Monday, April 16, 2012

Juke Boy Bonner Lived The Life Of A Ghetto Poet

Weldon ‘Juke Boy’ Bonner was a Houston, Texas down home bluesman who passed away in 1978 at the age of 46. Often performing as a one-man band, he lived a hard life that served as a basis for much of his blues. Listening to the Arhoolie disc Ghetto Poet, one is treated by a performer influenced by Lightnin’ Hopkins as well as such blues artists as Jimmy Reed. While not nearly as gifted a guitarist or charismatic a singer as the legendary Hopkins, Bonner was able to invest his performances with a strong rhythm and simply played, but effective guitar and harmonica lines. His strength was his songs, especially his lyrics dealing with the realities of ghetto life.

Originally Bonner covered the latest juke box hits at clubs leading to his nickname. In the early 1950s, he went to California where he made his first recordings. Later he recorded for small labels in Texas and Louisiana. For a time, his poems appeared in the Houston African-American weekly, Forward Times. In 1967, Bonner was discovered by the late Mike Leadbitter who recorded his first album for the British Flyright label. Soon thereafter, Chris Strachwitz recorded the first of two albums that would be issued on vinyl on Arhoolie. The best tracks from these appeared on an earlier Arhoolie CD, Life Gave Me A Dirty Deal. These recordings led Juke Boy to tour Europe as part of the 1969 American Folk Blues Festival Tour along with John jackson, Clifton Chenier, Magic Sam, Alex Moore, and Earl Hooker. Other tours followed, but Bonner’s authentic blues was less in demand inHouston and he was only able to get a few concert performances and occasional tours. In the liner notes to Ghetto Poet, Chris Strachwitz recalls that the last time he saw Juke Boy, he was working at a dreadful minimum age job unloading chickens at a processing plant.

Bonner’s lyrics were realistic and down-to-earth. He sang about growing up and being the head of his choir and buying his first guitar in Childhood Dreams, as well as knocking so the roaches would let him in his apartment where the rain was coming in as it was leaking outside in the shelter that he worried about being kicked out of because he was having trouble meeting the rent in Rainin’ In my Room. Playing a steady walking bass line, he rocks out a couple of nice instrumentals, Zodico Jump, and Houston Beat. Let Me Be Run It Down To You has him explaining the facts of his relationship to his women. In contrast, he philosophizes about ending all the hate between people on Settin’ the Record Straight. One would be hard-pressed to find a poor performance here. If the blues ain’t nothing but the truth Juke Boy Bonner was one of its ablest poets and his music is well worth exploring.

This was a value priced CD and you may wish to order directly from Arhoolie where this costs only $10.00. the direct link on Arhoolie’s website is

This review is slightly revised from my review that appeared in the November 2004 DC Blues Calendar. I likely received this from Arhoolie Records. Here is a clip of him performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1975.

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