Q&A with Chicago pioneer Studebaker John - emerged as a major creative force in the world of the blues

"The Bluesmen they lived it they didn't think of it as being political or what the socio - cultural implications were. It was a way of life to them their job, what they were good at their thing."

Studebaker John: The Art of Life Blues

John Grimaldi, better known by his stage name Studebaker John is an American blues guitarist and harmonica player. He is a practitioner of the Chicago blues style. Studebaker John's father was an amateur musician, and he played early in life at the Maxwell Street flea market. Grimaldi began playing harmonica at age seven. In the 1970s he put together his band, the Hawks, and worked as a construction worker while recording and performing on the side. He recorded extensively for Blind Pig Records in the 1990s. Grimaldi counts Hound Dog Taylor as the reason he began playing slide guitar.

Studebaker John (Photo by Dan Machnik) was born in an Italian-American section of Chicago and started playing harmonica at age 7. Under the spell of music he heard on Maxwell Street, Chicago’s famed blues melting pot, Grimaldi began performing as Studebaker John and the Hawks in the ‘70s. The band name referenced the Studebaker Hawk, a car Grimaldi still owns today, and was also intended as a tribute to his friend, J.B. Hutto and the Hawks. John began playing guitar after a life-changing experience of seeing Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers perform. After playing at various Chicago clubs, John records his first record, Straight No Chaser, released on Retread Records. His second recording, Rocking the Blues, is released in 1985 on Avanti Records. John continues to work clubs and concerts in Chicago and the mid-west region. As a songwriter and musician, Studebaker John has emerged as a major creative force in the world of the blues today. Ahead of the pack, with vision and foresight, creating a new standard and landscape for this music’s future with John at the wheel, the future is now! In 2016 released the album ‘Eternity’s Descent’. His latest album "Songs For None" (2017) was originally conceived as a tribute to guys like Mississippi Fred McDowell, Lightnin' Hopkins, Jukeboy Bonner, Big Joe WIlliams and later musicians like R.L. Burnside. These compositions grew into more contemporary blues/folk/songwriter mentality. They are simple songs of truth about everyday life.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues music and culture? What does the blues mean to you?

From Blues music I learned how to express myself to express things that words cannot say.

How has the Blues music and culture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Well blues music, and all the related musical forms it took have influenced me greatly, this music has a great healing power, it is a place where I and many others can "fit in with the world" a gift from God if you will!! It is great to see it spread all over the world! & now I think it is more popular in other country's than it is in the place where it was born. [USA]

How do you describe Studebaker John sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

To me Life = Blues = Art and I feel that music and art are a few of the only real things in life. My sound is raw but tight, I improvise as I go. Nothing is ever exactly the same.

What were the reasons that an Italian-American started the Blues researches? What are the secrets of slide?

I went down to Maxwell Street and this music moved me. The tunings, the tone, the sound when to play more open and when to damp.

"To me Life = Blues = Art and I feel that music and art are a few of the only real things in life. My sound is raw but tight, I improvise as I go. Nothing is ever exactly the same." (Studebaker John jammin' on stage / Photo by Murray Foote)

How do you describe "Songs For None" songbook and sound? What has made you laugh from album's sessions?

"Songs For None" is a mixture of songs I had written that take you through the reality of life, it is dark, but their is hope and truth, a friend of mine put it best when he said "these songs ain't nothing, but the truth"! [ I agree, didn't Willie Dixon say "the blues is truth"] The music is a mixture of Folk, Blues. The influence of Fred McDowell is large! The original idea was for it to sound like the Alan Lomax recordings. I was working on repairing a few tape machines at the time, so I went out and bought an Ampex 602 similar to the one used by Lomax when he recorded Fred at his home down south. I liked the way that it sounded , most of the songs were recorded on that and a few other tape recorders [ Ampex 1260, & F-44 and even a Sony tape recorder was used for one of the songs] ,but I wanted to add instruments & some percussion, so I took the tapes and played them back on a Tascam 388 8 track machine as I noticed that their was space left on the tape that I would be able to add tracks on so I did on some of the songs [an extra guitar, backround vocals, & a small amount of percussion] When I decided to mix it I went in the direction of  the Chess records sound or a mixture of the Alan Lomax sound with the Chess sound. It was mixed to a Revox / Studer tape deck a Pr 99 at 15ips, then took it to studio VMR in Chicago that has world class digital converters, & mastered it to digital. The whole session was pure fun I never got tired of it , also the percussion stuff I used ,put a smile on my face, a few years ago I did a duo tour with Lazy Lester and he told me story's of beating on cardboard box's for the drum sounds at Excello records ,so I used the back of my acoustic guitar and an old oil drum [its pictured on the cd itself] for my percussion sounds !!!

