Johnny "Guitar" Watson
|Johnny "Guitar" Watson|
Johnny "Guitar" Watson in 1976
|Birth name||John Watson, Jr.|
|Also known as||Young John Watson|
February 3, 1935|
Houston, Texas, US
|Died||May 17, 1996
|Associated acts||Chuck Higgins
The Mighty Hannibal
John "Johnny 'Guitar'" Watson, Jr. (February 3, 1935 – May 17, 1996) was an American blues, soul, and funk musician and singer-songwriter. A flamboyant showman and electric guitarist in the style of T-Bone Walker, Watson recorded throughout the 1950s and 1960s with some success. His creative reinvention in the 1970s with disco and funk overtones, saw Watson have hits with "Ain't That a Bitch", "I Need It" and "Superman Lover". His successful recording career spanned forty years, with his biggest hit being the 1977 "A Real Mother For Ya".
Watson was born in Houston, Texas. His father John Sr. was a pianist, and taught his son the instrument. But young Watson was immediately attracted to the sound of the guitar, in particular the electric guitar as played by T-Bone Walker and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown.
His grandfather, a preacher, was also musical. "My grandfather used to sing while he'd play guitar in church, man," Watson reflected many years later. When Johnny was 11, his grandfather offered to give him a guitar if, and only if, the boy didn't play any of the "devil's music". Watson agreed, but "that was the first thing I did." A musical prodigy, Watson played with Texas bluesmen Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland. His parents separated in 1950, when he was 15. His mother moved to Los Angeles, and took Watson with her.
In his new city, Watson won several local talent shows. This led to his employment, while still a teenager, with jump blues-style bands such as Chuck Higgins's Mellotones and Amos Milburn. He worked as a vocalist, pianist, and guitarist. He quickly made a name for himself in the African-American juke joints of the West Coast, where he first recorded for Federal Records in 1952. He was billed as Young John Watson until 1954. That year, he saw the Joan Crawford film Johnny Guitar, and a new stage name was born.
Watson affected a swaggering, yet humorous personality, indulging a taste for flashy clothes and wild showmanship on stage. His "attacking" style of playing, without a plectrum, resulted in him often needing to change the strings on his guitar once or twice a show, because he "stressified on them" so much, as he put it. Watson's ferocious "Space Guitar" album of 1954 pioneered guitar feedback and reverb. Watson would later influence a subsequent generation of guitarists. His song "Gangster of Love" was first released on Keen Records in 1957. It did not appear in the charts at the time, but was later re-recorded and became a hit in 1978, becoming Watson's "most famous song".
He toured and recorded with his friend Larry Williams, as well as Little Richard, Don and Dewey, The Olympics, Johnny Otis and, in the mid-1970s with David Axelrod. In 1975 he is a guest performer on two tracks (flambe vocals on the out-choruses of San Ber'dino and Andy). on the Frank Zappa album One Size Fits All. He also played with Sam Cooke, Herb Alpert and George Duke. But as the popularity of blues declined and the era of soul music dawned in the 1960s, Watson transformed himself from southern blues singer with pompadour into urban soul singer in a pimp hat. His new style was emphatic - the gold teeth, broad-brimmed hats, flashy suits, fashionable outsized sunglasses and ostentatious jewelry made him one of the most colorful figures in the West Coast funk scene.
He modified his music accordingly. His albums Ain't That a Bitch (from which the successful singles "Superman Lover" and "I Need It" were taken) and Real Mother For Ya were landmark recordings of 1970s funk. "Telephone Bill", from the 1980 album Love Jones, featured Watson rapping.
The shooting death of his friend Larry Williams in 1980 and other personal setbacks led to Watson briefly withdrawing from the spotlight in the 1980s. "I got caught up with the wrong people doing the wrong things", he was quoted as saying by the New York Times.
The release of his album Bow Wow in 1994 brought Watson more visibility and chart success than he had ever known. The album received a Grammy Award nomination.
In a 1994 interview with David Ritz for liner notes to The Funk Anthology, Watson was asked if his 1980 song "Telephone Bill" anticipated rap music. "Anticipated?" Watson replied. "I damn well invented it!... And I wasn't the only one. Talking rhyming lyrics to a groove is something you'd hear in the clubs everywhere from Macon to Memphis. Man, talking has always been the name of the game. When I sing, I'm talking in melody. When I play, I'm talking with my guitar. I may be talking trash, baby, but I'm talking".
In 1995, he was given a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation in a presentation and performance ceremony at the Hollywood Palladium. In February 1995, Watson was interviewed by Tomcat Mahoney for his Brooklyn, New York-based blues radio show The Other Half. Watson discussed at length his influences and those he had influenced, referencing Guitar Slim, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and Stevie Ray Vaughan. He made a special guest appearance on Bo Diddley's 1996 album A Man Amongst Men, playing vocoder on the track "I Can't Stand It" and singing on the track "Bo Diddley Is Crazy".
