Windy City Blues
By Renée Rosen
Brought to you by OBS Reviewer Daniele
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. (Goodreads)
A deeply human look at the rise of Chicago Blues and its influence on Rock-n-Roll, Windy City Blues is full of historical tidbits, real and imagined characters, and the race struggles in the years leading up to the Civil Rights Movement. It is a story of ambition, sacrifice, love, circumstance, and art.
Windy City Blues initially caught my attention, as a musician and music lover, with its tale of brothers Leonard and Phil Chess’s rise in the music world. How unlikely was is that two Jewish immigrants from Poland could bring “race music” to the masses and become power houses of the music industry? Rosen obviously did her research, and it shows in her deft handling of the technical side of record making and marketing, the musicians of the era, and the racial prejudice and rights struggle that people of color (and other ethnicities) faced. This book should come with its own soundtrack.
Leonard and Phil Chess are fascinating people (My only complaint is Leonard’s continuous use of M*@&er F@&$er. It is a constant throughout the entire book). It is amazing how many talented and influential musicians darkened their door over the course of their career as Chess Records. I especially enjoyed Muddy Waters and the Rolling Stones “cameo” near the end of the book.
As interesting as the Chicago Blues and its metamorphosis to R&B and eventually Rock-n-Roll are, the path of characters Leeba and Red is the star of the novel. As a mixed race couple from very different backgrounds, she is Jewish from Chicago and he is black from Louisiana, one might think that they do not have much in common. However, their love of music, mutual feelings of being outsiders, and love for each other make all of their obstacles seem surmountable. Readers cannot help but root for this couple’s happy ending. We follow them through the ups and downs of about twenty years of their relationship – prejudice, heartbreaking circumstances beyond their control, personal heartache, career success, and their passion for civil change.
I really enjoyed Windy City Blues. It is powerful on many levels, and Rosen puts a face to the music, not just the bigger than life personas of the stars but the deeply personal human faces and their stories.