He’s a groover.
John Grimaldi a.k.a Studebaker John makes dangerous turns as he hits 60 in six seconds on a five-speed. But you never feel the bump of switching gears. He’s that smooth.
His primary influences are a one-armed harmonica player and a guitarist with six fingers on one hand.
He’s the son of an Italian plumber who grew up among gangsters in an area of northwest Chicago called “The Patch,” recorded with the Pretty Things and turned down a tour with The Yardbirds.
One of his records was rejected by Bob Koester at Delmark Records because it was less blues and more Old School Rockin’ only to have Bob’s wife Sue tell her husband to grab it back.
He’s put out 18 records in 40 years without a single cover song on any of them. He says simply, “I don’t know if its a matter of pride, or just that I think my songs offer something different, and that’s what I want to do is offer something that’s good but also different. It’s not like I wanted to play “Stormy Monday,” “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Mustang Sally” for the rest of my life.”
It all began for John Grimaldi on Windy City’s Maxwell St., the after, after hours hang for everyone from Hound Dog Taylor to Taildragger.
Studebaker John: “Maxwell St. was like a flea market on Sunday morning. (The blues musicians) actually came from clubs, got a little rest or slept in the car, pulled out and started playing again. They were making tips, and the tips were probably better money than the club money to be honest with you.
“Every corner had a guy there with a trench coat on. He’d open up his coat and show you thousands of watches all hanging off him like a tree, and he’d roll up his sleeve and show you all kinds of chains and jewelry. You’d go from table to table looking at used or stolen merchandise. Who knew? And there was a record store down there, a place where a friend of mine got most of his 78s that were real rare even back then.”
It was the mid-60s. John Grimaldi was about 13, helping his father drum up plumbing business. Dad and his salesman had gone to buy corned beef sandwiches for lunch. “I’m a young kid, and my father’s salesman goes, ‘Hey, don’t get lost. Your father will be pissed off at me. I don’t want that.’ ‘Don’t worry,’ I said, ‘I’m coming right back.’
John heard music in the distance and was drawn to it like a kid to a Christmas tree. “I thought at first, ‘Oh, that sounds pretty interesting. Wonder what that is?’ I turned the corner, and there was a crowd of people 10 or 15 people standing around. I could only see like the backs of their heads, and so I moved up and as I moved up, it got louder and louder.
“I got up right in front of the band, and there was one-armed John Wrencher playing harp and singing into the same mic. There’s this real raw type of guitar player, kind of like a Magic Sam, and the drummer Playboy Vincent who had half of a real drum kit, and the other half was toy drums. It was just those three guys.
“It was real raw, but great harmonica sound, great sound. There was other people playing, and I never even knew who a lot of them were. I never really got that interested ’cause I liked John Wrencher the best. This guy was great. He taught me a lot on harp just by watching him because he only had one arm.”
Wrencher had lost his arm in a car accident in the early ’50s. “He was cupping the harp and holding the mic in the same hand, but he was getting this sound that was like tremolo – what I call a wobble – which most guys you would see shaking their head or shaking the harp and forth across the mouth. He was getting that without doing any of that. I started figuring it out. He was tongue blocking and the stuff that he was doing started me trying stuff like that. “(I said to myself) I’m gonna go back and see him every time I come down here, and I did.
“The guitar played a complimenting line, almost like a bass run to what was going on with the harp. That’s all that there was was just guitar, drum, he played harp and sang through the same mic. He blew harp out of. The guitar player was also plugged into the same amp There was no P.A. So, it was just wild, and raw and really – I loved it. I had played harmonica since I was a little kid, but I had basically never heard it played like that before. I had heard the Rolling Stones, that type of thing. But this was like a real distorted, real low-down sound.
“When I first started playing harmonica, of course, it was just my dad’s harmonica, and he had a bunch of Harmonicats records. I can recall as a child hearing a lot of stuff on the radio and TV. Channel 26 had a little show called “Red Hot & Blues” back when I was in grade school. I can remember that. And I can remember seeing guys on that show. If I’m not mistaken, I may have even seen Magic Sam on that show and Otis Rush. Hound Dog Taylor was on that show. Sometimes, they’d play live. A lot of times they’d just be lip synching the record.”
Hound Dog Taylor was the Chicago blues guitarist that inspired Bruce Iglauer to found Alligator Records in 1971. He had six fingers on one hand and, like John Wrencher, his sound was as raw as the meat of the Chicago stockyards. John first saw Taylor at an all-ages concert about the time Iglauer signed him.
“I went there with my sister and a friend. It was just like a nightclub basically, but you didn’t have to be 21 to get in. There was no alcohol served. It was kind of bring your own. I don’t know if anybody was drinking, but there were a whole lot of stoned kids out there.