His music was sampled by Redman (who based his "Sooperman Luva" saga on Watson's "Superman Lover" song), Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Jay-Z, and Mary J. Blige. Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre borrowed P-Funk's adaptation of Watson's catchphrase "Bow Wow Wow yippi-yo yippi-yay" for Snoop's hit "What's My Name".
"Johnny was always aware of what was going on around him", recalled Susan Maier Watson (later to become the musician's wife) in an interview printed in the liner notes to the album The Very Best of Johnny 'Guitar' Watson. "He was proud that he could change with the times and not get stuck in the past".
Watson died of a myocardial infarction on May 17, 1996, collapsing on stage while on tour in Yokohama, Japan. His remains were brought home for interment at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
Watson, a recognized master of the Fender Stratocaster guitar, has been compared to Jimi Hendrix and allegedly became irritated when asked about this comparison, supposedly stating: "I used to play the guitar standing on my hands. I had a 150-foot cord and I could get on top of the auditorium – those things Jimi Hendrix was doing, I started that shit."
Frank Zappa stated that "Watson's 1956 song Three Hours Past Midnight inspired me to become a guitarist". Watson contributed to Zappa's albums One Size Fits All (1975), Them or Us (1984), Thing-Fish (1984) and Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention (1985). Zappa also named "Three Hours Past Midnight" his favorite record in a 1979 interview.
Steve Miller not only did a cover of "Gangster of Love" on his 1968 album Sailor (substituting "Is your name "Stevie 'Guitar' Miller?" for the same line with Watson's name), he made a reference to it in his 1969 song "Space Cowboy" ("And you know that I'm a gangster of love") as well as in his 1973 hit song "The Joker" ("Some call me the gangster of love"). Miller had also borrowed the sobriquet for his own "The Gangster Is Back", on his 1971 album Rock Love.
Jimmie Vaughan, brother of Stevie Ray Vaughan, is quoted as saying: "When my brother Stevie and I were growing up in Dallas, we idolized very few guitarists. We were highly selective and highly critical. Johnny 'Guitar' Watson was at the top of the list, along with Freddie, Albert and B.B. King. He made magic."
Bobby Womack said: "Music-wise, he was the most dangerous gunslinger out there. Even when others made a lot of noise in the charts – I'm thinking of Sly Stone or George Clinton – you know they'd studied Johnny's stage style and listened very carefully to Johnny's grooves."
Etta James stated, in an interview at the 2006 Rochester Jazz Festival: "Johnny 'Guitar' Watson... Just one of my favorite singers of all time. I first met him when we were both on the road with Johnny Otis in the '50s, when I was a teenager. We traveled the country in a car together so I would hear him sing every night. His singing style was the one I took on when I was 17 – people used to call me the female Johnny 'Guitar' Watson and him the male Etta James... He knew what the blues was all about..."
James is also quoted as saying: "I got everything from Johnny... He was my main model... My whole ballad style comes from my imitating Johnny's style... He was the baddest and the best... Johnny Guitar Watson was not just a guitarist: the man was a master musician. He could call out charts; he could write a beautiful melody or a nasty groove at the drop of a hat; he could lay on the harmonies and he could come up with a whole sound. They call Elvis the King; but the sure-enough King was Johnny 'Guitar' Watson."
- 1963 I Cried for You (Cadet 4056) (featuring Watson on piano)
- 1963 Johnny Guitar Watson (King)
- 1964 The Blues Soul of Johnny Guitar Watson
- 1965 Larry Williams Show with Johnny Guitar Watson
- 1967 Bad
- 1967 In the Fats Bag
- 1967 Two for the Price of One
- 1973 Listen (Fantasy 9437)
- 1975 I Don't Want to Be A Lone Ranger (Fantasy 9484)
- 1975 The Gangster Is Back
- 1976 Ain't That a Bitch (DJM 3)
- 1976 Captured Live
- 1977 A Real Mother For Ya
- 1977 Funk Beyond the Call of Duty (DJM 714)
- 1978 Giant (DJM 19)
- 1978 Gettin' Down with Johnny "Guitar" Watson
- 1979 What the Hell Is This? (DJM 24)
- 1980 Love Jones
