Studebaker John and The Hawks Cruise The Blues at The Linda on Friday
Studebaker John Grimaldi is one part pulp hero Green Hornet, two parts Rolling Stones, and all over blues. You won’t find him on most lists of the blues legacies. After all, how many blues icons are Italians driving a classic Studebaker Avanti through the back streets of Chicago’s West Side? A native Chicagoan, he’s been plying his trade in backstreet Windy City bars for better than 45 years.
Yeah, this guy shatters the cliches of what a great bluesman should be, but trust me, he gives you the same rush as any of the usual cast of blues characters while escaping the mass media adulation, even though his shows are as satisfying as any of the artists he’s shared the stage with. And they include everyone from Hound Dog Taylor and J.B. Hutto to The Yardbirds and The Pretty Things.
He was one of my go-to favorites when I booked artists for the Northeast Blues Society 20 years ago. When I saw him a year ago at the Linda, I went thinking this guy can’t be as good as I remembered him. I was wrong. Like the best West Side blues stalwarts, he ages like a fine wine.
In my review of that show, I wrote: “Soft-spoken in person, he cuts an iconic figure on stage in his cap, dark glasses and black slacks. His repertoire is fundamentally West Side Soul but with flourishes that would make Eric Clapton and Derek Trucks envious. There is a sense of danger in his delivery like he’s driving his Black Beauty on Michigan Ave. at 105, ready to cash in his chips in a speed bump dump.”
John named his record label, Avanti, after a sports car Studebaker put out in the early ’50s. He’s long owned a Studebaker Hawk, whose engine he says is now frozen. But back in the day, he would go into his garage and break out that “Black Beauty” like a present-day Green Hornet (the 1930s and ’40s radio masked marvel).
The son of an Italian plumber, he began hanging out on Chicago’s Maxwell Street before the Stones released their first album. He’s released 20 albums in 45 years, two of them with British invasion blues rockers The Yardbirds and The Pretty Things. Mick Jagger walked into one of his performances at Buddy Guy’s Legends nightclub decades ago with a phalanx of bodyguards and young girls, told John that he sounded really good, and walked out with a copy of his latest CD in hand.
In Europe, John is regarded as “the real thing” by blues-rock fans who often tell him his latest album is “the record The Stones should have made.” Music is big business for the Stones. It’s therapy for Studebaker John. He recalls his conversation with a record label owner, who shall remain nameless. “He seemed to think that this one song I wrote was a great song, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, it is, but…’ (The label owner says), ‘You need to do more of this,’ and I’m like, ‘Do you have any idea what it really takes to write one of those songs?’ He looked at me like I was scamming him or something.
“All music is a groove to me,” John Grimaldi told me in 2005. “To me, something without a strong rhythm, a strong bass, a strong bottom end on the song is just bad music in general.
“Sure, I’m influenced by rock ’n’ roll. I mean, I’m not gonna lie about it or try and be somebody I’m not. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. What I think is a bad thing is that everybody gets influenced by the same guy, and everybody sounds the same. There’s too much of that today.”
Studebaker John and The Hawks appear at The Linda Norris Auditorium, 339 Central Avenue, Albany, on Friday night, September 15th, at 8. Tickets are $25 and $30.