Johnny "Guitar" Watson Biography

3 February 1935, Houston, Texas, USA, d. 17 May 1996, Yokohama, Japan. Before Watson made a name for himself in the 70s playing funk R&B, he had a long career stretching back to the early 50s. His father played piano, which also became Johnny’s first instrument. On seeing Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown perform, he convinced himself that he had to play guitar. He inherited a guitar from his grandfather, a sanctified preacher, on the condition that he did not play the blues on it - ‘that was the first thing I played’, Watson later said. In the early 50s his family moved to Los Angeles, where he started playing piano in the Chuck Higgins band and was billed as ‘Young John Watson’. Switching to guitar, he was signed to Federal and recorded ‘Space Guitar’, an instrumental far ahead of its time in the use of reverberation and feedback. He also played ‘Motorhead Baby’ with an enthusiasm that was to become his trademark. He recorded the same track for Federal with the Amos Milburn band in tow. Watson became in demand as a guitarist and in the late 50s toured and recorded with the Olympics, Don And Dewey and Little Richard.

Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson was from the same mould of flamboyance that motivated another of Little Richard’s guitarists, Jimi Hendrix. Watson later stated: ‘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!’. Moving to the Modern Records label in 1955, he had immediate success with a bluesy ballad, ‘Those Lonely, Lonely Nights’ (US R&B Top 10), but failed to follow up on the label. In 1957 the novelty tune ‘Gangster Of Love’ (later adopted by the Steve Miller Band) gave him a minor hit on the west coast. A partnership with Larry Williams was particularly successful and in 1965 they toured England and recorded an album for Decca Records. Watson did not return to the charts until 1962, when on the King Records label he hit with ‘Cuttin’ In’ (US R&B number 6), which was recorded with string accompaniment. The following year he recorded I Cried For You, a ‘cocktail-lounge’ album with hip renditions of ‘Polka Dots And Moonbeams’ and ‘Witchcraft’. The Beatles invasion signified hard times for the inventors of rock ‘n’ roll. Watson recorded two soulful funk albums for the Fantasy Records label (Listen and I Don’t Want To Be Alone, Stranger) with keyboard player Andre Lewis (who later toured with Frank Zappa). As if to repay his enthusiasm for Watson’s guitar playing, which Zappa had often admitted to admiring, Watson was recruited for Zappa’s One Size Fits All in 1975.

In 1976 Watson released Ain’t That A Bitch on DJM Records, a brilliant marriage of 50s rocking R&B, Hollywood schmaltz and futuristic funk. Watson produced, played bass, keyboards and drums on the album, which went gold; a further six albums appeared on DJM to the same formula. In 1981 he left the label for A&M Records, but the production diluted Watson’s unique sound and the record was a failure. One positive side effect was a characteristic solo on Herb Alpert’s Beyond. Watson retired to lick his wounds, emerging with Strike On Computers at the end of the 80s and an appearance at London’s Town & Country Club in 1987. In the 90s his music was sampled by Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre, and the album Bow Wow made the US charts. Watson died of a heart attack on 17 May 1996 while performing at the Yokohama Blues Cafe in Japan.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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