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Windy City Blues

Windy City Blues, March 2017
by Renee Rosen

480 pages
ISBN: 1101991127
EAN: 9781101991121
Kindle: B01FEY5DG2
Paperback / e-Book
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"The men and women of the music that changed the world"

Fresh Fiction Review

Windy City Blues
Renee Rosen

Reviewed by Monique Daoust
Posted December 26, 2017

Women's Fiction

The Groskis emigrated from Poland to Chicago to live on Maxwell Street, known as Jewtown. Black families had started moving in, and Mrs. Groski strongly disapproved; she had never quite accepted that her daughter Leeba had befriended Aileen Booker, one of the interlopers. Aileen and Leeba bonded quickly because of their fondness for gospel music and the blues. Leeba had studied the piano since she was a child, and when she later worked at a music store, she fell under the spell of a Black musician: it was how he looked, how he sang, but mostly how she connected deeply with his soulful guitar playing. She couldn't get Red Dupree out of her mind. Red had come up north from Louisiana to make it in the music business, in Chicago where it was happening in 1947. He knew he had what it took to make it, and that he would have to work hard, but what could he do about Leeba, the Jewish woman who had caught his eye. Where he came from, merely looking at the White woman could get him lynched. But his Leeba loved the blues as much as Red did, and they loved each other as much as they loved their music. Those were very dangerous times to give in to their passion...

Renée Rosen creates such an exceptionally vivid picture of Chicago that I was immersed in the sights, the smells and the sounds as if I were living the story. The author's thorough research makes WINDY CITY BLUES a most compelling read, as she seamlessly weaves fictional characters and real people with remarkable ease. I did not know about the Chess brothers, record executives, and I was rather astonished to learn that they existed, and to a point, WINDY CITY BLUES is partly their story, which is also quite a bit of the story of the Chicago blues, which is intimately intertwined with the Civil Rights Movement. WINDY CITY BLUES is a rather lengthy book, at over 400 pages, and I must say I would not have complained if there had been a hundred pages more on the Civil Rights; it was utterly riveting, terrifying, and inspiring, and a sad reminder that it happened only a short while ago. Watching how much the music-making and promoting process has evolved was also quite an education.

WINDY CITY BLUES is a luxurious tapestry, where passionate people come together through their love of music, face insurmountable odds to make their dreams come true, and where some win and some lose. Ms. Rosen's exceptional attention to historical detail makes WINDY CITY BLUES a must-read on several levels: the music, of course, where famous bluesmen are depicted so accurately, I felt transported to another time and place; the arrival of television in the Gorski home is a short but extremely memorable passage, and I have never felt the horror of racism as acutely as when reading WINDY CITY BLUES. The author doesn't aim to shock, and it's because of her subtlety that discrimination and bigotry are so appalling; it's in the seemingly little things that sometimes cruelty hit our sensibilities the hardest, and this is why the love story between Red and Leeba is so powerful. They know how difficult it is going to be for them to become a couple, and heir love is so deep, that they accept what awaits them. The amount of courage it took for couples such as Red and Leeba in those times is hard to fathom, and the author does it all without heavy-handed melodrama, which accentuates the connection the reader feels with Red, Leeba, and the characters as a whole. I will be looking forward to reading more of Renée Rosen's books, because I feel that WINDY CITY BLUES is how historical fiction should be written.

Learn more about Windy City Blues


The bestselling author of White Collar Girl and What the Lady Wants explores one woman’s journey of self-discovery set against the backdrop of a musical and social revolution.

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 is not lost on 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 the two of them shunned by Leeba’s Orthodox Jewish family, Leeba 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.



“Sweet Little Angel”


She did her worshipping from the hood of a rusted-out Chevrolet in a junkyard on Twenty-ninth and State Street across from the church. Leeba Groski felt closer to God there than she ever did in a synagogue. It was a Sunday morning and she’d tagged along with the neighbor boys, Leonard and Phil Chess. They sat three in a row on the hood, their feet resting on the bumper while they listened to the gospel music pouring out of the church’s open door and windows. Even in Chicago’s August heat the piano music and voices gave Leeba goose bumps as she clapped and sang along to “Jesus Gave Me Water.” Leeba didn’t have a great voice, but when she sang you couldn’t hear her accent. If she could, she would have said everything in a song. She was seven years old when her family arrived from Poland. The only English word she knew back then was okay. So everything was okay.

“How old are you?”


“Where do you live?”


“Stupid kike.”


