Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
The Leland Bluebird Sessions
Sky Club Records
By Mark Baier
The Fox Valley Music Foundation and Sky Club Records newest release, The Leland Bluebird Sessions, is a celebration of the rich history of the Leland Hotel in downtown Aurora, IL and its important connection to blues music. Dominating the skyline of Aurora, the Leland became notorious as the location that RCA A&R man Lester Melrose chose to record hundreds of sides for their Bluebird subsidiary. With its sprawling top floor night club and excellent acoustics, the Leland was an ideal location to set up a temporary recording studio without the political and labor union struggles that were plaguing the Chicago scene in the late 1930s. Chicago was (and still is) ground zero for the labor union movement and musicians were not exempt by any means. Led by the legendary James Petrillo, the Chicago union was, in the late 1930s, embroiled in a dispute with bar and club owners over receipts from juke boxes. This new technology represented by the jukeboxes was seen as a threat to the union members live performance revenue opportunities. Why hire a band, if you can simply pay a nickel and hear the music at your leisure? Petrillo wanted a cut of the jukebox revenue and the jukebox owners didn’t want to provide it. Eventually Petrillo called for a local ban on any recordings by union members in the city of Chicago in an effort to limit the availability of fresh product for the jukebox pirates. In the 1940s, he would institute further national recording bans after becoming the head of the national American Federation of Musicians. With this ongoing battle as a subtext, RCA’s Lester Melrose had to find a suitable location to produce the recordings he needed for RCA’s Bluebird label. Bluebird was an RCA budget brand catering to the blues and jazz race market. Aurora’s access to Chicago and all points south via its railroad connections made it an ideal location, and the Leland’s Sky Club, with its bandstand and piano, provided the perfect venue. It was serendipity.
Over a period of 20 months in 1937 and 1938, some of the most seminal blues recordings of all time were documented in the top floor Sky Club by Melrose and his make shift recording studio. John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson, Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy, Washboard Sam, Walter Davis, Merline Johnson and many more made appearances before Melrose and his microphones, and in the process, produced a canon of work that is regarded as some of the most important blues ever put to shellac. Sonny Boy’s “Good Mornin’ Little Schoolgirl” and Robert Nighthawk’s “Prowlin’ Nighthawk” are but a couple of over 300+ Leland sides that endure as classics.
The Fox Valley Music Foundation’s CD The Leland Bluebird Sessions, mines the catalog deeply, not content to focus on famous titles exclusively. Rare cuts like “Get Going” originally recorded by The State Street Swingers in 1937, and Sweet Peas Spivey’s “Cold in Hand” get a fresh reading by Chicago folk legend Nora O’Connor. O’Connor’s sparse acoustic production is reverent and authentic. Chicago’s Robbie Fulks contributes a pair, “Good Gal” by Walter Davis and “Texas Tommy” by Yank Rachell. Both cuts sound like they would be right at home on the front porch of The Hideout on a Saturday afternoon, with their old timey jug band rhythms executed so deftly by drummer Alex Hall.
While many of the tracks on TLBS are stylistically old school, a few stand out as heavy modern rockers. Scott Tipping resurrects Washboard Sam’s “We Gotta Move” as a roadhouse tour de force replete with wicked wah wah guitar leads while The Steepwater Band transforms Yank Rachell’s “Rachel Blues” and Sonny Boy’s “Sugar Mama Blues” into sonic explosions of deep beats and heavy guitar riffing. Cody Diekhoff (a.k.a. Chicago Farmer, contributes a pair of old timey arrangements with renditions of “Sold It To The Devil” a 1937 side from The Black Spider (John D. Twitty) and Washboard Sam’s well known “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It”. Both tracks are full of energy and liveliness, and honor the original’s rough hewn spirit. Producer Scott Tipping contributes guitar and vocals on a number of selections including Dave Nelson’s take on Tampa Red’s “Travel On” and the Washboard Sam love song “Gonna Kill My Baby,” the latter also featuring the jaunty piano of Scott Stevenson. Singers Mae Koen, Mary Lou O’Brien and Mick Ducker also deliver powerful interpretations of songs by Big Joe Williams, Merline Johnson and Monkey Joe respectively.
TLBS is the brainchild of executive producer Steve Warrenfeltz, a long time Fox Valley music impresario best known for being the owner of Kiss The Sky Records (yes they actually sell vinyl) in Batavia. Warrenfeltz also served as a director of the Aurora Blues On The Fox festival for years. The voluminous research undertaken by Warrenfeltz has resulted in the documentation of every session date, artist and title recorded--well over 300 titles were recorded at the Sky Club and Warrenfeltz has procured at least a digital copy of each song, in addition to numerous original Bluebird 78s. A listing of the dates artists and titles are archived on the official website, www.thelelandbluebirdsessions.com.
Trying to tell the story of the Leland Hotel’s important connection with blues musical history is difficult to do with one 16-track CD, but Warrenfeltz and Tipping have done a remarkable job honoring the legacy of the Bluebird recordings and recreating the spirit and feel of the original sessions. To this end, TLBS were recorded live to tape with minimal edits or embellishments. With over 300 titles to cull from, it’s a safe bet that the Leland Bluebird Session compilations are just getting started. In addition to planning further CD retrospectives by modern artists, Warrenfeltz is working to secure the rights to all of the original recordings so that they can be cleaned up and presented in their original order of recording. Kudos to Warrenfeltz, Tipping and the Fox Valley Music Foundation for presenting this fascinating and ultimately important musical document, one which insures that these Aurora Bluebird sessions are given the proper historical regard and respect. Buff the Bluebird would be proud.
F or info or to buy the CD:
or info or to buy the CD: