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See the Salina Journal article about Johnny High-Hat's performance in Kansas.


Beverley Folk and Blues Club Review

August 2, 2013

Johnny High-Hat

Heart of a Clown

John Highkin (AKA Johnny High-Hat) has done a few things in his time: played in bluegrass, country and swing bands, mandolin orchestras and a circus pit band; written and directed plays: studied at Bertold Bretcht's Berliner Ensembler in East Berlin: and co-founded and run the acclaimed Fern Street Circus for many years in San Diego's Golden Hill neighborhood. These diverse experiences are borne out in the song selection of his debut recording "Heart of a clown", a wonderful collection of well-known and lesser known standards. However, for someone who clearly loves the old songs, he performs them as if each one had been written yesterday. Of course, by choosing to cover songs such as "Pennies from Heaven", "Route 66" and "September Song" , Johnny risks being compared to some of the greatest vocal stylists that ever lived. However, to do such a thing would be to miss the point of this album. What you have here is a little gem of a recording put together with the help of some great muscians - The Wiyos are on four of the tracks - and featuring Johnny on a variety of stringed instruments. Unfortunately, this kind of album is not going to set the world on fire but there's enough heat in these thirteen tracks to keep your embers glowing.

– Harvey Brown, Beverley, U.K.

Carl Finch, leader of Brave Combo
Denton, TX  •  May 17, 2013

Hey, John.

Thank you for sending me your new CD.  It's great; very soulful.  Nice voice, spiffy arrangements.  Good job!  I didn't know this side of you.

Very impressed.

Maverick Magazine
From review by Simon Beards, September/October 2013

Some fine mandolin playing by High-Hat
…he has a major talent. South is an example of his skills.

Johnny High-Hat
Heart of a Clown
Reviewed by Andrew Greenhalgh
Rating: 4.0

If the best music and songwriting comes from life experience, Johnny High-Hat (John Highkin) is an artist who ought to be amazing. High-Hat’s life story spans decades of playing bluegrass, country, and swing music, contributing in mandolin orchestras, and even rocking it in circus pit bands. He’s written and directed plays, studied at Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble in East Berlin, and “co-founded and run the acclaimed Fern Street Circus for many years in San Diego’s Golden Hill neighborhood.”

In short, Johnny High-Hat’s seen and done it all.

Now, High-Hat is taking on a challenge of another sort, releasing his debut album, Heart of a Clown. The album is comprised of classic standards, old school country, and a few lesser known tracks, High-Hat offers up an eclectic yet warm and familiar musical journey of western swing and classic American music. High-Hat shines on the mandolin, upright bass, banjo, mandocello, and saw in addition to delivering vocals while assisted by Steve Jirak on acoustic and electric guitars and Mark Danisovszky on accordion. High-Hat garners some additional support from roots band, The Wiyos, on four tracks lending the album both credibility and depth.

But, frankly, it’s not as though High-Hat needed the extra credibility as his music truly does speak for itself. From opening track, “It Must Be Love,” to album closer, “A Thousand Goodnights,” High-Hat delivers a warm and cozy Western-styled listening experience that has a vintage feel while keeping its feet planted squarely in the now. The artist’s vocals are humble yet up to the task, the occasional pitch problem offering up a greater sense of genuine authenticity as opposed to a cringe.

Tracks like "Route 66" provide a nice collision of the old and new, the artist conjuring an earthy and bright backing that lets the players shine, High-Hat's mandolin showing off sublimely while the title track has a wonderfully old-school feel, almost bluesy mandolin opening up into swooning vocals and weeping saw work.  "Gingerbread Waltz" and "South" are solely instrumental tracks that really let High-Hat's artistry show, his full-on virtuosity coming to the forefront with these tremendous arrangements.