Now she was eleven, sitting in a junkyard singing without holding back, tapping her toes inside her hand‑me‑down shoes. Music so magical, it made her body move, her fingers snapping as effortlessly as her heart pumped, as her lungs took in air. As Leeba swayed to the music all else disappeared. Gone were the rows of decrepit autos, the chain-link fence, the scent of gasoline and the stench from the nearby stockyards. Even the empty liquor bottles and trodden trash on the ground vanished. All that existed in that moment was the music. She surrendered to it, letting it lift her up inside.

When the song ended, Leonard tapped her on the shoulder, offering her a Lucky Strike before cupping his hand around a match, blocking the wind while he lit his. He was sixteen and had been smoking for as long as Leeba could remember. Phil, four years younger and enamored of his big brother, patted down his flattop and reached for a cigarette of his own. Leeba contemplated trying one, until she became distracted by a young girl standing outside the church in a flowing white robe, the breeze catching her sleeves, billowing them up like angel wings. The young girl with skin the color of cocoa tilted her head toward the heavens and opened wide, singing “Move On Up a Little Higher.” The words boomed from her with a force that seemed to shoot forth from the earth and move through her. Leeba watched, listened, astonished. Was that coming from her?

“Motherfucker,” said Leonard, as that was his favorite word, suitable for any and all occasions and often employed as a term of endearment.

“Yeah, motherfucker,” said Phil, nodding. He liked that word, too, mostly because Leonard liked it so much.

When the song was over, the singing angel kicked a cluster of pebbles that sent dust across the lot before she was summoned back inside the church.

“Boys, get back to work,” Mr. Chess called out in a thick Yiddish accent. He owned the junkyard and Leonard and Phil worked there in the summertime and on weekends. “Boys,” he called again. “We have lots to do.”

One by one they slid off the car hood, the brothers darting their cigarettes to the ground. The music in the church had stopped. There was no piano, no singers, just barking dogs, horns honking in the distance and the preacher delivering his sermon. The junkyard lost its sanctity and Leeba found herself back in a land of broken headlights and shattered windshields. Her friends had things to do, and Leeba was left with a long day to fill all by herself. Jacks, solitaire, her jump rope, a library book, the piano—she contemplated her substitute playmates.

Leeba left the brothers to stack tires and headed toward the bus, shuffling along in Cousin Eli’s shoes. They were a size too small for him and a size too big for her, but her mother wouldn’t spend the money for a new pair. Why, when those are perfectly good? Leeba polished and buffed them, but still they looked like boys’ shoes that didn’t fit. It was bad enough that she was taller than the other girls, taller than the boys, too. In the fifth grade she already stood five-four and she wasn’t done yet. Other mothers urged their children to stand up straight, shoulders back. But fearing her height would scare off the boys, Leeba’s mother never corrected her for slouching, her torso sunk in like a C. And even then she still towered over her classmates. Her father said her long legs were a fluke. Even the men in her family—on both sides—struggled o reach five-seven.

Twenty minutes later the bus dropped Leeba off in a section of Chicago called Lawndale. The Groskis lived over there on a shady, tree-lined street where everyone knew everyone else. Their house in the center of Karlov Avenue was a simple four-flat with a brick exterior. They had the first-floor apartment, three rooms for the four of them: Leeba’s parents, her younger sister, Golda, and her. Compared to how they’d lived in the shtetl, their village in Poland, this was a castle. Uncle Moishe, Aunt Sylvie and Cousin Eli had the apartment across the hall.

Leonard and Phil Chess lived in the building next door on the second floor. Leeba’s mother was the only person who still referred to them by their Polish surname, Czyz. She called the parents Cryla and Yasel instead of Cecile and Joseph. They never corrected her, but the boys, Lejzor and Fizsel, were quick to remind her that they only answered to Leonard and Phil. The Chess family had come over in 1928, a year before the Groskis, but to Leeba they were true Chicagoans who had American names and ate hot dogs and spoke English, their accents beginning to fade as beautifully as a setting sun.

Leeba entered the small foyer to the building where the wallpaper curled away from the corner seam. The hallway smelled of boiled cabbage. Her mother was cooking again. Leeba wiped her big shoes on the welcome mat with Shalom running across the burlap in black Hebrew letters.

“Leeba, iz az ir?” her mother called out when she opened the front door.

Leeba saw the tips of her mother’s pink slippers poking out of the kitchen alcove. “Ya, Mama, ikh bin heym.

