Big John Wrencher – Maxwell Street Alley Blues (1969)

FrontCover1Big John Wrencher (February 12, 1923 – July 15, 1977), also known as One Arm John, was an American blues harmonica player and singer, well known for playing at the Maxwell Street Market in Chicago in the 1960s. He toured Europe in the 1970s.

John Thomas Wrencher was born in Sunflower, Mississippi, United States. He became interested in music as a child and taught himself to play the harmonica at an early age. Beginning in the early 1940s, he worked as an itinerant musician in Tennessee, Missouri, Indiana, and Illinois. By the mid-1940s he had arrived in Chicago and was playing on Maxwell Street and at house parties with Jimmy Rogers, Claude “Blue Smitty” Smith and John Henry Barbee. In the 1950s he moved to Detroit, where he worked with the singer and guitarist Baby Boy Warren and formed his own trio, which performed in the Detroit area and in Clarksdale, Mississippi.


In 1958 Wrencher lost his left arm as a result of a car accident outside Memphis, Tennessee. By the early 1960s he had settled in Chicago, where he became a fixture on Maxwell Street Market, in particular playing from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays. In 1964 he appeared in a documentary film about Maxwell Street, entitled And This Is Free; performances by Wrencher recorded in the process of making the film were eventually issued on a three-CD set, And This Is Maxwell Street. During the 1960s he recorded for the Testament label backing Robert Nighthawk and as part of the Chicago String Band.


In 1969 he recorded for Barrelhouse Records, backed by the guitarist Little Buddy Thomas and the drummer Playboy Vinson, who formed his Maxwell Street band at that time. The resulting album, Maxwell Street Alley Blues, was described as “superlative in every regard” by Cub Koda, writing for AllMusic. Wrencher toured Europe with the Chicago Blues Festival in 1973 and with the American Blues Legends in 1974. On the latter tour he recorded an album in London for Big Bear Records, backed by the guitarist Eddie Taylor and his band.

During a trip to Mississippi to visit his family in July 1977, Wrencher died suddenly of a heart attack in Wade Walton’s barbershop in Clarksdale, Mississippi. (wikipedia)

Alternate front + backcover + labels:

Simple and to the point:

This little gem recorded in 1969 is the perfect example of what one would hear at Chicago’s famed Maxwell St. Flea Market (which sadly no longer exists).
Big John Wrencher (one armed Blues man) is on vocals and harp, Little Buddy Thomas is on guitar, (both him and Big John play through the same amp), and Playboy Venson is on drums.The sound is raw and pure Chicago Blues. The only solo instrument here is the harp since Little Buddy Thomas keeps it simple and holds a solid backing either with chords or bass lines.
Really a great album for anybody who wishes to re-live the Maxwell St. days or who just wants know what they sounded like. The first time through it seems simple and rudimentary but it gets better with every re-play. The thing to pick up on here is Big John Wrencher’s great harmonica phrasing, rather than the general simplicity of his playing. A good example of when less is more. (R. Suzuka)


Little Buddy Thomas (guitar)
Playboy Vinson (drums)
Big John Wrencher (harmonica, vocals)

Another alternate front+ backcover:

01. Maxwell St. Alley Blues 4.18
02. Don’t Want No Special Rider 2.45
03. Back Porch Boogie 3.19
04. No Good Weasel 3.53
05. Going Upstairs 4.55
06. Dust My Bed 3.38
07. Root Man Blues 5.04
08. John’s Moonshine Blues 6.16
09. Ha, Ha, Baby 5.20
10. Conductor Took My Baby To Tennessee 5.19
11. Rockin’ Chair Blues 4.31
12. 12th Street Boogie 3.09
13. Rough Tough Boogie 2.16

All songs written by Big Joe Wrencher




3 thoughts on “Big John Wrencher – Maxwell Street Alley Blues (1969)

  1. Thank you! what a find – Ireally miss Maxwell St sunday mornings – besides the real as dirt music, you could find old beat-up film and music gear and tools, and eat great food every 100 ft. I thought it was criminal to close it for dormotories and gentrifiction, but it was on land that could be worth 100’s of millions to devlopers while maxwell st was for poor people, and very unsightly ones at that. If they could have monetized its immense cultural history and import in a way the rich could see benefit from then maybe it could stay. But no way, it was a poor peoples thing.
    I remember there was a proper store on the edge of the flea market, on Halstead, called “Cheat You Fair” above a place that sold Borsolino and Stetson hats, a must have for real sharp dressers


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