"The men and women of the music that changed the world"
Reviewed by Monique Daoust
Posted December 26, 2017
The Groskis emigrated from Poland to Chicago to live on
Street, known as Jewtown. Black families had started
and Mrs. Groski strongly disapproved; she had never quite
accepted that her daughter Leeba had befriended Aileen
one of the interlopers. Aileen and Leeba bonded quickly
of their fondness for gospel music and the blues. Leeba
studied the piano since she was a child, and when she
worked at a music store, she fell under the spell of a
musician: it was how he looked, how he sang, but mostly
connected deeply with his soulful guitar playing. She
get Red Dupree out of her mind. Red had come up north from
Louisiana to make it in the music business, in Chicago
was happening in 1947. He knew he had what it took to make
and that he would have to work hard, but what could he do
Leeba, the Jewish woman who had caught his eye. Where he
from, merely looking at the White woman could get him
But his Leeba loved the blues as much as Red did, and they
loved each other as much as they loved their music. Those
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
sounds as if I were living the story. The author's
research makes WINDY CITY BLUES a most compelling read, as
seamlessly weaves fictional characters and real people
remarkable ease. I did not know about the Chess brothers,
record executives, and I was rather astonished to learn
they existed, and to a point, WINDY CITY BLUES is partly
story, which is also quite a bit of the story of the
blues, which is intimately intertwined with the Civil
Movement. WINDY CITY BLUES is a rather lengthy book, at
400 pages, and I must say I would not have complained if
had been a hundred pages more on the Civil Rights; it was
utterly riveting, terrifying, and inspiring, and a sad
that it happened only a short while ago. Watching how much
music-making and promoting process has evolved was also
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
some win and some lose. Ms. Rosen's exceptional attention
historical detail makes WINDY CITY BLUES a must-read on
levels: the music, of course, where famous bluesmen are
depicted so accurately, I felt transported to another time
place; the arrival of television in the Gorski home is a
but extremely memorable passage, and I have never felt the
horror of racism as acutely as when reading WINDY CITY
The author doesn't aim to shock, and it's because of her
subtlety that discrimination and bigotry are so appalling;
in the seemingly little things that sometimes cruelty hit
sensibilities the hardest, and this is why the love story
between Red and Leeba is so powerful. They know how
it is going to be for them to become a couple, and heir
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
heavy-handed melodrama, which accentuates the connection
reader feels with Red, Leeba, and the characters as a
will be looking forward to reading more of Renée Rosen's
because I feel that WINDY CITY BLUES is how historical
should be written.
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
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
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
“How old are you?”
“Where do you live?”
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
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
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
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
“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?”
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
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
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
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
“Oh.” Aileen paused for a moment. “Well, then, what do she
Aileen made a face.
“Polish,” said Leeba, which didn’t appear to be much more of
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
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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