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One Book | One Community 2017

One Book | One Community 2017

Phil Chess and Etta James

Soundtrack to Chicago’s Civil Rights History

By Betsy Gomberg for JUF News, November 2017.

Chicago marks Jewish Book Month with One Book | One Community, in which a single book is selected as the focus of activities and events. This year’s book is Windy City Blues by Renée Rosen. It marks the first time an author who lives and works in Chicago was selected. As in previous years, the One Book initiative is spearheaded by Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership.

In Windy City Blues, Rosen slyly knits a small crew of fictional characters into the real lives of noteworthy Chicagoans, following them from the 1930s through the tumultuous decades that follow. Among the true-to-life figures gracing the book’s pages are musical icons Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, and Chuck Berry, along with Leonard and Phil Chess of Chess Records, who are key to the unfolding story.

Those who read Windy City Blues will encounter Jewish immigrant life on Maxwell Street, the unregulated early days of the recording industry, and the intransigency of racial and religious discrimination. As the book chronicles characters’ growing involvement in the battle for civil rights, readers join them as Freedom Riders on a Greyhound bus into the Deep South on a dangerous journey to face down segregation. They have dinner with Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Atlanta and march in Birmingham.

Throughout, there is music. Rosen titled each chapter with the name of a song recorded at Chess Records. These range from Sweet Little Angel, first recorded in 1930, to classic blues numbers like Sweet Home Chicago, to crossover hits such as Roll Over Beethoven and Maybellene.

Sarah McCoy, the bestselling author of The Mapmaker's Children, says that Windy City Blues, “captures the heartbeat of Chicago in guitar riffs and harmonica slides.” The stories behind the music indeed sing. There is a particularly amusing backstory to the session in which Chuck Berry records Maybellene. Rosen tweaks the historical record just enough to give Leeba Groski, one the key fictional characters, a role.

At the time of that recording, Groski is an indispensable employee of Chess Records and a talented songwriter—who has moved away from her immigrant roots in Jewish Lawndale. She discovers her musical grounding in the gospel and blues music of the African American community, and thus finds herself surrounded by a musical and social revolution.

Windy City Blues, released earlier this year, is available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook. The audio version is wonderfully narrated by actor Robin Miles.

One Book | One Community activities begin November 19 with a program at Spertus Institute titled Hearing Windy City’s  Blues. Professor of Musicology Judah Cohen will take attendees on a musical tour, exploring blues greats and the upheavals of the 1950s and ‘60s. Author Renée Rosen will join him, making this the first of her four appearances. Rosen will answer questions and sign books at each event.

The second author event takes place November 30 at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park and the third December 5 at Congregation Etz Chaim in Lombard. The fourth, December 10 at Spertus Institute, opens with Sweet G and the Lovers Entertainment Band performing music recorded at Chess Records. Rosen will be interviewed by Chicago Tribune Arts Critic Howard Reich.

Readers can find ticket information, book giveaways, background information, and discussion questions online at, along with a playlist of music recorded at Chess Records

Spertus Institute is a partner with the Jewish United Fund in serving our community. JUF News is One Book | One Community media sponsor.

Betsy Gomberg reads (and sometimes writes) about Jewish books. She is Spertus Institute’s Director of Marketing and Communications.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Image at left

Chess Records co-founder Phil Chess and R&B singer Etta James in Chicago at Chess Records Studios in 1960. Courtesy Micheal OCHS Archives/ Getty Images


Join us for the Grand Finale on Sunday, December 10 at 3:00 pm

Spertus Institute, Chicago
Live blues music by Sweet G and the Lovers Entertainment Band followed by Renée Rosen in conversation with Chicago Tribune Arts Critic Howard Reich. All tickets $10.
Purchase tickets >

Books will be for sale and Renée Rosen will be signing books.