This guy hopped out of his car, knowing he was late, but stopping to light a cigarette and shoot the breeze with us for a few minutes. He had his work uniform on, but was sporting a fairly impressive afro billowing out from underneath his headgear. While he was smoking, I asked him what he was listening to when he pulled up. He looked down at me and said, really he sneered, "Johnny 'Guitar,' 'Real Mutha F'Ya," then he strolled into the back of the store like he was fifteen minutes early instead of fifteen minutes late.
Watson was, like many, influenced by the great T-Bone Walker. He started out playing with such future blues legends as Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland in Houston, but migrated to Los Angeles as a 15-year-old, where he hooked up with sax man Chuck Higgins' band, playing piano and singing on the original "Motor Head Baby," cut by Higgins on the Combo label in 1952. He later cut a livelier version the next year for Federal Records, billed as Young John Watson....this time playing guitar, along with Wayne Bennett, who would later play on many of Bobby "Blue" Bland's Duke recordings.
During this time, Watson would travel to New Orleans and hang out with Guitar Slim, whose wild act included hooking up a long power cord to his guitar to allow him to play in the audience and even into the street, along with wild suits of many colors (with matching hair and shoes). Watson took it a step further.
"I saw what Slim was up to and figured I could do the same. Liked his fire and flash. Truth is, it got to a point where we'd gig together and march into the club with me carrying him on my shoulders, both of us firing away on our guitars like World War III. But I did Slim one better. Got me a 200-foot cord, so when I played auditoriums, I'd start in the back of the balcony and work my way down. I could see rock 'n' roll coming, and could see that when it came in, it'd be riding on the back of some flame-eating guitar. Well, hell, by then 'Guitar' was my middle name."
"I'd play with my teeth. I'd play standing on my hands, play it over my head and under my legs. See the technology was changing. I was fooling with overdubbing. I was looking at these Stratocaster guitars and Fender amps and reverbing like crazy. I was seeing all these new sounds I could create. Sounds the kids liked, and sounds that still had the funky feeling I'd gotten when I was playing with Amos Milburn or Bumps Blackwell. I think I was the link between the old and the new. I wasn't afraid to take it a little further and see where it went."
From Federal, Watson moved to the RPM label in 1955, where he continued to release excellent blues tracks like "Hot Little Mama," "Too Tired," and the incredibly cool "Three Hours Past Midnight," a second cousin to B.B. King's "Three O'Clock Blues." During this time, Watson's vocal skills were rapidly developing to the point where they were as distinctive as his guitar playing, equally capable of humor, power and passion. Most of these tracks were done under the supervision of Maxwell Davis, who was also the driving force behind B.B. King's great tunes of the same era.
After bouncing around several labels (Keen, Class, Arvee, Goth, and Escort) during the mid to late 50's, Watson joined forces with Johnny Otis at King Records in the early 60's, where he recorded some marvelous tracks, including the soulful "That's The Chance You've Got To Take," in 1962, along with strong remakes of some earlier hits in 1963, such as his trademark tune, "Gangster of Love" (originally cut for Keen Records in 1957).
He also re-recorded his trademark tune, "Gangster of Love," in 1978, and enjoyed a long string of successful albums for DJM Records that lasted until the mid 80's, when he dropped off the music scene once again. There was some speculation as to why he dropped off the scene at the time. His friend, Larry Williams, was found dead with a gunshot wound to the head in 1980. Though his death was ruled a suicide, there were rumors for years that he was murdered because of his involvement with drugs, crime, and prostitution, and there were also rumors that Watson himself was a pimp during that period.
In any event, after a lengthy absence, Watson returned in 1994 with a recording, Bow Wow, that was nominated for a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album, despite it's purely old school funk material. He also returned to performing, showing that he's lost little to none of his flamboyance and showmanship (as seen in the above video from 1996). It was during part of this comeback tour, while in Japan, that Johnny "Guitar" Watson died from a heart attack while performing at the Yokohama Blues Cafe. He was only 61 years old.
Many of Watson's recordings are still available, but there are two choice releases that capture the two most productive periods of his career.
The Very Best of Johnny "Guitar" Watson has 18 of Watson's best blues tracks spanning from the early 50's to the early 60's, including "Space Guitar," "Hot Little Mama," "Gangster of Love," "Those Lonely Lonely Nights," two versions of "Motor Head Baby," and "Three Hours Past Midnight." The only track not here that I really wish had been included was his scorching "Hit The Highway," which has been covered by Robert Cray (on his Bad Influence album), and, most recently, but the Andy T - Nick Nixon Band (on their 2013 release, Drink Drank Drunk). There have been several compilations of this music, but the Rhino set is the best overall package, and features informative liner notes from music biographer David Ritz.
The Funk Anthology traces Watson's soul/R&B/funk years from 1970 to his last release in 1994. While maybe not every blues fan's cup of tea, there is some great, fun music here that really captures the era, with Watson taking his guitar chops (influenced by T-Bone Walker, Gatemouth Brown, and others) and his strong vocal style and mixing it in with jazz, R&B, soul, disco, funk, and whatever else could fit in the pot. This is a two-disc set that pretty much has all his must-hear material from this productive period in his career. When you hear it, you will see clearly the number of artists he influenced in modern R&B. This set also features excellent liner notes from Ritz, who should really consider writing a full-fledged biography about Watson in the future.