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Born in Bellville, Texas, Bonner was one of nine children; his parents died when he was very young. Raised by a neighbor's family, he moved in with his older sister in 1945. At the age of twelve he taught himself to play the guitar. He gained the nickname "Juke Boy" as a youth, because he frequently sang in local juke joints. Starting a musical career as teenager, he won the first prize at local disc jockey Trummie Cain's weekly talent show at the Lincoln Theater in Houston, Texas in 1948. Through this he secured a 15-minute radio slot on a show operated by the record retailer Henry Atlas. After having three children with his wife, she left him to look after the children by himself.
Between 1954 and 1957, he recorded several singles for the Irma record label, based in Oakland, California, but not all were released at the time. In 1960 he recorded again, for Goldband Records, Storyville Records, and Jan & Dill Records.
In 1963 Bonner was diagnosed with a large stomach ulcer, and almost half of his stomach was removed by surgery. The shock of the operation, plus the social climate of the times (which included civil rights riots and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy), led Bonner to begin writing poetry, some of which was published in the Houston Forward Times, a weekly newspaper. Recovering from surgery, Bonner worked as an RCA record distributor in Houston. Once his strength returned he began playing gigs again in that area.
In 1967, Bonner recorded his first album for the Flyright Records. Chris Strachwitz's Arhoolie label released two albums, I'm Going Back to the Country (1968) and The Struggle (1969) (Arhoolie would later issue some of Bonner's unreleased 1967–1974 recordings on Ghetto Poet, in 2003). Bonner recorded mostly original song material through his recording career. He was a guest at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival, the American Folk Blues Festival, and the Montreux Blues and Rock Festival. He toured Europe in 1969 with Clifton Chenier and Magic Sam.
In 1972, he released an LP for Sonet Records, and in 1975 another one for the Houston-based Home Cooking Records. However, he was not able to support himself from his music, because of a lack of demand for his work. He continued to perform and record sporadically, but he had no choice but to take a minimum wage job at a chicken-processing plant in Houston.

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