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Studebaker John & the Hawks
Bourbon Street, Colonie, NY
April 24, 2005
By Don Wilcock

It was Chicago slide guitarist and harp player Studebaker John who first suggested The Yardbirds reform in 1994. Then he turned down an opportunity to be the next Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page when the remaining members of this legendary British invasion rock group offered him a slot in the band. You can hear why these British legends wanted this authentic Chicago blues veteran in their mix Sunday night when Studebaker John hosts the Northeast Blues Society Open Jam at Bourbon St. on Central Avenue in Colonie.

"I actually took Jim (McCarty, drums/songwriter) aside, and said, 'Jim, what happened to the Yardbirds? Aren't they touring ever? And he says, 'No, the band has been defunct for years.' And I said, 'Why don't you put it back together?' And he goes, 'Well, Jimmy Page owns the name.' I says, 'Well, I would imagine if you called Page, he wouldn't really care if you used the name again.' So, that's really what happened."

Eventually, the Yardbirds put out a well received reunion album called "Birdland" in 2003, but if you can find them, there are two CDs Studebaker John cut with The Yardbirds and The Pretty Things more than a decade ago: "Wine, Women and Whiskey" on Demon Records in England and another he thinks was called "Blues Tapes" on the St. George label. A third, which he claims is the best of the three, was never released.

The Pretty Things if they are remembered at all in this country are known for having released the first rock opera, "S.F. Sorrow" before The Who did "Tommy." But before that, they had at least three albums that were even more bluesy than the early Rolling Stones.

"I know (Pretty Things guitarist) Dick Taylor was an early member of the Rolling Stones," says John. "He was actually the original. They actually switched off between him and Keith Richards playing bass."

Already a three-decade veteran of performing with such seminal Chicago blues artists as J.B. Hutto, Hound Dog Taylor and One-Arm Johnny Wrencher, Studebaker John was somewhat surprised to get a call out of the blue from British producer George Paulus from the U.K. "I didn't really know the guy or nuthin', and he just called me to do the session because I played slide and harp and ended up getting along with the guys. We ended up actually doing a few tours that way."

Musically, a union between the Windy City music master who drives through the streets of the South and West Side in a vintage Studebaker Hawk might have made as much sense as Roy Buchanan accepting the Stones' offer to be their second guitarist, but culturally, John Grimaldi from the Irish American neighborhood called The Patch on the North Side of Chicago is about as removed from British rock stardom as Buchanan was from The Stones' eventual choice, Ron Wood.

Studebaker John has recorded 11 albums (13 if you count re-issues), including one produced by Jim Gaines of Stevie Ray Vaughan fame. He plays a beat up a Memphis-bought Silvertone Dan Electro guitar with gold sparkles, and he picks with pre-'65 silver quarters he's worn so thin you can't read the dates.

He wasn't even a teenager yet when he heard the music that would change his direction in life. He had a weekend job cleaning catch basins and sewers. His boss took him down to Maxwell St. to buy a corned beef sandwich for lunch. On Sunday mornings, the merchants of Maxwell Street would hold a sidewalk sale and encourage people to browse by allowing the city's blues artists to play for change in vacant lots, alleys and street corners. John was already playing drums in a kiddie band that covered The Ventures and Link Wray. He also played harmonica, but it was his dad's big chromatic harp like the one used by The Harmonicats. That all changed when he met Big John Wrencher.

"I turned the corner and heard this guy, this shabby dude with one arm and a drummer and a guitar player all plugged into the same amp blasting away on what basically was an alley. I was like, 'Wow! That sounds great.'"

John was too young to get in to see Paul Butterfield, but he remembers seeing Charlie Musselwhite early in his career. He was the only white guy in Buddy Guy's South Side Checkerboard Lounge in '69. "They would let you sit in on Mondays. Junior was just hitting his stride. It was just a great time. I never felt so proud as when (James) Cotton actually came up and borrowed a harp from me. I was like, Oh, wow!"

In the '70s John hosted a regular Monday night jam at Chicago's premier late night blues club Kingston Mines, and named his band The Hawks after both J. B. Hutto's band and the Studebaker Hawk. His music has appeared in the Kiefer Sutherland and Darrel Hannah film "Cowboy Up" as well as Canadian producer Atom Egoyan's "Exotica" and "Calendar." He has four albums on Blind Pig, one of Evidence and several independent releases including Nothin' But Fun, a Belgian release that turned him into a European festival headliner. He's just released Between Life and Death on his own Avanti label.

"My sound is an extension of what these guys (J. B. Hutto, Hound Dog Taylor, Magic Sam, Earl Hooker and Robert Nighthawk) did. That's all it is. On the new record, I'm not as confined to the 1-4-5 12-bar blues changes, and purists probably wouldn't like it as much, but actually those songs are based on old turnarounds from pre-war blues stuff. Everything was like one cord and like John Lee Hooker does boogies.

"What I bring to the table is an extension of what those guys did. I'm just trying to be able to be more versatile on the same instrument that Hound Dog played or on the same tuning that Hound Do played. That's all I'm, trying to do is to be able to make the guitar do more things and say more things, but still retain that raw edge."

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