Johnny “Guitar” Watson


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photograph of Johnny 'Guitar' Watson

Johnny "Guitar" Watson (February 3, 1935 - May 17, 1996) was an American musician whose long career influenced the development of blues, soul music, rhythm & blues, funk, rock music, and rap music.

John Watson, Jr. was born February 3, 1935 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 practiced by the "axe men" of Texas: 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"--blues. 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 Johnny 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 was billed as "Young John Watson" until 1954. That year, he saw the Sterling Hayden film "Johnny Guitar," and a new handle was born.

He affected a swaggering, yet humorous personality, indulging a taste for flashy clothes and wild showmanship on stage. His attack 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.

His seminal blues album "Gangster of Love" was recorded in 1953 or 54, and first released on Sam Cooke's Keen Records in 1957. It was not especially heralded at the time--the title song in particular was too fast, too raw, and too witty, especially compared to the likes of the then-kingpins of blues Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. Watson's ferocious "Space Guitar" of 1954 pioneered guitar feedback and reverb. (He played it without a pick.) Watson would later influence a subsequent generation of white pop musicians, especially guitarists, who struggled to master the Hendrix-like complexity of Watson's technique.

He toured and recorded with good friend Larry Williams, as well as Little Richard, Don & Dewey, The Olympics, and Johnny Otis. He also played with Sam Cooke, Herb Alpert and George Duke. But as the fortunes of blues declined and the era of soul music ascended in the 1960s, Watson in his inimicable style transformed himself from a southern blues singer with a pompadour into an urban soul singer with a pimp hat. He went all out--gold teeth, broad-brimmed hats, fly suits, designer shades, and bling made him one of the most colorful figures in the West Coast funk circle.

He modified his music accordingly. LPs like "Ain't That a Bitch" and "Real Mother For Ya" were landmark recordings in 70's funk. (Watson appeared on the cover of "Real Mother For Ya" sitting in a soapbox Rolls-Royce pushed by his mother.) "Telephone Bill" (on "Love Jones," 1980) featured complex, rapid-fire lyrics that foreshadowed rap music. His subsequent LPs employed "the computer sound," and popularized it.

In his exhaustively researched book "Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke" (2005), Peter Guralnick claims that Watson was an actual pimp, as well as a performer! However, Watson felt "ambivalent" about macking girls, even though it paid better than music.

The shooting death of his friend Larry Williams in 1980 and other personal setbacks led to Watson briefly withdrawing from the spotlight in the Eighties. "I got caught up with the wrong people doing the wrong things," he was quoted as saying by the New York Times. Nevertheless, a series of summer appearances in France resulted in his becoming known there as the "Godfather of Funk."

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 nomination, and retrospective releases of his work showered him with critical acclaim.

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.

His international bookings soared. Back home, his music was sampled by Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige. He sometimes would enter the studio with rappers, at their request. 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 Collectables 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 on stage May 17, 1996, while on tour in Yokohama, Japan. His remains were brought home for internment at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
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1935-02-03 to 1996-05-17

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