He not only pioneered the first Chicago blues sound, he’s the only man I know who can link the emerging blues of Buddy Bolden and nineteenth century New Orleans with the birth of rock & roll.  He was a white blues fanatic from Chicago who cut his teeth producing the ilk of Buddy Bolden disciple, Joe ‘King’ Oliver, in 1923, and jazz and blues pioneer, Jelly Roll Morton. His name was Lester Melrose, and he initiated new assembly-line recording techniques and, for the first time, used the same session players to back his artists. The unique sound he created during the original Chicago blues era became known as the Melrose Sound, a forerunner to later distinctive session sounds like the Motown Sound in Detroit or Alabama’s Muscle Shoals Sound.

With Big Bill Broonzy as his right hand man, blues artists who Melrose discovered, produced and promoted during the 1920s and 1930s included Big Bill himself, Leroy Carr, Arthur Big Boy Cradup, Champion Jack Dupree, Georgia Tom, Lonnie Johnson, Tommy McClennan, Memphis Slim, Memphis Minnie, Roosevelt Sykes, Tampa Red, Washboard Sam, Sonny Boy Williamson and Bukka White amongst others.

In 1939, Lester Melrose apparently found Arthur Big Boy Cradup living in a packing crate and signed him to the Bluebird label. Crudup is most famous for writing race classics that became legendary rock & roll songs. His ‘That’s All Right’, written in 1946, and ‘My Baby left Me’, both originally produced by Melrose in Chicago, became world-famous after being covered by Elvis Presley in the 1950s.  Many experts regard Lester Melrose as the founder of Chicago blues even though he did have the audacity to turn down a young Muddy Waters who was looking to record with him. “Sweet jazz,” was how Melrose described Waters’ sound. Perhaps Muddy’s music was yet to develop.

Lester Melrose with some of his blues artists pictured around 1940. From left: Ernest ‘Little Son Joe’ Lawlars, Big Bill Broonzy, Lester Melrose, Roosevelt Sykes, St. Louis Jimmy Oden. Front: Washboard Sam. Courtesy Yannick & Margo Bruynoghe Collection.