On May 4, 1937, the first of several historic blues recording sessions took place on the top floor of the Leland Hotel located in downtown Aurora, Illinois. Lester Melrose, a freelance A&R man, and record producer, put together those recording sessions for the Bluebird label. Melrose brought together a small group of artists from St. Louis, and some of Chicago’s finest blues artists of the time, and over the course of the next 20 months, recorded over 300 tracks.
Tampa Red, Washboard Sam, Big Bill Broonzy, Walter Davis, John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, Big Joe Williams, Henry Townsend, Robert Lee McCoy, Speckled Red, Merlene Johnson, Addie “Sweet Peas” Spivey, Bill “Jazz” Gillum and One Arm Slim, amongst many others, participated in many of the recordings sessions that took place every few months from May of 1937 to December of 1938.
The sessions are considered by many to be, not only historic, but also influential in shaping the sounds of Post-War Blues, Country, Bebop and, of course, Rock & Roll. The sessions marked the first recorded work of John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson and was responsible for propelling the harmonica to the forefront as a lead instrument in blues groups and recordings. The historic “Good Morning, School Girl” and “Sugar Mama Blues” both were recorded in the Sky Club on the top floor of the Leland Hotel.
In addition, Lester Melrose employed a recording session setup that would influence the manner in which sessions took place for years to come. The Leland Bluebird Sessions used “house bands” comprised of session and lead musicians, playing backup roles for other band leaders. For example, Washboard Sam would support Tampa Red on several of his recordings, as well as others, while Tampa Red did the same for Washboard Sam and others as well. Big Bill was known to support several “lead” artists during the course of these Leland Bluebird Sessions. For the most part, Big Bill Broonzy, although a “lead” artist in his own right, was cast in the role of a side musician during many of the Leland recordings.
The reason why the Leland Hotel’s Sky Club was chosen for these sessions is not really known. There are those that suggest that it had something to do with union issues and considerations in Chicago, while others are fond of suggesting that The Sky Club acoustics were very attractive. Afterall, it was not entirely unusual for early blues recording sessions to take place in hotels and their ballrooms and guest rooms, so why should we be surprised?
Whatever the case may be, what we do know, is that the foundation for Post-War Blues, and music in general, was at least partially laid down during the course of those sessions. Listen closely and you will hear where Muddy, Hank, Tatum and many others received some of their influences.