“Another nice article on the #blues from @paulgmerry.”
PhillyCheeze’s Rock and Blues Reviews @phillycheeze Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 2 June 2015.

“Enjoy your blog very much Paul! Thanks for supporting the blues! ;-)”
Joanne LeBlanc  (@jleblanc59) SF Bay area, February 22, 2014. 

Formany, Chicago surely rates as America’s top blues city. That’s perfectly understandable, considering the waves of great blues music that came out of America’s third-biggest city last century. And while Chicago may not have been a formative blues city in the nineteenth century, in the league of New York or New Orleans, it surely takes the honours when it comes to being America’s first city of urban, or city-inspired, blues.

Jelly Roll Morton hit Chicago in 1910

Even Jelly Roll rated Tony Jackson
Blues began to take root in Chicago around 1910 with the first wave of black migrants from the
southern United States moving north to escape poverty and racial discrimination. These would have mainly been ragtime musicians, blues and jazz having yet to be named. Of the first southern musicians to arrive in Chicago, two were red hot pianists from New Orleans. Jelly Roll Morton, the Creole who arrived in 1910, was probably the best known, followed by the African American, Tony Jackson, in 1912. Even Jelly Roll looked up to Jackson, in those days the man everyone copied, from the way he played his piano to his dress sense. Jackson’s fancy waistcoat, Ascot tie, diamond tie or stick pin and sleeve garters became so copied by ragtime and barrelhouse piano players of the era, the look is now a filmic cliché in period movies and TV westerns. As one pianist of the early
1900s said, “If you can’t play like Tony Jackson, at least you can look like him.

Lucille Hegamin made St Louis Blues famous in Chicago
The Georgia Peach, Lucille Hegamin, who would sing with both Jelly Roll Morton and Tony Jackson, moved from Atlanta up to Chicago in 1914 where she once said, “I think I can say without bragging that I made the ‘St. Louis Blues’ popular in Chicago”. The song was published that year, of course. Hegamin then became the second black American ever to record a blues song, after Mamie Smith in 1920, cutting ‘Jazz Me Blues’ and ‘Everyone’s Blues’, but only after moving to New York.
Prohibition, America’s banning of alcohol, was introduced in 1920, and the trickle of blues and jazz musicians from America’s south to the north turned into a flood. The lure was to find work in the numerous illicit speakeasy cabarets springing up everywhere. Over 40 top jazz musicians from New Orleans alone, for example, moved to Chicago in the first years of prohibition, although many ended up in New York.
These were the roaring twenties and no city roared louder than Chicago. America now calls it the Jazz Age, but it was also the decade when the blues first stamped its mark on Chicago, and Chicago blues stamped its own unique mark on America.

Frank Capone: killed in his 20s

This was a time when white gangsters ran Chicago’s illegal drinking clubs, and often controlled the black artists working in these clubs. The Thompson submachine gun, perfected in 1920, became known as The Chicago Typewriter such was its popularity with the city’s mobsters. Gangsters like Al Capone and Bugs Moran became some of the most famous Chicagoans of all time. They were the baddest of the bad but, at the same time, champions of the people and did much to encourage black performers. Al’s older brother, the gangster Frank Capone, is said to have given black musicians like Earl Hines, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Fats Waller their professional starts in the Cotton Club, not the one in Harlem but in Cicero, Chicago.

One man in Chicago who wasn’t a gangster also did more than his fair share to encourage black performers. His name was Lester Melrose, originally a Chicago music store and publishing house owner, who in 1923 hired Jelly Roll Morton as his in-house songwriter and arranger. Around the same time, Lester started cutting his teeth as a record producer with Joe Oliver and Louis Armstrong.

Lester Melrose (left) with Tampa Red

Then, between the 1930s and pre-WW2 1940s, Lester Melrose virtually single-handedly created the first great Chicago blues sound. He combined blues,
vaudeville and the new-style swing rhythms that were coming into vogue. Melrose also pioneered assembly-line recording techniques, including using the same players for every recording session, pre-dating the Muscle Shoals and Motown session bands by some 30 or 40 years.

