|This article relies largely or entirely upon a single source. (October 2010)|
He was born Lester Franklin Melrose in Sumner, Illinois, United States, the second of six children of Frank and Mollie Melrose who owned a small farm. He relocated to Chicago around 1914, and tried out unsuccessfully as a catcher for the Chicago White Sox baseball team before starting work as a grocery salesman.
In 1918 (though some sources state 1922), he joined forces with his elder brother Walter, and Marty Bloom (born Martin Blumenthal, 1893-1974), to form The Melrose Brothers Music Company, a publishing house and music store on the South Side of Chicago. In May 1923, he met Jelly Roll Morton at the store, and Morton became the company's chief songwriter and arranger. By the end of 1923, Walter Melrose moved the music publishing business downtown, while Lester continued for a while to operate the music store with a new partner.
In 1925, Lester Melrose sold his share of the store and became a freelance A&R man, combining the roles of talent scout and record producer. He started to promote many blues artists who became popular, recording them mainly in Chicago.
He worked for several record labels simultaneously in the 1930s, including RCA Victor and its subsidiary Bluebird, Columbia, and Okeh. Among the artists he recorded and brought to the world's attention were Joe "King" Oliver, Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Boy Williamson, Memphis Minnie, Roosevelt Sykes, Lonnie Johnson, Big Joe Williams, Bukka White, Washboard Sam, Champion Jack Dupree, Jazz Gillum, Arthur Crudup, Victoria Spivey and Leroy Carr.
In many ways Melrose can be considered a founder of the Chicago blues, although he favored acoustic over electric performances. Most of his recordings were made with a small group of session musicians and had a similar sound overall. Muddy Waters, who was rejected when he auditioned for Melrose, called it "sweet jazz". The music was a mixture of black blues and vaudeville styles and material with newer swing rhythms. Melrose's chief contribution was to establish a sound with full band arrangements, ensemble playing and a rhythm section, which appealed to the increasingly urbanised black record-buying audience, and prefigured the electric blues and R&B of the late 1940s and the small group sound that became dominant in rock and roll.
The Melrose sound dominated Chicago blues before World War II, but the arrival of large numbers of Southern African Americans in Chicago during and after the war brought Melrose's dominance to an end as a harder, deeper blues sound proved more popular with the new audience. However, Melrose himself continued to work into the 1950s. He then retired to Lake, Florida and died there in April 1968.
Although he could not play or sing a note of music, he owned the copyright to over three thousand tunes, mostly blues. As was the widespread custom at the time (and not just in blues music), Melrose often assigned composer credit and performance rights of the artists' songs to himself, paying the artists only for the record session. His name appeared on "Reefer Head Blues", recorded by Jazz Gillum and Aerosmith, and "Me and My Chauffeur", recorded by Memphis Minnie and Jefferson Airplane. His name also appeared on three Crudup songs recorded by Elvis Presley.
His older brother Walter Melrose (1889 - 1973) was a music publisher who received songwriter credit for several songs identified with the Original Dixieland Jass Band, including the standards "High Society" and "Tin Roof Blues", both of which were hits as late as the 1950s.
- Lester Melrose WWI Draft Registration Card and essay
- Biographical article by Peter Hanley
- Another article on Bluebird Blues
- Chicago Tribune article on Jelly Roll Morton and the Melrose brothers