Tuesday, February 28, 2017

"Windy City Blues"

Renée Rosen is the bestselling author of White Collar Girl, What The Lady Wants: A Novel of Marshall Field and the Gilded Age and Dollface: A Novel of the Roaring Twenties as well as the young adult novel, Every Crooked Pot.

Rosen applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, Windy City Blues, and reported the following:
From page 69:
“But I know you play race music on WHBQ.” Leonard reached into his pocket and slipped a twenty across the console. “And you know you got a lot of Negroes listening to you.”

“Well, you do have a point ’bout that.” Pete started for the money but stopped himself. “I sure am sorry, but I’m ’fraid I can’t play that kind of music on this radio station.”

Leonard moved on to the next station and the next, working his way from Memphis to New Orleans, hitting every station that played race music, even if for just a couple hours in the evenings. Those were the stations that had the reach—the stations they needed. But “Bilbo Is Dead”— even with a fistful of money—didn’t interest them at WROX in Clarksdale or the radio stations in Jackson and New Orleans.

After a week, Leonard switched his strategy and decided to take “Bilbo” straight to the colored market. He turned heads as he walked through those Negro neighborhoods with a stack of records tucked under his arm, sweat trickling down his white skin.

“You with the police or somethin’?” asked a record store owner after he heard “Bilbo Is Dead.”

Leonard could tell he thought it was some sort of trick, a white man coming into his shop with a song like that. But Leonard assured him he meant no harm. The man took a hundred copies.

From there Leonard played “Bilbo Is Dead” in the barbershops and drugstores. He went into the diners and got the record put into their jukeboxes. Once they heard the song, there wasn’t a Negro selling records who didn’t want to stock it. But he still needed airplay so he traveled down to Broward County in Florida and paid a visit to a small Negro station with a tiny audience, but, hell, it was radio. The deejay gave a listen and loved it so much he played it on the air while Leonard was still in the booth and then three more times in the first hour. Soon another station picked it up and then another.

Driving back up North Leonard must have heard “Bilbo Is Dead” a half dozen times on the radio. With each spin of that record, his pride swelled. Look what this little putz from Poland just did. Only in America. The song was working.
Is page 69 representative of the book? Yes. No. Maybe. Not really. Leonard Chess is one of three central characters in the novel. This shows his drive, his ability to capitalize on an untapped market and his sometimes questionable methods of dealing with deejays. But that said, this page shows no indication of the bigger story. For example, there’s Leeba, a young Polish Jewish girl who works for Leonard and falls in love with Red Dupree, a black bluesman from the Mississippi Delta who is looking to record with Chess Records. While this page may hint at larger themes to come: payola, segregation, racism, the Civil Rights Movement and the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, it doesn’t fully represent what is yet to come. Yikes—If I were grading myself on this, I would say I got C on the 69 Page Test.
Visit Renée Rosen's website, blog, and Facebook page.

Writers Read: Renée Rosen.

My Book, The Movie: Windy City Blues.

--Marshal Zeringue