John Winkler – Juke’s Blues | Album Review

John Winkler – Juke’s Blues

HarpTone Records

12 songs – 48 minutes

A fixture on the blues scene of coastal South Carolina for the past 30 years, harp player John Winkler swings from the jump on his latest CD, delivering a pleasant mix of Chicago, Texas and West Coast blues and jump and backing himself up with a pleasant, mid-range voice to match.

A native of the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York who goes by a pair of nicknames – Juke Joint Johnny and the Harmonica High Priest of the Southeast, Winkler cut his teeth cut backing up Joe Beard, the guitarist who was nurtured by Son House and eventually helped coax him out of a decades-long retirement.

John’s been based out of Charleston since 1989, where he joined the Easy Street Blues Band and led several other groups, including his own band, Juke Joint Johnny & the Hurricanes, and serving as the opening act for several major artists. He’s also partnered with keyboard player Gary “Shrimp City Slim” Erwin for decades, appearing at festivals around the world.

Despite his lengthy career and frequent trips into the studio as a sideman, this is Winkler’s debut release as a front man. And one listen will have you asking what it’s taken him so long. He plays both diatonic and chromatic, and delivering warm, round runs on both with backing from Erwin and the full lineup of Elliott & the Untouchables: Elliott New, guitar; Sonny Dickey, sax: Russ Marchese, trumpet; Ken Largent, keys: Jim Heidenreich, drums; and J.T. Anderson, bass. The roster’s augmented by percussionist Reid Mason and bassists Wade Miles and Willie Jones.

An all-original set co-written by Winkler and New, John opens the action with a tasty diatonic intro for “Lucky,” a clever, Chicago-style blues that describes a life in which the subject of the title still hasn’t found him yet. Mid-tune harp and horn breaks shine. The medium-paced shuffle, “Playin’ for Keeps,” serves up advice for a lady friend to stop chasing and to do herself a favor by finding real love for the first time.

“Somebody New,” a slow-blues burner is delivered from the opposite point of view. In this one, Winkler finds that someone else has been eating his breakfast as he realizes that he and his lady are through, driving home his understanding in an extended break mid-tune that also features fine fret work from New. The mood brightens quickly for the loping “BBQ Boss,” which allows plenty of space for the band to shine, and the swinging “Positively Prezlee,” a West Coast jump delivered on chromatic.

Next up is “Short Fat Fanny.” Not to be confused with the 1957 R&B/rock hit of the same title by Larry Williams, this one’s a clever blues delivered atop a rhumba beat that describes a petite lady’s derriere, not her body in general. It gives way to the unhurried instrumental, “Slow Roast,” that gives Winkler space to strut his stuff before allowing Dickey to do the same, and “Slammin’ Door,” a driving blues that revisits romantic separation from another angle.

The pleasant shuffle “Millionaire” states that if trouble were money, the singer would be rich beyond his dreams, while “Tell Me True” delivers a little swing as it questions a lady about what it’s going to take for him for him to get her at his side. The slow blues, “Meetin’ Mama,” wonders where Winkler’s woman might be before he brings the action to a close with “The Nine Harp Thing,” an instrumental that layers at least nine distinctly different harp parts atop minimal rhythm.

One in a while, a debut album like this one comes out of left field and completely knocks you out. If you’re a fan of traditional harp, pick up this one. You won’t be disappointed.

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