The rich history of Blues music in Aurora, Ill. comes to life on Feb. 19

Mae Koen belts out a tune at last year’s Blues on the Fox at RiverEdge Park. Koen joins the lineup for the Feb. 19 release of The Leland Bluebird Recording Sessions at Copley Theatre. Photography by Edward Spinelli Photography.

By Steve Warrenfeltz

On Sunday, February 19, a concert will take place at the Copley Theater in downtown Aurora to celebrate the release of a vinyl record entitled The Leland Bluebird Sessions, which is a tribute to a collection of Blues recordings released by Bluebird back in 1937 and 1938. The original Bluebird recordings were made in the Sky Club atop the then Leland Hotel, located at the corner of Stolp and Galena in downtown Aurora. The tribute to those historic recordings will be performed by the band Leland and led by the album’s producer and musician, Scott Tipping.

On May 4, 1937, the first of nearly 50 recording sessions took place in the Sky Club. The sessions were arranged by Lester Melrose, an A&R (artists and repertory) freelancer who also worked for Bluebird. Melrose brought together some of the finest, most well-known Blues musicians the Midwest had to offer including Tampa Red, Washboard Sam, Merline Johnson, Charlie West, Sweet Peas Spivey and Bill “Jazz” Gillum, among others. Heading up a contingency from St. Louis were Walter Davis, who recruited Robert Lee McCoy (Robert Nighthawk), Henry Townsend, Big Joe Williams, Yank Rachell and the legendary John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson for the project. In all, over 25 different lead and supporting artists were involved in the sessions including the highly acclaimed Big Bill Broonzy, who provided support on many of the 300 plus songs recorded in the Sky Club.

Though no one realized it at the time, the recording sessions would ultimately be considered historic. Due largely to a depressed economy resulting in falling record sales, Lester Melrose and Bluebird employed a systematic approach to recording in which lead artists also performed support duties on other lead artists’ recordings.  These “backup” sessions were scheduled on the same day as the “prime” sessions – a money-saving strategy which tended to produce a similar “sound” when comparing different songs and arrangements produced by different lead artists. In this particular case, the sound became known as the “Bluebird Sound”. The technique would be employed by other record labels in future sessions, including by Chess Records in the 1950s and by Motown in the 1960s.

The 1937-1938 Bluebird sessions in Aurora came to mark the first recordings of Sonny Boy Williamson, who would influence musicians such as Billy Boy Arnold, Little Walter and Junior Wells among others.  The very first recordings made by Sonny Boy took place on May 5, 1937: “Sugar Mama Blues” and “Good Morning, School Girl”.  These songs would become Blues standards and would be recorded by hundreds of prominent Blues and rock and roll artists, including Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Ten Years After, The Grateful Dead and Johnny Winter, just to name a few. The song, “Good Morning, School Girl” has been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.

Additionally, the sessions were noted for being influential in creating an awareness of, and respect for, the slide guitar, as employed by Robert Lee McCoy (or Robert Nighthawk as he would be known later on in life).  Future Blues slide guitar artists, and guitarists in general, would point to Robert as being influential in their development and the evolution of the slide guitar as a prominent Blues instrument. B.B. King once stated that Robert Nighthawk (or Rambling Bob as he was often referred to) was one of his ten most favorite guitarists of all time. Robert Nighthawk was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1983.

For years, the knowledge of these historic recording sessions, and the songs that were produced, would lay dormant until a group of local area Blues enthusiasts discovered their existence, and the fact that these songs were recorded in the Sky Club of the Leland Hotel. The discovery generated a keen interest in the Leland’s history and became the encouragement and foundation upon which the Blues on the Fox annual festival was born. Blues on the Fox celebrates its 21st birthday this coming June.

During the summer of 2013, Scott Tipping and I got together and crafted a plan to pay tribute to the original Leland Bluebird Sessions.  Our objective was to keep the Blues alive, ensuring that the fire of awareness started by that group of local Blues enthusiasts back in the early 1990s did not flame out. The tribute sessions began in November of 2013 and carried on through most of 2015, with mixing and mastering taking place in the fall of that year and into the spring of 2016, when that part of the journey became complete. The compact disc version of the tribute sessions was released in conjunction with a performance by Leland on the Saturday of the 20th Annual Blues on the Fox festival in 2016.

Since it was always our intention to release the project properly, as in a vinyl record format, care was employed in the formation of the tracking order of the compact disc. We planned to employ the same order for the two LP vinyl version of the album. Doing so, we had to consider factors such as time limitations per record side and distortion issues concerning “loud” tracks being placed close to the center of the vinyl record (not always a good idea).

Nevertheless, the project was mastered for vinyl in fall 2016. The record was pressed in October and November at Gotta Groove Records in Cleveland, Ohio. Some of you may have caught on to the fact that The Leland Bluebird Sessions, recorded in Kingsize Sound Lab studios in Chicago, was pressed in Cleveland during the Cubs and Indians World Series. We like to think that it was somehow appropriate and mutually historical.

We will officially release The Leland Bluebird Sessions (Vinyl Edition) on Feb. 19 in celebration of the original sessions and to commemorate our own recordings as well, paying tribute to Tampa Red, Washboard Sam, Big Joe Williams, John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, and all the other great blues artists that graced the hallowed halls of the Sky Club atop the Leland Hotel in downtown Aurora, Illinois. The show is being supported and sponsored by the Fox Valley Music Foundation, Sky Club Records, The Aurora Civic Authority, and Leland Tower.

For more information regarding The Leland Bluebird Sessions, the Record Release Show event or the Fox Valley Music Foundation, please find us on Facebook or contact me at Tickets to the Record Release Show can be purchased only online by way of the Sky Club Records Facebook Page or our EventBrite Page at

Steve Warrenfeltz owns Kiss the Sky in Batavia, Ill. 

Editor’s Note: This article will appear in print in Downtown Auroran Magazine’s “The Blues Issue,” out in March. The issue deadline is Feb. 15. 

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