The Maxwell Street open air market was a seven- to ten-block area in Chicago that from the 1920s to the mid-'60s played host to various blues musicians -- both professional and amateur -- who performed right on the street for tips from passerby. Most of them who started their careers there (like Little Walter, Earl Hooker, Hound Dog Taylor, and others) moved up to the more comfortable confines of club work. But one who stayed and became a most recognizable fixture of the area was a marvelous harmonica player and singer named One-Arm or Big John Wrencher.
Wrencher was born in Sunflower County, MS, on a plantation in 1924. His youthful interest in music -- particularly the harmonica -- kept him on the move as a traveling musician, playing throughout Tennessee and neighboring Arkansas from the late '40s to the early '50s. In 1958, Big John lost his left arm in a car crash in Memphis. By the early '60s, he had moved North to Chicago and quickly became a regular fixture on Maxwell Street, always working on Sundays from 10:00 a.m. to nearly 3:00 in the afternoon virtually non-stop, as Sundays were the big payday for most busking musicians working the area.
Although cupping both harmonica and bulky microphone in one hand (which he also sang through), Wrencher's physical challenge seemingly did little to alter the hugeness of his sound or the slurring attack he brought to the instrument. Usually backed by nothing more than an electric guitar and a drummer, Big John's sound and style was country juke joint blues brought to the city and amplified to the maximum. A flamboyant showman, he'd put on quite a show for the people on the street, moving and dancing constantly while the cigar box was passed around for tips. By all accounts, no one was ever disappointed by the show or the music.
But despite his enormous playing and performing talents, the discography on Wrencher, unfortunately, remains woefully thin. He appears to have played on a session with Detroit bluesman Baby Boy Warren in the '50s, but this tape appears to be lost to the ravages of time. His first official recordings surfaced on a pair of Testament albums from the '60s, featuring Big John in a sideman role behind slide legend Robert Nighthawk. His only full album of material surfaced in the early '70s on the Barrelhouse label. Producer George Paulus also used him as a backing musician behind slide guitarist but these sides lay unissued until recently, showing up piecemeal on various compilations.
After years of vacillating between his regular Maxwell Street gig and a few appearances on European blues festivals, Wrencher decided to go back to Mississippi to visit family and old friends in July of 1977. While swapping stories of his travels with some buddies at bluesman Wade Walton's barber shop in Clarksdale, he suddenly dropped dead from a heart attack at the age of 54. As a heartfelt (and somewhat surreal) memorial to his old pal, Big John's final bottle of whiskey is permanently ensconced on a shelf at Walton's barbershop.