On May 4, 1937, the first in a series of recording sessions produced by Lester Melrose and Bluebird Records took place in downtown Aurora, Illinois in the Sky Club situated on the top floor of the 1926-built Leland Hotel. Unknown to the participants at the time, the sessions would later be considered historic, and would take part in the development of future recording techniques, the development of post-war Chicago Blues, and the birth of Rock and Roll.
Over 320 songs were recorded from May of 1937 until the last session took place in December of 1938. The very first recordings of John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson took place on May 5, 1937. His iconic and Blues Hall of Fame song, “Good Morning, School Girl” was recorded in downtown Aurora on that day. He was 23 years old.
Other notable participants in the Bluebird sessions included famed Chicago Blues artists Tampa Red, Washboard Sam, John D. Twitty, Merline Johnson, Sweet Peas Spivey, Mary Mac, Curtis Jones, Red Nelson, Jazz Gillum, Lorraine Walton, One Arm Slim and Casey Bill Weldon, while the St. Louis contingency, in addition to Sonny Boy, included Walter Davis, Robert Lee McCoy (nee Nighthawk), Big Joe Williams, Henry Townsend, Yank Rachell, Elijah Jones, St.Louis Red Mike Bailey, Willie Hatcher and Speckled Red. Big Bill Broonzy contributed guitar to many of the recordings as a “sideman” along with a long list of other session artists making contributions as well.
The sessions were efficiently run and under strict control, with most songs being laid down only one or two times. It was not unusual for a days output to exceed 20 tracks. In fact, 35 songs were recorded during the May 4, 1937 sessions alone, setting the stage for future recording dates. Lester Melrose had employed the technique of using lead artists to support other lead artists, while filling in the blanks with sidemen where needed. This technique was important and fundamental in “getting it right the first time” as musicians easily became familiar with one another through the course of backing each other time and time again. Motown and Chess Records would subscribe to a similar recording scheme in years to come.
Little did anyone know or realize, that the birth of something big was taking place and that the Leland Bluebird Sessions were going to be a major contributor to that significance.
Lester Franklin Melrose was born in Sumner, Illinois on December 14, 1891. He came to Chicago sometime around 1914 and was purported to had tried out as a catcher for the Chicago White Sox. Sometime between 1918 and 1922, he formed the Melrose Brothers Music Company along with his older brother Walter. The company was involved in music publishing and they owned a record store on Chicago’s South Side.
In 1925, Lester exited Melrose Brothers Music Company and became a freelance A&R man producing many of Chicago’s most prominent Blues artists over the years for several record labels including Victor, Columbia and Okeh. He worked with, recorded and produced Tampa Red, Roosevelt Sykes, Big Bill Broonzy, Victoria Spivey, Big Joe Williams, Sonny Boy Williamson I and Arthur Crudup to name just a few.
Lester Melrose is considered by many to be the “founder” of Chicago Blues. At the time of his death in 1968, he owned the copyright to over 3,000 songs, of which most of them are of the Blues genre. He has the dubious distinction of having rejected Muddy Waters for a recording deal but “discovered” and championed Arthur Crudup, who was the author of Elvis Presley’s first single “That’s All Right”. Crudup’s version was released in 1946, eight years before Elvis was to “birth” Rock and Roll with his version.
Perhaps Lester Melrose’s most significant contribution, among many, to the music world is the founding of the Melrose Sound, which was a result of his employing large ensemble groups with tight sounding rhythm sections thereby creating a style that would be employed in Rhythm & Blues circles in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, while creating a “small group” sound that would become the hallmark of Rock & Roll.
Ironically, it was Muddy who proclaimed that “the Blues had a baby, and they named the baby Rock and Roll”. It was Lester, the “founder” of Chicago Blues, who in championing Arthur Crudup, lent a hand to the birth of Rock & Roll, and who passed on the chance to record Muddy Waters.