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In the ’50s, Modern Records was home to B.B. King and Etta James. In 1954, its legendary A&R director, Joe Bihari, went to the movies with Watson to catch Johnny Guitar, a Nicholas Ray Western starring Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden. The movie inspired the Los Angeles guitarist to modify his own stage name. “It sounded like sort of an outlaw or gangster name, but he was a good guy, like Lone Ranger, you dig?” he told interviewer Jas Obrecht.
Modern had started a blues subsidiary in Los Angeles called RPM. Bihari and his brother signed the newly dubbed Johnny “Guitar” Watson to the label, and in 1955 he gave them a hit with his cover of Earl King’s “Those Lonely, Lonely Nights.” The E% tune opens with an unaccompanied B% guitar arpeggio, played at the first fret with a raw electric tone that must have been either a revelation or heresy in the mid ’50s. The solo consists almost entirely of one note: screaming E% triplets hammered home over the 12/8 ballad groove. It’s no wonder a 16-year-old Frank Zappa had his mind blown. “He worked that one note to death,” Zappa told Obrecht in 1982. “If you were playing the rhythm-and-blues circuit, you had to learn to play that solo note-for-note.”
Watson took off on tour with Eddie Jones, aka “Guitar Slim,” learning the art of showmanship from the man who inspired Jimi Hendrix. The two guitarists would ride on each other’s shoulders out into the audience, trailing 30-foot cords. On the Chitlin’ Circuit, playing behind your back and with your teeth was part of the two players’ performances a dozen years before Hendrix introduced these tricks to young white audiences.
Bihari’s experimentation with then-new double-tracking studio techniques allowed Watson to play both guitar and piano on sides like “Someone Cares for Me,” “Ruben,” and “Three Hours Past Midnight.” The latter is a stunning slow-blues guitar workout based on B.B. King’s 1951 interpretation of the Lowell Fulson tune “3 O’Clock Blues.” Watson’s use of his thumb instead of a pick gives the notes a snappier sound than King’s plectrum-driven style, while his “ice-pick” tone also lent the record a very different mood than the smoother King version. This side also enticed Zappa, who reportedly played the song three times a day on the jukebox at a local restaurant during his school lunch hour.
In 1955, once again without a record deal, Watson performed on package tours with all the stars of the day, including Sam Cooke, B.B. King, Louis Jordan, Little Richard, Jackie Wilson, the Shirelles, Ben E. King, and the Coasters.