“Whenever you’d meet Hound Dog, it was just subject to that moment ’cause he was one of these guys that would get up in the morning and start drinking and maybe never stop. So, I know Bruce got a lot out of him. I wasn’t in any position to get anything out of him at that time. I was just trying to learn.
“J. B. Hutto was a little more helpful and really a nice guy and totally sober at the time. I guess he had had his bout with alcohol, too, at some point. I would just basically go and watch people. I didn’t talk to them. I would ask them a few little things. They didn’t sit me down and teach me this or teach me that. What they did do was play, and I was standing right there in front of them and watched what they did.”
John Grimaldi was born November 5, 1952. He started messing with his father’s large chromatic harp at age seven on the sly. John Wrencher’s harp was the smaller kind that he’d heard the Mick Jagger playing on early Rolling Stones albums. He was an art major at junior college. “I only went to school because I wanted two years off. My future was gonna be what my father said it was gonna be, (as his assistant) plumber. By the way, he was never a fan of any of my music.”
He named his band the Hawks in the 1970s after the Studebaker Hawk and Chicago blues artist J. B. Hutto & The Hawks. In 1978 he recorded his first record, Straight No Chaser, released on Retread Records. His second recording, Rocking the Blues, is released in 1985 on Avanti Records named after The Studebaker Avanti, a futuristic car Studebaker produced in small quantities for only two years in the early ’60s.
In 1991, John recorded with the Yardbirds and Pretty Things on Demon Records’ CD Chicago Blues. This recording led to another Demon Records’ release Wine, Women & Whiskey, but he turned down an offer to tour with the Yardbirds as their lead guitarist in 1994. He has recorded also for Double Trouble, Evidence, Blind Pig, and Delmark as well as Avanti. Two of his songs are included in the 1993 film Calendar and another in the 1994 film Exotica.
He continues to play Chicago clubs and tours Europe. He currently is preparing for a mid-winter tour of Canada. Yes, he’s a road warrior.
Until well into the 1980s, John was a plumber by day and a musician at night until the plumbers’ union kicked him out because he was doing more playing than plumbing. “I’d been a plumber for a number of years. It’s not a very glamorous kind of work. You just have to make some money playing music, and there’s a lot of guys out there now that are still in that bag. If you love it, you keep doing it. That’s all.
“At first I didn’t really play guitar too much in the clubs. I was mainly a harmonica player, and at the time we’re talking late ’60s, early ’70s, there wasn’t a whole lot of jobs open for harmonica players. It was later on that I started playing guitar with the band. I always played a little and later on after I heard Hound Dog Taylor I started really getting into slide guitar and playing it some with my band.”
John may have rubbed shoulders with Chicago’s blues icons, but he’s never been a purist. He recalls meeting Mick Jagger. “I gave him a copy of Time Will Tell (1997) I met him at Legends one night when we were playing, and I gave him a copy of the CD, and he was real respectful and said, ‘Oh, yeah, you sound really good’ A really nice guy as far as I knew. He had huge bodyguards.”
About the same time he told me in an interview, “Rock and roll came from the same place as blues. “And although it came a few years later down the line, that’s where it came from was blues, and early rock is basically just blues speeded up. I don’t see anything wrong with that. I don’t. It’s a roots-oriented music, and it’s good. The other thing is being in Chicago when I first started out, man, my competition – if you want to call me even in the same category as these acts – was like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters. These guys were playing the clubs when I first started out, and let’s face it. These guys are living legends, and I was just some kid from the northwest side of Chicago, you know?”
Studebaker John is an alchemist. He turns grit into gold. It’s a slippery slope between capturing the unvarnished truth of the blues with its fundamentals with honest simplicity while projecting the energy that is the essence of rock and roll. All of his albums do that. He has a sound that’s instantly recognizable but varies in its influences.
“Every one of my records are different. It you noticed after Tremoluxe, Time Will Tell was completely different from that. You notice after that I did a record for Evidence, a little more rockish blues kind of thing, rock and roll that people could dance to. Then, after that, I did a solo acoustic which actually wasn’t intended to be a released. It was just supposed to be a song demo.
“Then I did Between Life and Death, a total departure. It was more amplified up guitar with effects up on it and such. So, it was blues, blues/rock, but it was also songs that weren’t 1,4,5 progressions. Then, after that, I went back and did more of a boogie blues thing called Self-Made Man, and that one was one of my better selling records, and it was kind of a return to Tremoluxe (Note: one of John’s best produced by Jim Gaines of Stevie Ray Vaughan fame), but it was more like a combination of Tremoluxe and Time Will Tell.
“Then I went and did a complete reversal and did a whole thing that was almost similar to Santana. It was a lot of Latin groove and a couple of blues numbers integrated in between. Then, I started the Maxwell Street Kings scenerio of going back to the roots and stuff the way it was played on Maxwell St. And in between that I did a rock and roll record called Old School Rockin’.”
