Johnny "Guitar" Watson

b. 3 February 1935, Houston, Texas, USA. Before Watson made a name for himself in the '70s playing funk R&B, he had a long career going back to the early '50s. Watson's father played piano, which also became Watson'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 one 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, which is 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 way 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 & 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 label in 1955, he immediately hit 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 Steve Miller) 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. Watson did not return to the charts until 1962, when on the King label he hit with Cuttin' In (US R&B number 6), which was recorded with strings accompaniment. The following year he recorded I CRIED FOR YOU, a ‘cocktail-lounge’ album with hip renditions of Polkadots And Moonbeams and Witchcraft. The Beatles invasion signified hard times for the inventors of rock ‘n roll. Watson cut two soulful funk albums for the Fantasy label (LISTEN and I DON'T WANT TO BE ALONE, STRANGER) with keyboardist Andre Lewis (later to tour with Frank Zappa). As if to repay his enthusiasm for Watson's guitar playing, of which Zappa had often said was amongst his favourite, 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 rockin’ R&B, Hollywood schmaltz and futuristic funk. Watson produced, played bass, keyboards and drums. It went gold, and a further six albums appeared on DJM to the same formula. In 1981 he quit 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 the hilarious STRIKE ON COMPUTERS at the end of the '80s and an appearance at London's Town & Country Club in 1987. Apart from cameo appearances on Frank Zappa albums, Watson seems to have retired: this is a shame because dance music can always use his innovative production and uniquely humorous approach.



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