John Wrencher's daughter Laura Hampton, center, visits blues singer Larry Taylor and the author on the bandstand at Skinner School field day in June.

YouTube video

One-armed John blew a fat tone out of his harp mike with a big Fender amp on the street.  According to his AllMusic biography by Cub Koda, harmonica player and singer Big John Wrencher was born in Sunflower County, MS, on a plantation. He played all over Tennessee and Arkansas before a 1958 car crash left him with only one arm.  This did not silence his authoritative voice or the big, slurring sound he brought out of the harmonica, which he learned to hold, along with a microphone, cupped in his right hand.  Moving to Chicago he’d play Maxwell Street at the height of the crowd each Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., usually backed by nothing more than an electric guitar and a drummer.

During the 1960s he often played with Carey Bell on bass and John Lee Granderson on guitar. Wrencher’s sound and style was country juke joint blues, brought to the city and amplified to the maximum.  He died of a heart attack on a visit back home in Clarksdale, MS.

But he left some unforgettable music. Here’s his song about the now-gentrified street where he spent his Sundays: “Maxwell Street Alley, toughest place in town:  

Another video shows John Wrencher, sleeve tucked onto his pocket, with Eddie Taylor on guitar:  John Wrencher’s daughter Laura Hampton stopped by and greeted Larry Taylor, Eddie’s stepson, at a recent Chicago School of Blues gig when we were hosted by Skinner School on the West Side. 

Do you have a blues man or woman in your family tree?  Feel free to remember them in a comment below. 


"Barrelhouse Bonni" McKeown, the author of "West Side Blues Blog," has played piano and written about blues music for over 15 years.  She has led classes for young and old on...