- 1981 Johnny "Guitar" Watson and the Family Clone
- 1982 That's What Time It Is
- 1984 Strike on Computers
- 1985 Hit the Highway
- 1992 Plays Misty
- 1994 Bow Wow (Wilma 71007)
|1955||"Those Lonely, Lonely Nights"||RPM 436||-||10||-|
|1962||"Cuttin' In"||King 5579||-||6||-|
|1967||"Mercy, Mercy, Mercy"
Larry Williams & Johnny Watson
Larry Williams & Johnny Watson with The Kaleidoscope
|1974||"Like I'm Not Your Man"||Fantasy 721||-||67||-|
|1975||"I Don't Want To Be A Lone Ranger"||Fantasy 739||99||28||-|
|"It's Too Late"||Fantasy 752||-||76||-|
|1976||"I Need It"||DJM 1013||101||40||35|
|"Superman Lover"||DJM 1019||101||19||-|
|1977||"A Real Mother For Ya"||DJM 1024||41||5||44|
|"Lover Jones"||DJM 1029||-||34||-|
|1978||"Love That Will Not Die"||DJM 1034||-||59||-|
|"Gangster of Love"||DJM 1101||-||32||-|
|1979||"What The Hell Is This?"||DJM 1106||-||83||-|
|1980||"Love Jones"||DJM 1304||-||28||-|
|"Telephone Bill"||DJM 1305||-||45||-|
|1982||"The Planet Funk"||A&M 2383||-||62||-|
|1984||"Strike On Computers"||Valley Vue 769||-||77||-|
|1994||"Bow Wow"||Wilma 72515||-||89||-|
|1995||"Hook Me Up"||Wilma 72533||-||48||-|
- 1954 Space Guitar / Half-Pint A-Whiskey (Federal 12175)
- 1956 Three Hours Past Midnight" /"Ruben (RPM 455)
- 1957 Gangster of Love / One Room Country Shack Keen 3-4005)
- 1960 Johnny Guitar / Untouchable (Arvee 5016)
- 1961 Looking Back / The Eagle Is Back (Escort 106)
- 1962 Cuttin' In / Broke and Lonely (King 5579) (French cover Johnny Hallyday: Excuse-moi partenaire)
- 1963 Gangster of Love / In the Evenin' (King 5774)
- 1964 Ain't Gonna Move / Baby Don't Leave (Jowat 118)
- 1965 Big Bad Wolf / You Can Stay (Magnum 726)
- 1966 Keep On Lovin' You / South Like West (Okeh 7263)
- 1967 Hold On, I'm Comin' / Wolfman (Okeh 7270)
- 1967 Johnny Watson and Larry Williams – Mercy, Mercy, Mercy / A Quitter Never Wins (Okeh 7274)
- 1967 Johnny Watson and Larry Williams – Too Late / Two For The Price Of One (Okeh 7281)
- 1967 I'd Rather Be Your Baby / Soul Food (Okeh 7290)
- 1967 Johnny Watson and Larry Williams – Find Yourself Someone To Love / Nobody (Okeh 7300)
- 1967 She'll Blow Your Mind / Crazy About You (Okeh 7302)
- 1973 Like Not Your Man / You Bring Love (Fantasy 721)
- 1975 It's Too Late / Tripping (Fantasy 752)
- 1976 Ain't That A Bitch / Won't You Forgive Me Baby (DJM 1020)
- 1976 I Need It / Since I Met You Baby
- 1976 Superman Lover / We're No Exception
- 1977 A Real Mother For Ya / Nothing Left To Be Desired (DJM 1024)
- 1977 Lover Jones / Tarzan (DJM 1029)
- 1977 It's A Damn Shame / Love That Will Not Die (DJM 1034)
- 1977 The Real Deal / Tarzan
- 1978 Gangster Of Love / Guitar Disco (DJM 1101)
- 1978 Virginia's Pretty Funky / The Institute (DJM 1100) (The Watsonian Institute)
- 1978 Miss Frisco (Queen Of The Disco) / Tu Jours Amour
- 1978 I Need It / Superman Lover
- 1979 What The Hell Is This? / Can You Handle It (DJM 1106)
- The Gangster of Love – Johnny "Guitar" Watson: Performer, Preacher, Pimp (2009), Vincent Bakker, Createspace, ISBN 1-4421-4147-6
- Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. p. 593. ISBN 1-904994-10-5.
- Du Noyer, Paul (2003). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music (1st ed.). Fulham, London: Flame Tree Publishing. p. 164. ISBN 1-904041-96-5.
- Biography at rockabillyhall.com
- Whitburn, Joel (1996). Top R&B Singles: 1942-1995. Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research Inc. p. 472. ISBN 0-89820-115-2.
- Van Gelder, Lawrence. "Johnny (Guitar) Watson, Musical Pioneer, Dies at 61" New York Times May 19, 1996: 34
- Ritz, David (1999). The Very Best of Johnny "Guitar Watson" (liner notes). Rhino Records. p. 5. R2 75702.
- Gill, Andy. "The life and death of a guitar-slinger", independent.com, 27 May 1996
- Biography at we7.com
- Whitburn, Joel (2003). Top Pop Singles 1955-2002 (1st ed.). Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research Inc. p. 756. ISBN 0-89820-155-1.
- Betts, Graham (2004). Complete UK Hit Singles 1952-2004 (1st ed.). London: Collins. p. 835. ISBN 0-00-717931-6.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Johnny "Guitar" Watson.|
- Discography at Soulful Kinda Music.
- Johnny Guitar Watson at All About Jazz.
- Johnny Guitar Watson at Find A Grave.
- Johnny Guitar Watson Audio Interview at the Internet Archive.