By Andrew Gilhooley / 411
Studebaker John Grimaldi is a genuine Chicago bluesman. He has played blues harp since age 7 and is an accomplished slide guitarist in the tradition of Hound Dog Taylor as well as being a powerful and emotive vocalist. He has released eight albums of his original blues compositions, and this Friday he will be playing at Moe’s Alley in Santa Cruz as part of a national tour.
Grimaldi was born in the Italian-American part of Chicago known as “The Patch.” A child of working-class parents, he was expected to do his part to earn money for the family from an early age. As a teenager, he worked on weekends cleaning out the city’s sewer system. It was, perhaps appropriately; here that he was ‘introduced to the blues. One of the few fringe benefits of Grimaldi’s somewhat unpleasant weekend job was that his boss would treat him to lunch at a Maxwell Street diner. It was on Maxwell Street that he got to see one-armed harmonica player Big John Wrencher perform.
“I was spellbound,” he said of the experience. “His music was simple yet so powerful.” Wrencher's performance rekindled Grimaldi’s interest in playing harmonica (he was at the time playing drums in a rockabilly band), and he began to seek out blues clubs. In the evenings, the young Grimaldi would drive in the car that would eventually give him his stage name to the blues clubs on Chicago’s South and West sides and watch artists such as Big Walter Horton, Iunior Wells and Hound Dog Taylor. Eventually, he began to sit in with them and build his own reputation as a musician, learning his craft from the greats.
In the early 1970s he formed the Studebaker john Blues Band and started a residency at a North Side club called Kingston Mines, leading its blues jam. After a few years, however, he began to tire of playing the cover songs requested by the Kingston Mines crowd and wanted to explore the possibilities of writing and playing his own material.
He said: “I felt I had something to say and could communicate it through my music better than any other way”.
Eight albums and more than 20 years later, Studebaker Iohn and the Hawks are still going strong.
First published in "411", The Salinas Californian, October 24, 2002
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