Musical wunderkind battles the establishment and personal demons on Chicago’s South Side.
Blazingly talented young guitarist Willie Lee Reed hones his skills in Detroit, and moves to Chicago in 1963 with a single goal: to dethrone the acknowledged King of the Blues, venerable Heddy Days. Student and blues aficionado Josh Green sees something unique in Willie Lee and hooks up with him. On a hot Friday night at a popular club called the 6-Eye, Willie Lee joins a line of pretenders (including an Elvis look-alike) challenging Heddy in a musical face-off. Also in attendance are scouts from local record labels and an enigmatic girl named Esme, to whom Josh takes a fancy. In the first of two lengthy and pivotal scenes that unfold at 6-Eye, Willie Lee initially dazzles the crowd with his supple sound and lightning fingers. It looks as if the King might go down, until Heddy plays a single blistering note that turns the tide and rattles the kid’s confidence. Though his performance wins him Heddy’s respect and a record deal with operator Vic Abruzzi, Willie Lee views it as a failure and nurtures the single-minded goal of challenging the King of the Blues again. A seductive beauty called Silver (after a distinctive streak in her hair) ensnares Willie Lee, but she’s got more in mind than just shacking up. Born Betty Ann and the victim of childhood abuse, Silver works for Abruzzi’s chief rival, Sweet Home Arthur; her mission is to woo Willie Lee away. Esme, meanwhile, has begun dating Josh and revealed herself as Heddy’s long-lost daughter. Murder, racial tension, and another high-stakes musical performance figure in at the close.
Second-novelist Dunn (Pink Cadillac, 2001) writes with affection for his characters and admiration for their world, but without much insight. Too much of a fan perhaps, he never gets under their skins to the essence of the blues.