The Leland Hotel
Excerpt from “Today’s Chicago Blues” By Karen Hansen
Illinois Woman’s Press Association Award Book Award – 1st Place
From 1937 to 1938 the top floor (the Sky Club) of the 22-story leland Hotel in downtown Aurora was used as a recording studio for some of the most influential blues in prewar Chicago. There Sunny Boy (John Lee) Williamson I, Big Joe Williams, Robert Nighthawk, James “Yank” Rachell, Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy, Bill “Jazz” Gillum, Henry Townsend, Wasboard Sam, and others all cut records for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label.[nggallery id=6]
Among the songs made at the Leland was Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl,” which continues to influence blues harp players today. The music created at the Leland became known as the Bluebird beat, considered to be the precursor of the urban Chicago blues.
It wasn’t unheard of in those days to make blues records in hotels. In 1936 legendary bluesman Robert Johnson cut his first songs for Vocalion in a hotel room in San Antonio, Texas. Because RCA Victor did not have its own recording studios in Chicago, the Leland was used instead. No one is certain why RCA Victor or producer Lester Melrose selected the Leland; some speculate that a location outside of Chicago was chosen to avoid union conflicts. Others say that the Sky Club had good acoustics. Whatever the reason , the Leland was an attractive choice: at the time, it was the tallest building outside of Chicago. On the top floor the Sky Club was a spacious ballroom where jazz inspired big bands often played to all white audiences.
The makeshift recording studio consisted of a couple of chairs and a couple of microphones, according to Henry Townsend in an interview given in 2000, The records were cut on wax, he said, because magnetic tape and reel-to-reel recorders were not yet in widespread use.
Lester Melrose would bring several musicians into the studio at once, thereby producing a number of sides in a minimum amount of time. Each musician would take a turn as lead performer and then back the others on their recordings. On May 4, 1937, when Sonny Boy cut “Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl,” “Blue Bird Blues,” and four other tracks, he was accompanied by Big Joe Williams and Robert Lee McCoy on guitars. Later Sonny Boy and Big Joe backed McCoy as he recorded six songs, including “Prowling Night hawk,” from which he took his nickname Robert Nighthawk. Then Big Joe Williams recorded eight songs, including “Rootin’ Ground Hog” and “Brother James,’ with McCoy on guitar and Sonny Boy on harp.
This method was used during several other times in 1937 and 1938 in sessions that combined the talents of Sonny Boy, McCoy, Townsend, Walter Davis, Yank Rachell, Jazz Gillum, Big Bill Broonzy, Washboard Sam, and Speckled red.
RCA opened a recording studio in Chicago in 1940. However, Bluebird used the Leland at least one more time. In 1941 Robert Lockwood, Jr. recorded four songs in a session in which he also backed Doc Clayton.
The historical significance of the Leland Hotel went largely unrecognized until the late 1990s, when the Fox Valley Blues Society (FVBS) brought it to the attention of the City of Aurora. The Leland is now listed on the National register of Historic Buildings. During the 1997 Blues on the Fox festival, the FVBS organized the dedication of a plaque commemorating the 60th anniversary of the first Bluebird recordings. T.W. Utley, Sonny Boy Williamson’s half brother, attended the ceremony. The part of Stolp Avenue in front of the building has been renamed Blues Alley. In 1999 the FVBS was honored with the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive award for Blues Organization of the Year.
In 1997 the sky Club room was used once again to record the blues. On August 2 of that year, Earwig Music arranged for David “Honeyboy” Edwards to use the room to record “The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing,” the CD released in conjunction with his autobiography of the same title.
today the Leland Tower is still the tallest building in Aurora, but it’s no longer a hotel. It has been converted into an apartment building with retail businesses on the bottom floor. The Sky Club room remains empty.