Yiddish was the only language spoken in the Groski home because Leeba’s mother had never learned English. She claimed she had no use for it, whereas Leeba found it a necessity, even if confounding. When was a kernel something that got caught in your teeth and when was it an army officer? Words like choir, knife and gnat—even more puzzling. She wrestled with words in her diary, in the poems she wrote, in the little songs she made up. She mentally rehearsed each time she spoke, wanting only to sound American.

With the church music fresh in her head, Leeba went into the living room and sat at the piano. It was a secondhand upright with keys as yellowed as an old woman’s teeth and an F key that stuck in humid weather. Her father had splurged on the piano after her teacher at Theodore Herzl Elementary realized Leeba could play by ear. If she heard a song enough times she could play it back note for note. How her fingers knew which keys to strike she didn’t know, couldn’t explain. From the age of ten Leeba had taken private lessons at the J.P.I., the Jewish People’s Institute, on Douglas Boulevard. But even before that she had taught herself to play “Stormy Weather,” “Sitting on Top of the World” and other songs she’d heard on the radio. She got her talent from her father, who had played in a klezmer band back in their shtetl. He still held concerts at their Lawndale home, where neighbors—all of them from the Old World—gathered in their living room to drink schnapps from mismatched shot glasses while Leeba played the piano. Her father accompanied her on violin and Uncle Moishe on the clarinet. Leeba was the center of attention those nights, relishing the admiring looks, the praise, savoring every moment before the song ended and everyone’s focus went elsewhere. She knew that this—being able to play like she did—was the one thing that made her special. It was the tradeoff God had given her for being born too tall and with the curls that some called “Jew hair.”

While Leeba sat at the piano, the gospel music from earlier played inside her head as her fingers instinctively found the notes, sounding out the melody for “Jesus Gave Me Water.” She played that song over and over until her mother called her to dinner, where the rest of the family was already seated at the table, waiting on her. The usual chatter while they ate was lost on Leeba, who still heard the music playing inside her head.

Afterward, she stood next to her mother at the kitchen sink, drying the dishes while her mother washed. Golda was in the living room listening to The Lone Ranger on the radio while her father sat at the table building a model airplane out of balsa wood, the smell of airplane glue heavy in the air. While he assembled the pieces, Leeba’s mother complained about the schwartzes who had moved to Lawndale.

“It’s the Glucks’ fault,” her mother said. “How could they have sold to Negroes?”

“What I don’t understand,” her father said, pressing two glued sections together, “is why they would want to live in this neighborhood

to begin with.”

Golda, aptly named for her golden hair, so silky smooth it captured the light in ways that Leeba’s never would, came and stood in the doorway. “Does that mean the schwartzes will go to my school in the fall?”

“But you don’t need to mix with them,” her mother said. “You stick to your own kind. You, too,” she said to Leeba as she tugged the dish towel off her shoulder. “I am so angry with those Glucks for putting us in this position.”

“What position?” asked Leeba.

“Never mind. Dry.” Her mother handed her another plate. “I still can’t believe it. Schwartzes in Lawndale.”


The next day Leeba walked down Fifteenth Street to see what all the fuss was about. After listening to her parents, she, too, wondered why a Negro family would want to live in the heart of a Jewish community, where synagogues and kosher butchers graced nearly every block. She turned down Kostner Avenue, a street lined with modest two-flats and factories.

When she arrived at the Glucks’ old house, Leeba saw a cluster of young boys from the neighborhood up on their tiptoes, looking through the windows, hands cupped about their eyes, faces pressed to the glass. A peep show could not have been more captivating.

“Look at that radio.”

“They have a phonograph player, too.”

“Hey,” Leeba called to them from the sidewalk. “What do you think you’re doing?”

One boy grinned, big, toothy and proud. “We’re watching the schwartzes.”

“Get away from there.” Leeba ran up on the grass to shoo them off, knowing that she, too, had gone there to “watch the schwartzes.” It had seemed like an innocent adventure until those boys held up an ugly mirror. To cover her shame she posed as the protector, shouting louder this time, “Go on now. Get away from there. Leave these nice people alone.” As the words left her mouth she bought into her own posturing, feeling superior, even a bit virtuous.

But the boys were defiant and didn’t budge until they heard the jingle jangle of the Good Humor Man pedaling his bicycle truck down the block, his handlebar bells trilling. The boys raced toward the curb, circling around the cart, digging into their pockets for coins.

Leeba was still on the lawn when the front door swung open and the newest resident of Lawndale stepped out on the porch. She recognized her right away: the singing angel from the gospel church. She was about Leeba’s age and even prettier up close, with fine, delicate features, her hair every bit as curly as Leeba’s.