"Rockin', Rollin' Ocean" captures more old and new elements, providing a lovely, lonely sound while "One More Ride" is a track that just trots along with a smile in the lyric and an incessant drive.  Swing-styled blues shine on "Pipeliner Blues,' Jirak's guitar fills working fine alongside more excellent mandolin from High-Hat before the lovelorn two-step of "(Now and Then There's) A Fool Such As I," sallies forth with gentle flair. "Pennies from Heaven" is a much more subdued and understated affair from the popularly known Louis Prima version while "'Deed I Do" provides another playful musical ropm, the upright bass plucking out dulcet tones alongside a gorgeous western orchestra of sound. "A Thousand Goodnights" closes things up appropriately, High-Hat's mandolin skills once again keeping to the foureground while the Texas-based high lonesome tones carry the album to its completion.

Johnny High-Hat is an artist who has lived a life that few could ever imagine, let alone hope to experience. Playing in a plethora of bands, working the stage both musically and theatrically, and interacting with performing in one way or another for years on end have given the artist a keen sensibility and he puts that sensibility to good use here on Heart of a Clown. This album is honest and oozes both musical and artistic integrity and provides a great listening experience for all willing to take the time. High-Hat might not be the artist you’ll hear on your Top 40 radio station but, we’ll guarantee you this, he’s better than most anything you’re bound to find there for sure.

Mr. Andrew Greenhalgh is a music writer, content editor, and lifestyle commentator based in southwest Florida.  His writings have appeared in places as diverse as Liverpool Daily Post, Relevant Magazine, Stereo Subversion, CCM, and

Norman Collins, guitarist/vocalist of The Country Cassanovas
San Francisco, CA  •  April 15, 2013

We love [the cd] in the Collins household.  "It Must Be Love" is my favorite and my wife Nancy likes "Deed I Do" the best.  I think the cd sounds warm and has a great mixture of players on it.  Good graphics ... also.

Letter from a Friend
March 26, 2013

Dear John,

I absolutely love Heart of a Clown. Thank you so much for sharing it!
     My parents were just here from Michigan for a five-day visit.  I get a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye when I hear “A Thousand Goodnights,” which came on in my car as I was taking them back to their hotel.
     The whole compilation is so filled with heart.  You truly captured a wide range of human emotion – hunger, longing and sadness, yes; but also change and transformation.  Such is the rhythm of life, if only we embrace it with hope and trust.
     Please let me know how I can purchase 10 copies.  I plan to give one to my pastor (who hails from Kansas) and one to my mother, who has already requested a copy and who rarely asks for anything.  Well done, John!

Gina DeLapa

San Diego City Beat

March 6, 2013

The Great Demo Review of 2013
Behold and beware:  It’s our annual critique of local music submissions

 Johnny High-Hat could be your dad. He’s a local country crooner who’s produced an album of respectable covers, including “Route 66.” As dads are wont to do every now and then, High-Hat apparently needed to flex his musical muscle, and he and his rootsy band would make anybody’s heart melt with their steel guitar. These guys may never make it big in the music world, but I’ll bet they don’t give a hoot about popularity. It appears the crew behind Heart of a Clown just wanted to have fun. Mission accomplished.

– Justin Roberts

Bob Sturm, Associate Professor, Aalborg Universitet København
Copenhagen, Denmark  •  March 1, 2013

Back from Vienna, and found your new great CD in the post!  Listening to it now with smiles all around. Sounds excellent!

"One More Ride" is so great that I wish it would last a few more verses. 

Martin - Comment on CD Insight Review of Heart of a Clown

I "stumbled" upon Johnny's performance at the Sunday show of Adams Ave. Unplugged [April 29, 2103] and never left. I've been enjoying this wonderful bouquet of harmonious sounds almost every day since. It is REFLECTIVE, INSPIRING and makes a respectful "bow" to many treasured, well tested songs. My favorite is September Song, but there are several "seconds" I repeat over and over.

I find myself dancing more than ever.

Thank you Johnny for a wonderful keeper.

Martin Rutishauser, conductor/music educator
New York, NY  •  February 10, 2013

Just listening to your CD and enjoying it a lot.  My hat's off to you for being a musician and being dedicated to something that actually makes a difference on this planet.

