The world Renée Rosen creates in Windy City Blues sounds not just with the rhythms of the music of Chicago in mid-20th century, but with the beats of racial tension, of women’s struggles for independence, and of the difficulties of immigrants trying to succeed in a new country.
The novel spans the years from 1947 to 1969 and is rooted in the real doings of the legendary blues recording studio, Chess Records. The story alternates between the perspectives of historical figure Leonard Chess and fictional characters Leeba Groski and Red Dupree. Leeba is a young Jewish Polish immigrant who takes a job in the office of then-Aristocrat Records at a time when co-owner Leonard is selling 78 records out of the trunk of his car. As the company grows into Chess Records, it builds a reputation by discovering such greats as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. Red’s life intertwines with Leeba and Leonard’s after he travels to Chicago from the Mississippi Delta, determined to make it as a blues guitarist.
However, to dismiss Windy City Blues as simply a music novel would be doing a great disservice. At the heart of the story is Leeba, a young woman whose Orthodox Jewish family wants to keep her tucked away at home while she longs to be out in the world. As her responsibilities at Chess Records grow, she develops her own talent for songwriting, although producing songs for female singers is difficult when the airwaves are dominated by men. And if Leeba’s family was unhappy with Leeba’s choice of career, there’s no doubt at the rift that Red Dupree will cause when Leeba falls in love with the African-American musician. An interracial relationship in the 1950s brings out the uglier side of Chicago, and the reader follows Leeba and Red as they become involved with first the Freedom Riders and then the Civil Rights Movement. As tension builds, Rosen never takes the easy way out, confronting the challenges Leeba and Red face as a couple and the harsh realities Red encounters as a black man, making the novel an unfortunately timely one.
Ultimately Windy City Blues is an uplifting book, as it mingles fact and fiction seamlessly. This engrossing story will lure the reader in with the distinct voices of each character, as we see the evolution of Chess Records—and the music industry—from “race music” to “R&B” to finally as we call it today, “rock and roll.” From the first chapter to the pitch-perfect ending, Windy City Blues hits all the right notes.