By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
John Wenzel (a.k.a. Good Rockin' Johnny) is arguably the area's pre-eminent blues-rock guitarist. He was a founding member of the Fat Chance Blues Band, Iko-Iko, and Little Nicky and the Slicks. When visiting national blues acts come to town and find themselves in need of a guitarist for a gig, Wenzel is the guy they call. To use the oldest cliche in the book, he is a guitar player's guitar player, an ax man who can peel off dazzling solos emulating everyone from Stevie and Jimi to Buddy and Muddy. He is also one of Miami's truest bluesmen, forming bands to play Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon, and Elmore James tunes during the darkest years of the great disco plague. Says Graham Drout, Iko-Iko cofounder and, along with promoter Mark Weiser and fellow bluesman Fleet Starbuck, something of an archivist of the local blues scene, "John Wenzel was playing blues back when everybody said you couldn't. There weren't any clubs with R&B as part of their format. We played parties, tiny little places where you were lucky if they had a dozen people. I think maybe more than anyone [Wenzel] was responsible for creating a blues scene in Miami. Fat Chance was like the mother of all Miami blues bands, and John was the guitar player."
Wenzel laughs when he reminisces about some of those early gigs. "We played the Road before Kevin [Rusk] and Patrick [Gleber] took over, back when it was still a pretty rough place, mostly bikers and Marielitos. Where the tables are now [downstairs] there used to be a small stage for strippers where we'd play. One night while we were on break a fight broke out inside. I was over at the 7-Eleven buying some Gatorade or something. When I came back Graham and the rest of the guys were standing in the street, surrounded by all these bikers. The owner, a guy named Neil, had locked everybody out and was guarding the door with a shotgun. We had to wait until the police arrived just to go back inside and get our equipment."
Wenzel served tours of duty as featured guitarist for both Fat Chance and Iko-Iko, which meant he was as much of a fixture at the Road in the early Eighties as Willie "Doc Feelgood" Bell, legendary philosopher and ladies' man. "I think playing the Road so much forces you to expand," Wenzel says. "I mean, four sets a night, several nights a week, with some of the best blues players in the country playing upstairs and coming down to listen to you when they're on break. You have to grow in the role. I did. Nick [Kane, Wenzel's successor in Iko-Iko] did, Julian [Kasper, Kane's heir] did. I'm sure Larry [Williams] and Mike [Bauer] are going through that now."
Drummer John Yarling, bassist Jeff Sanchez, and Wenzel left Iko-Iko to form Little Nicky and the Slicks in 1987. Wenzel stayed with the Slicks until last summer, severing ties with the band, in part because of inactivity necessitated by Nicole "Little Nicky" Yarling's touring with Jimmy Buffett, and partially because of the band's subtle but undeniable shift away from a guitar-driven format to one that better served Sra. Yarling's imposing talents as singer/violinist/frontperson. The split enabled the Slicks to move even further away from the hard-core R&B genre, whose limits they had been testing for some time, while freeing Wenzel to put together the kind of hard-rocking, blues-oriented band he had missed since the early days of Iko-Iko.
The first move was reuniting with bassist Sanchez, who had taken permanent leave of the Slicks about a year prior to Wenzel's departure. In the interim Sanchez had been working in Lynne Noble's band, which broke up when guitarist Williams entered the Iko-Iko fold. In the blues vernacular, this is known as a shuffle.
Wenzel and Sanchez, suddenly footloose and fancy-free, decided to cook up a band of their own: no frills, heavy on the guitar, back to the basics. In short order they added drummer Jack Kurtz, whom Wenzel and Sanchez had met when he subbed for John Yarling in Iko-Iko, and guitarist Rob Friedman, like Kurtz a UM music school alumnus and a veteran of local bands such as the highly acclaimed trop-rock outfit Watchdog, with Dennis Britt.
"Fat Chance and Iko-Iko used to rehearse at Jeff's house," explains Wenzel, "and Rob was Jeff's roommate. He used to sit in with us a lot, and we talked about starting a band several times." Words became reality in the summer of 1991.
Good Rockin' Johnny's first gig, June 29 at Shucker's, was peppered with musicians eager to see and hear the all-star line-up, like gunslingers checking out the fastest draw in the West. Wenzel, Friedman, and company went for the jugular immediately, playing with a fiery two-guitar vengeance. Word spread quickly of the band's prowess, the only reservation being their lack of a strong, polished vocalist. "None of us has ever really had a chance to grow in the role of singer, since we're already pretty well-known for our other instruments," explains Wenzel.
As fate would have it, Linda Lou Nelson was trying to help the newly bandless Lynne Noble find a backing group for a gig at Nelson's South Beach nightspot, the Cactus Cantina. "Linda Lou set it up with the Wiseguys," says Noble. "We were going to do it for just the one gig, but then the more we thought about it and talked about it, we realized it might be the best thing for everyone to try to make it a regular thing right from the start."
"Yeah," agrees Wenzel. "We kind of realized it was gonna be either an ongoing thing or not at all. Imagine if some club owner or somebody caught us at the Cantina, and then we show up to play a gig without Lynne. He's going to want to know what happened to the singer."
Noble, whose background includes stints as a singing, roller-skating hostess at a now-defunct club called Sassafras in the Mayfair alongside warbling waitress Wendy Pedersen (currently with Big Art, another R&B band founded by a Fat Chance alumnus, Bob "Harmonica Hero" Hemphill) as well as belting out Kathy Gibson originals for local rockers Blizzy Nation, is thrilled to be out front with a band as talented as the Wiseguys.
"I'm safe!" she gushes. "I don't have to worry about a thing with them. They make it easy for me. I love the opportunity to do a mixture of rock and blues, and the guys have been real accommodating toward my originals. And the best part is, we've only been together a few weeks. I can't wait to hear how we're gonna sound six or eight months from now. The only way they're gonna get me out of this band is to bury me.