Artists produced by Lester Melrose would become the Who’s Who of classic American blues as we know it today.

The influential Big Bill Broonzy making a movie in Belgium

These included Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Boy Williamson, Memphis Minnie, Roosevelt Sykes, Lonnie Johnson, Big Joe Williams, Bukka White, Washboard Sam, Champion Jack Dupree, Tampa Red and Thomas Dorsey as the Hokum Boys, Jazz Gillum, Arthur Crudup, Victoria Spivey and Leroy Carr.

Playing guitar on many of these sessions was a young white boy, also from Chicago, called George Barnes. George was just 16-years old when he recorded electric lead guitar for a host of black blues
legends like Broonzy, Curtis Jones, Washboard Sam (who Melrose named), Jazz Gillum, Louis Powell, Blind John Davis, Merlene Johnson and Hattie Bolten in sessions during March 1938.

Chicago’s George Barnes recorded with blues greats aged 16

Altogether, young George played on 33 seminal black blues recordings in Chicago that year, becoming probably the second person ever to commercially record blues on an electric lead guitar after Eddie Durham.  And judging from the number of electric guitar instruction manuals George Barnes wrote
in the early 1940s, you could literally say he wrote the book on playing electric blues guitar.

The best way to describe Lester Melrose, I suppose, is as freelance A&R man and producer, who worked for many record labels simultaneously: famous blues labels such as Bluebird, Columbia and OKeh.
In 1939, Melrose recorded 34 tracks with New Orleans’ blues guitar pioneer Lonnie Johnson in Chicago, including classics like ‘I’m A Jelly Roll Baker’ and ‘She’s Only A Woman’.

Lonnie Johnson: went electric in Chicago in 1939

It was with Melrose at the control desk that Johnson first strapped on an electric guitar, an example of which you can listen to on the following link.

The Chicago blues sound created by Lester Melrose in the 1930s became known as the Melrose Sound and many experts today regard Lester Melrose as the founder of Chicago blues. Melrose himself, born on a farm in south-west Illinois in 1891, scouted America’s south for talent until the constant threat of attack by rednecks encouraged him, reluctantly, to hand the task over to his right hand man. This was one of the most influential figures in blues history, Big Bill Broonzy.
Strangely, Lester Melrose also had the misfortune to turn down a 27-year old Muddy Waters who wanted to record with him.

Father of modern Chicago blues. Muddy Waters, in his prime

This was around 1940 when Muddy first moved to Chicago. Muddy Waters, of course, would have the last laugh, now being considered ‘the father of modern Chicago blues’.

This second wave of Chicago blues started after World War Two when another exodus of African Americans from America’s south headed north. Taking a lead from Lester Melrose and Lonnie Johnson, this second phase of black musicians plugged in and created the electric blues sound that so influenced rock music, especially the British-invasion bands like The Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Cream and Led Zeppelin.
This second period of Chicago blues has been so well documented, I decided end my book “How Blues Evolved” with Muddy Waters’ emergence in the 1950s, simply because that’s the period of the blues most serious blues fans seem to know about.

About time we had a pic of Buddy Guy in these pages

No point in reinventing the wheel, I thought, and telling people what many actually know

If you thought the first phase of Chicago blues sounded like a Who’s Who of the genre, just look at all the famous names the second phase of Chicago blues produced: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy, Bo Diddley, Elmore James, Freddie King, Jimmy Reed, Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, Johnny Shines, Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers … how long have we got? The list just
goes on.
These blues legends have become so well documented, some blues followers even think Chicago in the 1950s is where blues began. But should you really want to know, check out “How Blues Evolved”.
In the UK, get your FREE How Blues Evolved Volume One and Two previews on this link below:
In the USA, get your free previews on this link:


Melvin Taylor on stage in Kiev, Ukraine

Just had message from Chicago electric blues guitarist, Melvin Taylor, who reminds me that The Windy City is still producing quality blues musicians today. Born in Mississippi, Melvin moved to Chicago as a child in 1962 and can be found playing the clubs of Chicago’s West Side. Check him out at:


youtube.com/watch?v=9_9RVpSqiI4 …