Bill Pearson, partner, The Windale Group; president of the board of Young Audiences, Inc.
New York, NY  •  January 31, 2013

Subject:  Great album!

Thanks very much for giving me Heart of a Clown.  I love it!  I'm particularly glad to hear South, a favorite I don't hear often enough.

Dr. Terry O'Donnell, Professor Emeritus in music, San Diego State University
San Diego, CA  •  February 12, 2013

I've heard your CD a few times---and it is a delight.

I especially like the variety in choice of repertoire.  Very smart and classy choices!!!  And the mix of the arrangements with varied instrumentation and song layout are interesting (and sometimes unexpected in a COOL way!).  Well done.

Lisa Burns, bassist (Sidesaddle & Company, Sherry Austin and Henhouse)
Mountain View, CA  •  February 17, 2013

Subject:  Wow

I am listening to your CD.  I am blown away. Awesome.  It makes me miss playing with you.

San Diego Troubadour
Review by Frank Kocher, June 2013

"Live music and stilts," it says on the web page, and on the slip cover of Johnny High-Hat's Heart of a Clown, there he is on stilts, playing banjo.  High-Hat (nee Johnny Highkin) has fascinating backstory that includes not only years as a circus pit musician, but also time spent involved in theatre with the East German Berliner Ensemble (established by Bertolt Brecht), playing in swing and country bands, and running the local Fern Street Circus.  Heart of a Clown is sort of a new chapter for High-Hat, a long-time sideman – a mix of swing jazz and Tin Pan Alley songs that are clearly personal favorites

Some instrumental filler tracks on the disc show that High-Hat knows his way around a mandolin, the best of these is “South.” Late in the disc “September Song” and “Pennies from Heaven” are material choices that don’t work well. At 13 tracks, this disc is two or three tracks too long, and a leaner version without these tracks, focusing on swing numbers, would have been an improvement.

High-Hat recorded the disc in San Diego and Salina, Kansas, and uses a swath of musicians; he handles the mandolin, tenor banjo, mandocello, and some upright bass. The backing crew standouts include accordionist Mark Danisovszky, guitarist Steve Jirak, and Teddy Webber on pedal steel. The production by Danisovszky and Jirak often mixes High-Hat’s vocals super hot on the unevenly mastered disc, and it is in the material selection and his crooning on certain tunes where the disc runs into problems.

“It Must Be Love” gives a swing treatment to a ‘30s blues standard, as High-Hat’s vocal is fine and hot solos by Webber, Jirak, and High-Hat (on mandolin) are the highlight. A cover of “Route 66” isn’t bad either, though a bland arrangement doesn’t really give the crew here a chance to make much of it. Then comes “Rockin’, Rollin’ Ocean,” which Hank Snow made famous. High-Hat’s vocal here tries hard, but he isn’t really the kind of natural crooner with the range to pull off this standard. He does a bit better on the title tune; it won’t make people forget Willie Nelson’s version, but High-Hat is clearly pouring his “heart” into it. He can’t sing like Nelson, but Willie probably never walked on stilts.

For the most part, High-Hat’s vocals on the disc work fine. On the country-western standard “One More Ride,” which has been done by Snow, Johnny Cash, and others, his version is a disc highlight that sticks with just being a straight-up swing cover that is right in High-Hat’s vocal wheelhouse. Ditto “Pipeliner Blues,” as slick pedal steel and a boogie arrangement make it work well, too.

Some instrumental filler tracks on the disc show that High-Hat knows his way around a mandolin, the best of these is “South.” Late in the disc “September Song” and “Pennies from Heaven” are material choices that don’t work well. At 13 tracks, this disc is two or three tracks too long, and a leaner version without these tracks, focusing on swing numbers, would have been an improvement.

Heart of a Clown is an uneven batch of music that is clearly a labor of love. Johnny High-Hat's belated solo album offers some quirky glimpses of catchy swing music from a seasoned performer.



2931 Thorn Street San Diego, California 92104 619.306.7568