Bob Koester of Delmark Records at first rejected that album. “Bob didn’t like the record ’cause it was rock and roll, but Sue, his wife, liked it, and as I was leaving, it was OK with me. Since I had done That’s The Way You Do (2010) for ’em, I wanted to acknowledge them in the chain of events and let them know this record is available if they want it. I wasn’t expecting them to take it actually.
“I expected exactly what I got from Bob which was just like, ‘Uh, I’m not really interested in putting out that because it’s a little too much rock and roll.’ And I said, ‘Ok, that’s understandable,’ and as I was leaving, I was about two or three miles away, and I got a call from Sue, and she said, ‘Come back here with that record immediately.’ That’s what I did, and they took another listen to it and decided to go with it.”
John’s latest album, Songs for None is his best yet. On it he reflects on his own mortality. On “Sometimes I Wonder” he sings, “Sometimes I wonder how much longer I’m gonna be around.”
“That song is actually the oldest song on the release. That song was one of the very first songs that I wrote. On the original arrangement, the music was different, but the words were pretty much the same. If you look up the research of the neighborhood I was brought up in, you’ll realize that was a dangerous area itself. You’re talking about a place where lot of the gangsters came from. Jerry Del Giudice (Blind Pig Records founder) wrote something in the liner notes once about I came from the “Patch,” and I idolize the gangsters. Well, that’s true.
“Death is not about if it’s gonna happen. It’s a matter of when it’s gonna happen. What I try to do is just do what I like, just do what I want, especially now and try not to get involved in a lot of situations where I have to take a lot of shit from people. What I do is say what I mean, and I mean what I say. It may not always be very pretty, and it may not always be the rose-colored world that everybody wants to hear about, but it’s true.”
In “Junkyard Preacher,” he sings, “The junkyard preacher said, ‘If you want to play come hell or high water, someday you gotta pay.’”
“‘Junkyard Preacher’ is somewhat of a true story. I did some work on my own vans to keep ’em running, and a friend of mine runs a junkyard, and there’s stands this six-foot seven black guy, and he runs basically in the junkyard preaching the Bible. It was just a sight to behold and hear. The song is actually the truth of that day.”
On Songs For None he combines digital and analog technology to create a haunting vision that brings his ability to combine rock and blues styles into focus as no other artist does.
“What I did was use a bunch of old tape recorders, not just one, and I transferred it to a Casam 8-track machine which is also a tape recorder, and that’s where I put the background vocals, an extra guitar here or there, a little bit of percussion. There’s no actual drums on it. It’s all pretty raw stuff. I love the original recordings of Alan Lomax recording Mississippi Fred McDowell at his house.
“Initially, the idea was to just do that, but I’m such a Chess nut. I guess with the sound that I really love the way the early Chess records sounded. They were done mainly at Universal Studios under Gill Putnam I believe was the engineer, but I just love their sound, the reverb, the slight echo, that type of thing that I still do to this day. It sounds better than anything I’ve ever heard in my life.
“Then I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll do a cross section of stuff. I want to do some songs where I just played harmonica and sang and just played the songs. And I wanted to add some background vocals on a song and some percussion on another couple of different guitars on one or two. It took me a long time doing it by myself, but I enjoyed every second of it, and it was a labor of love, I guess you could say.
“Originally, I had mastered it on a Revox tape recorder at (59PS) in a bunch of smaller reels. Then, I brought them to the studio called BMR with world class digital converters. So, we took the tape recorder, plugged it into his board. He did what he did to it, the converters and a little EQ here and there and stuff like that.”
Studebaker John has never been an artist to avoid precedent. As dependable as the Lake Michigan wind, he plays whatever feels right, regardless of whether it’s rock and roll, surf music (which he played as a teenager) or raw-boned blues. He’s all original, but his songs are basic, heavy on the groove and supported by vocals that are as immediately identifiable as Ray Charles. He’s full of surprises but none that deviate from the fundamentals.
In 1996 he said, “I take lots of chances. I don’t just sit back and play the tried and true and play the little things we know are gonna work. The reason why it sounds like me is because I take those chances, because I stretch the boundaries, because I’m not satisfied with playing the same old licks. At the same time, I’m not interested in stuff that is all technique and no real feel, I’m not a schooled musician and there was a point where I could have taken lessons and could have started learning probably what I should know or some of the things I should know. Instead, I turned my guitar to E and leaned how to play that way and quit playing the guitar normally.
In 2019 he says, “I write songs I think that are truthful and artistic, but I’ve never been schooled in any of this. So, I just do what I think sounds right to me.”
Check out John’s website at www.studebakerjohn.com.
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.