A woman came out on the porch behind her, barefoot and dressed in a floral housecoat, her wiry hair pulled back in a plain gray kerchief. She started toward the steps, her toes teetering over the edge, her brown skin cracked white around her heels.

“Mama, go on back in the house.”

The woman was already on the first step.

“Go on now, Mama. Back inside.”

That time she listened and moments later Leeba saw her hovering near the window, watching.

“Don’t mind her,” said the angel. “She get like this sometimes.” The girl pointed to the children gathered around the man in the white uniform. “Who’s that?”

“The Good Humor Man.”

She crinkled up her forehead, confused. It occurred to Leeba that this girl had never seen a Good Humor Man in whatever neighborhood she came from.

“He’s selling ice cream.”

“How much do it cost?”

“A nickel.”

The angel turned and disappeared inside the house, closing the door behind her. Leeba felt ashamed, trespassing on this girl’s lawn. She headed toward the curb where the boys were licking and slurping as their ice creams melted, dripping onto the pavement. Leeba had no money to spend on something like that. She had no extra money, period. Her weekly allowance had been cut back to a quarter since the Depression and she’d already spent her money the day before on 78s of Bing Crosby and Duke Ellington at the used record store.

She was about to head for home when the front door opened again and the girl came running down the lawn.

“Can I have one of them ice creams?” She handed the Good Humor Man a dime and turned to Leeba. “Ain’t you having none?”

“I don’t have any money.”

The girl looked at the change resting in her palm and handed Leeba the nickel. “Well, here—”

Leeba hesitated. It seemed like such a grand gesture and she felt undeserving, especially given her motives for being there that day.

“Go on now, go get yourself an ice cream. You pay me back later.”

The girls sat side by side on the curb and while they ate their treats Leeba said that she’d heard her outside her church the day before.

“How’d you learn to sing like that anyway?” asked Leeba.

The girl shrugged. “Just born to me, I guess.” She looked down and Leeba worried about her cousin’s shoes until the girl glanced up, indifferent, as if she hadn’t noticed.

After they’d finished their ice cream Leeba brought her new friend, Aileen Booker, home so she could repay her for the ice cream.

As they came through the doorway Leeba’s mother stepped out of the kitchen. “Vas iz das?” she asked, running her hands down the front of her apron, her eyes narrowing on Aileen.

Leeba explained about the ice cream and her mother shook her head, muttering as she went to the Maxwell House canister on the counter where she kept spare change.

“Is she mad?” Aileen whispered so softly she practically mouthed the words.

“Oh, don’t worry. She can’t understand you. She doesn’t speak English.”

“Oh.” Aileen paused for a moment. “Well, then, what do she speak?”


Aileen made a face.

“Polish,” said Leeba, which didn’t appear to be much more of an explanation.

Leeba’s mother fished a nickel from the canister and handed it to Leeba. “Give this to her and don’t take money from her again. You understand?”

Leeba knew by her mother’s tone that she was in trouble for something. She just didn’t know what.

“Now send her on her way,” her mother said. “She doesn’t belong here.”

But Leeba didn’t want to send Aileen away. Other than the Chess brothers, Leeba didn’t have any friends, let alone a girl friend her age. Leeba never fit in at school, teased because of her height, her accent, her hair, the schmatehs her mother made her wear. Aileen hadn’t flinched at any of that—not even her shoes—and that alone won Leeba’s unconditional devotion.

Later that night while Golda slept, hogging the covers on her side of the bed, Leeba listened to her parents through the thin walls.

“What can we do about it, Freyda?” her father was saying. “You want she should have friends and now she does.”

“But a colored one?”

Leeba heard the bedsprings squeak and the thud of her father’s heavy feet hitting the floorboards. “We can’t tell her not to play with the girl.”

“But you didn’t see her. She’s dark. We can’t have Leeba running around with her.” her weapon, the only way she could retaliate against her mother favoring Golda. For Golda there was money for shoes. For Golda there was everything. She was the family beauty, the child to hang one’s hopes on, not the tall, gangly daughter with the wild curls.

Leeba reached under the bed for her notebook and pencil and scribbled the start of a poem in the dark: A nickel for a friend / A small price to pay . . .

“We have to put a stop to this,” her mother was saying, making Leeba pause her pencil. “What will people say?”

“It’s not so geferlech, not the end of the world. Would you rather she run around with the Chess brothers the rest of her life?”

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