John Chrisley Is a Sweet Kid of 17 Who Plays a Big, Mean Harmonica

updated 01/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

When Little John Chrisley belts out the blues, his passion and power bespeak a lifetime of hard living and high flying. Cupping his harmonica with both hands, he's wailing, eyes shut, now he's down on his knees, now he's singing in a raucous, gravelly voice, now he's back on his feet and stomping. "He's awesome," says rocker Bo Diddley, author of John's nickname. "He reminds me of Little Walker, the greatest harmonica player ever. He's going to be dangerous."

Just 17, Little John has already had a career most pros would envy. He's jammed with Willie Nelson, B.B. King and Huey Lewis. In the works is an album of mostly original compositions—wicked whimsies with titles like Sunshine Werewolf and Asphalt Panther. "I prefer my own music," he says. "It's more satisfying."

Chrisley grew up in Morgan Hill, Calif., in the tow of a dad, art dealer John Sr., who was a blues freak. "I'm glad my dad's weird," says John, "because I'm weird." As a kid, Chrisley frequented soul concerts and plugged into his father's 1,500 blues records. His career was born one night five years ago when John saw MoJo Buford playing an instrument "that looked like a sandwich and sounded like a synthesizer. I was on the edge of my seat." John, then 11, latched onto a harmonica the next day and taught himself to play. Four months later blues great Junior Wells heard him practicing offstage and plucked him out of the audience for a solo during his show. That did it. "He never was the same afterward," says his mother, Cathy.

Little John, who earns up to $250 a gig, plans to finish his senior year at high school with a tutor. He doesn't do drugs—"he doesn't need to hide," his mother says—and doesn't mind being barred, as a minor, from some clubs where liquor is served. "It's a sensible law," says John, who swigs water onstage and milk off. Luckily, given his goal, he seems to have limitless energy. "Maybe it's greedy to say, but I don't just want to be a great harmonica player, like Toots Thielemans," Little John says. "I'm aiming to be better known, like Bruce Springsteen."

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