Reference Entry

Watson, Johnny “Guitar”

Ulrich Adelt

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Watson, Johnny “Guitar”

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singer, guitarist, and pianist, was born John Watson in Houston, Texas. His father taught him to play piano. At age eleven he inherited his first guitar from his grandfather, a preacher, who told him not to use it for playing blues. However, as Watson later admitted, that was the first thing he played. His early influences were T-Bone Walker and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. As a teenager he made a name for himself in the Houston blues scene, playing with blues guitarists Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland and winning talent contests hosted by singer Johnny Otis. Watson left for Los Angeles when he was fifteen years old.In the 1950s Watson became one of the most exciting blues guitarists on the West Coast. He played piano and sang on the saxophonist Chuck Higgins's “Motorhead Baby” in 1952 and signed his first record contract as Young John Watson one year later. His jump-blues piano playing and laid-back singing style were quite exceptional, but he did not make a lasting impact until he switched to guitar, changing his name to Johnny “Guitar” Watson after Nicholas Ray's movie western Johnny Guitar (1954) with Sterling Hayden. This ironic adaptation of Old West lore is also evident in the witty “Gangster of Love,” which Watson originally cut in 1957 and successfully re-recorded in 1978. The twelve-bar blues features Watson rapping about himself putting “bad cats” such as Jesse James to shame; it became his signature song for years to come.Watson's guitar technique, evident on 1950s tracks like “Space Guitar” and “Hot Little Mama,” would influence players such as Ike Turner, Bo Diddley, and, ultimately, Jimi Hendrix. Watson did not use a guitar pick: he employed low-slung strings that he slapped against the fretboard and effects such as reverb, feedback, and later, wah-wah. Rock guitarist Frank Zappa, who hired Watson to sing on his albums One Size Fits All (1975) and Them Or Us (1984), called Watson's style “razor-blade totin' guitar.” When playing live, Watson emphasized showmanship, using his teeth or playing the guitar behind his back. In an interview with Guitar Player magazine in 1982 Watson recalled how, using long guitar-amp cords, he would make his entrance into the clubs carrying fellow bluesman Guitar Slim on his shoulders, both musicians rapidly firing away on their guitars.Ironically Watson had his first Top 10 hit on the R&B charts in 1955 with a cover of Earl King's slow piano ballad “Those Lonely, Lonely Nights.” In 1962 he hit the R&B charts again with the string-accompanied “Cuttin' In.” The 1960s saw Watson trying out different musical personas and showcasing his versatility with dwindling success. Watson played piano on a few jazz albums and went to Europe for rock and roll shows with Larry Williams. For these shows he was erroneously billed as “Elvis Presley's private guitar player” and invented stories about Presley to gain publicity. Watson's songwriting talents paid off when his “Mercy Mercy Mercy” became a Top 5 hit for the Buckinghams in 1967.Watson's most successful reinvention came in the 1970s when, at age forty-one, he turned himself into a pimped-up funkster, replete with skintight suit, Panama hat, Afro haircut, feather boa, and gold rings and teeth. Watson had dabbled in some soul music when recording I Don't Want to Be Alone, Stranger for Fantasy Records in 1975, but the audiences in Europe still demanded the blues he had played in the 1950s. However, Watson's two funk albums Ain't That a Bitch (1976) and A Real Mother for Ya (1977) for DJM records signaled a huge comeback in the United States, striking a chord with black audiences back home. Both albums went gold, hitting both the R&B and pop charts. Watson's new sound was clearly influenced by funk musicians such as George Clinton and Sly Stone and featured heavy bass lines, horn arrangements, and Watson's characteristic choppy, heavily reverbed wah-wah guitar. The playfully ironic vocals of songs such as “Ain't That a Bitch,” “I Want to Ta-Ta You Baby,” and “I Need It” commented on the recession of the 1970s (by which African Americans were hit particularly hard) and humorously boasted about Watson's sexual abilities in “Superman Lover.” In relating to relevant issues in such a current fashion, critics argued that the blues-playing Watson had gained the allegiance of a young and predominantly African American disco-listening audience.Watson continued to record successful funk albums for DJM, scoring R&B hits with What the Hell Is This? (1979), Love Jones (1980), and the rap song “Telephone Bill” (1980). After switching to A&M Records and releasing the album Strike on Computers (1984), Watson once again slipped into obscurity. He had drug problems and toured in Europe, earning the tag “Godfather of Funk” in France. His lasting impact, however, could be heard in the recordings of hip-hop artists such as Ice Cube, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and Dr. Dre, who sampled Watson's music. After a recording hiatus of almost ten years, he returned with Bow Wow in 1994, another funk album. In the opening track he declared: “Johnny G. Is Back!” The album was nominated for a Grammy as Best Contemporary Blues Album and spawned the notable R&B hit “Hook Me Up,” which introduced Watson to a new generation of funk fans. Watson also received the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, an organization providing funding for black performers cheated of their royalties. On 17 May 1996 Watson suffered a heart attack onstage in Yokohama, Japan, and died later on the same day. He was survived by his mother, his wife, and two children. Watson's main contributions to popular music and African American history were his pioneering guitar work and his mixing of blues and funk, updating the former with a cocky attitude and irresistible disco rhythms.

Reference Entry.  1024 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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