back My Wig,’ would become the LP’s standout tune and eventually Taylor’s best known song (in the future regularly performed by, among many others, Stevie Ray Vaughan). It’s a boogie-woogie breakup song, with the central lyrics being as follows: “Give me back my wig / Honey now let your head go bald / Really didn’t have no business / Honey buyin’ you no wig at all.” Unfortunately we cannot have its author clarify anything concerning the hairpiece he wanted returned from an apparently bald former paramour; Hound Dog passed away in 1975, a mere four years after his recording debut. Still, before he did he seemed to have figured out history’s place for his rambunctious and uniquely unvarnished music. “When I die,” Taylor was quoted to have remarked, “they’ll say: he couldn’t play shit, but he made it sound good.” What a line. You’ve got to hand it to him, there sure was something incredible and peculiar to that Hound Dog Taylor sound. I just…can’t quite put my finger on it.