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Seeing the original bluesmen, from the very big stars to the unknown guy's playing on Maxwell Street or small clubs in the area. Big Walter in a drunken rant told me that he didn't try to sound like "no other Walter" and that I shouldn't either. Floyd Jones said that "most guy's play at the harp, but you are the harp" these were very kind words to say to a young kid just starting out.

"I like the raw sound that was in full force on Maxwell st. [when it was alive and well] the concept of less is more is a very powerful one!"

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

If I could change one thing [only 1?] it would be that Blues would take its rightful place as a popular music with all the other better-known music genre's.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Seeing Hound Dog Taylor Playing with J.B. Hutto is the reason I play slide guitar. There are so many more that I just can't pick out.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I miss the original guy's all the great styles, the attitude, their commitment, it was just simply their life! My hope is that the real thing just doesn't fade away into something that is far less creative and artistic.

Make an account of the case of blues in Chicago todays. Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene?

It is hard to give you an account of the blues in Chicago today, because it is driven by tourism not by depth of talent. The most interesting period in local the local blues scene? The 1950's when it was being created, but in the late 1960's it became popular with the masses, due to the English rock bands acknowledgement of their influences as well as the earlier folk boom of the 60's that included many Delta bluesmen. The bottom line was that the music became very interesting.

"I miss the original guy's all the great styles, the attitude, their commitment, it was just simply their life! My hope is that the real thing just doesn't fade away into something that is far less creative and artistic." (John Grimaldi, better known by his stage name Studebaker John / Photo by Murray Foote)

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from your experiences in Maxwell Street flea market?

Their was Big John Wrencher a 3 piece band everyone plugged into a brown concert amp [still my favorite harp amp] and his drummer "porkchop" who played a beat up base drum and snare with a bent cymbal and 2 toy rubber tom tom. Ha! What a sound!!! It still brings a smile to my face 50 years later!! Their music was raw & great. A few years later I would hear Hound Dog Taylor at a club and his music had the same raw greatness to it.

What touched (emotionally) you from the sound of slide and harmonica? What are the secrets of "Mississippi sax"?

I liked the bending of the notes the way it sound, when done right with the harmonica & the slide guitar, and a great combination together! Well the Mississippi sax [or harp] can be played in different positions to get different key's. Also, it’s the tone that makes it special!

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your paths on the Maxwell Str. and circuits?

I like the raw sound that was in full force on Maxwell st. [when it was alive and well] the concept of less is more is a very powerful one!

Are there any memories from Hound Dog Taylor and J.B. Hutto which you’d like to share with us?

The time that I seen both jamming together in Chicago, & Brewer Phillips starting off the show with a guitar instrumental, that was the best that I have ever heard!!! Hound Dog & JB playing together, 2 slide guitars & drums nothing like it, that is the reason I play slide guitar!!!

"Well blues music, and all the related musical forms it took have influenced me greatly, this music has a great healing power, it is a place where I and many others can "fit in with the world" a gift from God if you will!! It is great to see it spread all over the world! & now I think it is more popular in other country's than it is in the place where it was born. [USA]"

Do you consider the Blues a specific music genre and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

I think that it is a musical genre, but one that doesn't have to be a strict chord progression! [like 1,4,5] I also think its an artistic movement, a state of mind & a way of life!!!

What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome as a person and as artist and has this helped you become a better blues musician?

I came up in a time when many of the great artists were still playing the clubs and by this I mean  Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Willie Dixon, James Cotton, Buddy Guy & Junior Wells, Magic Sam, Otis Rush, KoKo Taylor, etc, etc. This was the best place to learn the Blues, but where could I play? It was real hard getting started, but I wouldn't trade it for anything!

What is the impact of the Blues music and culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

The Bluesmen they lived it they didn't think of it as being political or what the socio - cultural implications were. It was a way of life to them their job, what they were good at their thing.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

15. Time machine how about going back to the early 1950's recording session of Baby Face Leroy, Muddy Waters, and Little Walter doing Rollin & Tumblin, then fast forward to late 50's early 60's for the Alan Lomax recordings of Mississippi Fred McDowell.

Sorry I can't pick just one too many to choose from!!

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