Windy City Blues by Renee Rosen– 448 pages
ARC courtesy of author
In the middle of the twentieth century, the music of the Mississippi Delta arrived in Chicago, drawing the attention of entrepreneurs like the Chess brothers. Their label, Chess Records, helped shape that music into the Chicago Blues, the soundtrack for a transformative era in American History.
But, for Leeba Groski, Chess Records was just where she worked…
Leeba doesn’t exactly fit in, but her passion for music and her talented piano playing captures the attention of her neighbor, Leonard Chess, who offers her a job at his new record company. What begins as answering phones and filing becomes much more as Leeba comes into her own as a songwriter and befriends performers like Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Chuck Berry, and Etta James. But she also finds love with a black blues guitarist named Red Dupree.
With their relationship unwelcome in segregated Chicago and shunned by Leeba’s Orthodox Jewish family, she and Red soon find themselves in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement and they discover that, in times of struggle, music can bring people together.
My Review: 4.5 stars
Windy City Blues is a compelling story of Chicago’s unique and deep-seated roots in Blues music and the impact it had on all future music. There is a perfect blend of imagined and well developed characters that create the fictional storyline alongside the real characters such as Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Etta James. During this time period, after WW2, we see the seeds of the Civil Rights Movement being planted. This topic is well explored and worked as a perfect backdrop for the novel.
Many Southern musicians found themselves in Chicago where the infamous Maxwell Street was the melting pot for immigrants. Rosen brought this neighborhood to life with rich descriptions of food, sounds and music. It is there, on Maxwell Street, that the fictional plot line starts as the main protagonist, Leiba, an Orthodox Jew and talented pianist, finds love with Red Dupree, a black musician. It’s through their mixed race relationship that the Civil Rights Movement comes into play as well as their talent as musicians, which brings them closer with Leonard and Phil Chess, owners of Chess Records.
I must confess that although I enjoy music, I wasn’t familiar with the Blues let alone its significance in Chicago. The historical detail this book provides is astounding. I found myself Googling the musicians that were recorded by Chess Records as well as more information on the Chess brothers themselves. So much of today’s music is due to the influence of the Blues and the vision these two Polish immigrant brothers had for what was then called “race music”.
With good pacing and many threads to the storyline, Renee Rosen has once again offered us a novel about Chicago’s rich history. I am a transplant to Chicago (as is the author) and due to her last three novels I’ve learned so much about this beloved city. She digs deep into the research and presents it to the reader with superb skill and substance. This will make a great book club choice with so much to discuss.
The author and I will be doing an event at River Roast in Chicago for a Blues Brunch on April 23rd, 2017. More details to come.
Attached is a photo of Renee Rosen, Terry Chess, son of Phil Chess, and me.