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Forgotten Heroes: Johnny "Guitar" Watson

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Forgotten Heroes: Johnny "Guitar" Watson

Known for flamboyant picking, Watson moved from his early ‘50s Fender Strat to playing Gibsons, including the ES-125, Explorer, ES-335, ES-347, and SGs. Photo by Klaus Hiltscher/Affendaddy

The James Gang
If English publisher Dick James’ name sounds familiar, it is because his company, DJM, handled copyrights for the Beatles and Elton John in the ’60s. In 1976, legendary British blues producer Mike Vernon (Bluesbreakers, Fleetwood Mac) introduced Watson to James, who promptly signed the guitarist and gave him complete creative control. For his DJM debut, Watson overdubbed most of the instruments himself, save for co-producer Emry Thomas’ drumming. The result, Ain’t That a Bitch, went gold, and the second stage of Watson’s career took off.

The title tune is essentially a blues number dressed up with some funk flourishes. The record also yielded “I Need It,” a dance hit on both sides of the Atlantic. At first, that tune sounds like Earth, Wind & Fire gone disco, but eventually Watson’s guitar enters to play the melody followed by a few tasteful riffs. At the time, this is how Watson explained his style to Blues and Soul Magazine: “I guess you would call it progressive R&B—almost a blues approach [to] pop music,” he said. “Superman Lover” also featured a rare wah-wah solo and became a staple of Watson’s live shows.

The 1977 follow-up, A Real Mother for Ya, also went gold. Once again, Watson played everything but drums and horns. The title tune is a real guitar workout over synth bass and drums, with just a taste of talk box thrown in. With back-to-back successes, the Watson finally put the lie to Tom Vickers’ 1977 assertion in Soul and Jazz Record magazine that he had “more gold in his teeth than on his wall.” The follow-up, Funk Beyond the Call of Duty, featured Watson wielding his Gibson Explorer on the cover. It sold respectably but failed to go gold despite solid tunes and a classic Watson solo on “Barn Door.” For “It’s a Damn Shame,” he even sang along with his solo—long before the world at large had heard of George Benson.

Next came Giant, which was ostensibly geared to the European market. It was all over the map: Disco tunes like “Tu Jours Amour” [sic] and “Guitar Disco” butt up against yet another rocking remake of “Gangster of Love” and a cover of War’s “Baby Face (She Said Do Do DoDo),” while “Miss Frisco (Queen of the Disco)” was a fantastic funk-guitar workout.

Love Jones from 1980 is remembered largely for “Telephone Bill,” a spoken-word tune that is considered to have “anticipated” rap. “Anticipated? I damn well invented it!” Watson claimed to interviewer David Ritz in a 1994 interview in the liner notes to The Funk Anthology. Guitarists may be less interested in that than in the terrific, bebop-infused licks in Watson’s outro solo—which includes a quote of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts.”

On his next effort, Johnny “Guitar” Watson and the Family Clone, the guitarist pays tribute to Sly Stone only in that he plays every instrument. The good news is that his tone is a warm and natural improvement over the previous two records, which were effects heavy, and “Rio Dreamin’” features a rare jazzy acoustic solo. The bad news is that DJM had run out of promotion money, so it was time for Watson to move on. A guest guitar spot on Herb Alpert’s Beyond record in 1980 led to a deal with Alpert’s A&M records, and the first release, That’s What Time It Is, was the first record in many years that Watson had not produced himself. The result was minimal guitar, and what there was reverted to the thin, direct sound of Love Jones.

After A&M rejected three self-produced efforts, Watson found himself without a label again. The disappointment, combined with the murders of his friends Larry Williams and Marvin Gaye, found the performer spending much of the ’80s in a downward spiral of drugs. (In his 1996 New York Times obituary on Watson’s life, Lawrence Van Gelder quoted the guitarist as saying: “I got up with the wrong people doing the wrong things.”) He managed to release the lessthan- stellar Strike on Computers for Valley Vue records in 1984, but it did little to revive his career—not to mention, the title tune was out of character for a man who had spent his life embracing new technology. Though he was still able to tour Europe, Watson virtually disappeared from the recording world for a decade. His flame was kept alive by the respect peers who covered many of his songs. Robert Cray recorded “Don’t Touch Me,” while Albert Collins and Gary Moore made “Too Tired” famous on the blues circuit. Even the French pop star Johnny Hallyday got in on the action, recording surprisingly soulful versions of “Cuttin’ In” and “Sweet Lovin’ Mama.”

The Final Bow
By 1994, Watson had gotten rid of the “wrong people” referenced in Van Gelder’s obit, and he cleaned himself up and started writing again. The resulting record, Bow Wow, was more than a return to form— “My Funk” featured a heavily distorted solo (a first for Watson) that was as good as anything he ever recorded. The opening track, “Johnny G. Is Back,” offers a killer phased solo reminiscent of a hyper Eric Gale, as well as the opening lyric, “Where has he been?” Watson then answers the question himself by name-checking Al Bell, the famous Stax records executive. Wary of record labels, Watson had started his own— Wilma Records (which was named after his mother)—and Bell had agreed to distribute the first release, Bow Wow, through his Bellmark imprint. Bell obviously made the right decision: The record hit the R&B charts and was nominated for a Grammy in the Contemporary Blues category that year.

Recognition, and eventually money, started coming as well, including from hiphop artists who liberally sampled Watson’s music. Redman based his “Sooperman Luva” on Watson’s “Superman Lover,” and marquee artists such as Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Jay-Z, and Mary J. Blige all appropriated elements of the original gangster’s music. In classic postmodern fashion, Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre borrowed P-Funk’s adaptation of Watson’s catchphrase “Bow Wow Wow yippi-yo yippiyay” for Snoop’s hit “What’s My Name.”

The success of Bow Wow allowed the guitarist/singer/songwriter/producer to tour in style, mostly in Europe and Japan. It was on tour in Japan in May of 1996 that Johnny “Guitar” Watson died as he had lived—in performance. At the Ocean Boulevard Blues Café in Yokohama, Watson had begun singing “Superman Lover” when he collapsed with his hand to his chest. He was pronounced dead of a heart attack at 9:16 p.m. on May 17, 1996.

Watson lived to receive the prestigious Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation in February of that year. It was justly deserved—John Watson Jr.’s take-no-prisoners style had indeed helped pioneer the role of electric guitar in modern pop music. But as impressive as that is, it would be unfair to his brilliance to limit his legacy to his earliest achievements. His playing continued developing until the end, and his unique take on funk still influences musicians every day.

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