Q&A with veteran bluesman Studebaker John, an original harmonica virtuoso and electrifying slide wizard

"I think that blues music is a release, from today's problems [I define blues as a sad story that when combined with the right music is uplifting], for the people and that's why its important. I feel that it was the same generations ago and as it has been around a long time there is a historic side of it that I hope will continue to grow in today's society."

Studebaker John: Nothin But The 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 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.

(John Grimaldi aka Studebaker John / Photo © by Alain Broeckx)

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. His 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. His latest recordings were The Resonator (2021), and Jumping from Limb to Limb (2023). 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!

Interview by Michael Limnios              Archive: Studebaker John, 2018 Interview

How do you think that you have grown as an artist since you first started making music? What has remained the same about your music-making process?

Well I started as a child; I was very young about 5 to 7 years old just fooling around with the chromatic harmonica. I always liked doing that it was fun & I would make up my own melodies with the harmonica. It just progressed from there as I played drums & then guitar in grade school & high school bands. Then playing harmonica and singing, as I had seen Big John Wrencher & others on Maxwell Street playing blues. So, I started playing house parties and later coffee house's with friends who also played music. I then started going to the Checker Board lounge & Theresa's lounge on 43 street on Chicago's Southside sitting in on harmonica and listening to the great blues musicians who played there Then when I became old enough I started playing clubs.

The thing that remained the same was the desire to do it! When I first started playing the clubs everyone was playing the same songs, so this started me thinking of writing my own songs, and ever since then I just do my own material on recordings that I make. I have played as a sideman on many records also, and then I play their songs [or covers] or whatever they want me to. When I was young, I played kind of wild, and it took me some time to develop a style of my own & a less is more mindset. The music making process, when I write a song is just sitting down with my guitar and playing and if something comes to me, I try to remember it or record a bit of it and keep on working at it. That has not changed since early on.

What is the driving force behind your continuous support for your music?

I think that the driving force behind my continued support for my music is the love I have for it. I think that keeps me going.

"I think that there is an audience for it although it seems to be an older crowd now. Its current state is not really getting much exposure to the younger generations, but if the record companies would promote it there is an opportunity for it to become more popular with a younger audience. We must hope for the best." (Photo: John Grimaldi, better known by his stage name Studebaker John)

Where does your creative drive come from? What's the balance in music between technique and soul?

I believe my creative drive comes from God or a Higher Power, and is strongly influenced by all the great musicians and artists that came before me. When I was young, I loved seeing the older musicians playing, it was like, real life I was learning more than I ever could at school.

The balance between technique and soul. A certain amount of technique is needed, but how much? Too much technique on an instrument can take away from the song that the musician is playing. Soul is more important, feeling and depth is how I would define soul. Technique is great when it is done tastefully. When it is over the top it has no feeling or depth to it and does not serve the song. I believe in less is more. [That's my opinion]

Do you have any interesting stories about the making of previous albums: The Resonators, and Jumping from Limb to Limb?

The Resonator was recorded by myself and Earl Howell [drums] in a big open warehouse. We cut everything live and later I added a bass track to it! It has a big kind of open sound! Jumpin' from Limb to Limb is my newest recording [not as yet released] that I also recorded by myself with Earl Howell [drums], Rick Kreher [guitar] and Mike Azzi [bass] it was recorded [with help from Bob Shurley] during the second shut down of the pandemic at the Legendary Harlem Ave Lounge. [unfortunately, the owner of the club just passed away and the club is closed for good]. We turned it into a recording studio for a week or so and did this new Maxwell Street Kings record. It will hopefully be released this year.

Do you think there is an audience for blues music in its current state? or at least a potential for young people to become future audiences and fans?

I think that there is an audience for it although it seems to be an older crowd now. Its current state is not really getting much exposure to the younger generations, but if the record companies would promote it there is an opportunity for it to become more popular with a younger audience. We must hope for the best.

"The balance between technique and soul. A certain amount of technique is needed, but how much? Too much technique on an instrument can take away from the song that the musician is playing. Soul is more important, feeling and depth is how I would define soul. Technique is great when it is done tastefully. When it is over the top it has no feeling or depth to it and does not serve the song. I believe in less is more." (Blues multitalented musician John Grimaldi / Photo © by Stefan Meekers)

Why is it important to we preserve and spread the blues? What is the role of blues in today’s society?

I think that blues music is a release, from today's problems [I define blues as a sad story that when combined with the right music is uplifting], for the people and that's why its important. I feel that it was the same generations ago and as it has been around a long time there is a historic side of it that I hope will continue to grow in today's society.

What moment changed your life the most? With such an illustrious career, what has given you the most satisfaction musically?

There were 2 moments that changed my life musically [as well as in general] the first was seeing Big John Wrencher playing harmonica on Maxwell St. the second was seeing Hound Dog Taylor playing with J.B. Hutto in an all-age club called Alices revisited. I think that to define Chicago blues you have too combine slide guitar with the harmonica. I think writing songs is the most satisfaction for me musically.

From the musical and feeling point of view is there any difference between the old-cats and great bluesmen and the new young generation of blues musicians?

The old cat's had styles, different styles, today more people sound the same and the Chicago blues that I speak of is not the Chicago blues of today. That is kind of a mixture of rhythm and blues, and popular music. I think that the musical feeling side of blues has gone away, somewhat I don't hear the depth in the blues music of today, like I used to hear when the older guy's were around. This of course is what I think. I must say that I do not blame the musicians as they are just trying to be a success [and to survive] in the music business, part of this is due to the radio stations unwillingness to play this older style of blues along with the short-sighted record companies only willing to back this version of what passes as Chicago Blues.  

I would like to say thank you to the blues fans around this whole world for their support of this music that we call blues. The reality is without your support, it would be lost.

Studebaker John - Home

(John Grimaldi aka Studebaker John, a Chicago Blues pioneer / Photo © by Leo Gabriels)

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