A Gangster Is Born
In 1957, Watson went into the studio for Keen Records to rework a piano-and-vocal demo called “Love Bandit” that he had recorded while at Modern Records. The resulting full-band version became “Gangster of Love.” Though sometimes touted as an early “rap” record—not the least by Watson himself—“Gangster” was more in the tradition of talking R&B as practiced by Louis Jordan and the Coasters. It was the beginning of an image makeover that would in later years evolve into early “gangsta,” decked out in “bling” and “pimpin’ the hos.” Once again Watson’s work proved more influential than lucrative. Though the song was not a hit at the time, it has been covered a lot since then. A version appears on a pre-Columbia Records Johnny Winter recording, but it was the one on Steve Miller’s Sailor that finally earned the struggling Texan some serious money.
As he engaged in more label-hopping for the next few years, Watson cut “Looking Back” in 1961 for Escort Records. That tune would be covered in England by both John Mayall—who credited Watson—and Spencer Davis, who didn’t. In 1961, thanks again to Johnny Otis, Watson ended up at Syd Nathan’s King Records, where he had an R&B Top 10 hit with a string-drenched slow blues tune called “Cuttin’ In.” His first and only full LP for King, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, packaged new material with remakes of tunes from earlier Watson records, including “Gangster of Love.” The failure of Johnny “Guitar” Watson to chart led the guitar slinger to Crown Records, where he briefly teamed up with blues legend Bobby “Blue” Bland for the rare recording 2 in Blues.
By 1963, the popularity of blues within the African American community was waning— and yet it still hadn’t fully caught on with the rock ’n’ roll generation. Watson attempted to revitalize his career in 1964 by teaming up with singer Larry Williams, who’d garnered fame with his cuts of “Bony Moronie” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy.” They even formed a label—Jola Records (later Jowat)—whose moniker combined letters from their first names, but their first album was released in England on Decca.
Williams introduced the relatively unknown Watson to the British press and public as “Elvis Presley’s guitarist.” Having successfully sold that fairy tale, the duo implied that their joint effort, The Larry Williams Show featuring Johnny “Guitar” Watson with the Stormsville Shakers, was a live recording. It was, in fact, recorded in the studio. Veracity aside, the pair’s R&B/ rock ’n’ roll sound went over well in England, prompting the American label Okeh to sign them. Commercial success was their goal, and to that end they were determined to keep up with the times. In 1967, they added vocals to the Cannonball Adderly hit instrumental “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” which was written by Joe Zawinul and later became a hit for American pop band the Buckinghams. Williams and and Watson also recorded a cool cover of the Yardbirds’ hit “For Your Love,” and in 1968 joined with the Kaleidoscope (a band that, at one point, featured a young David Lindley) for a sitar-driven piece of soul/ psychedelia called “Nobody.”
The duo became a big hit on the British Northern Soul circuit with tunes like “Two for the Price of One” and “Too Late,” but unfortunately for 6-string fans, this style of music required putting Watson’s distinctive guitar playing on the back burner.
Finding the Funk
The early ’70s found Watson picking up his guitar again, first as a session player for artists like keyboardist George Duke and his famous early idolizer Frank Zappa. Watson also knew the Adderlys—Cannonball and his brother Nat—because of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” and when the brothers formed their own production company they helped their friend get a deal with Fantasy Records in Berkeley, California.
Left alone to produce himself, Watson began forging a sound that suited the times: a combination of blues and slow-jamstyle funk—think Barry White and Bill Withers, and you’ve got the idea. Fantasy released Listen and I Don’t Want to Be Alone, Stranger, later combining them on CD as Lone Ranger. Both albums featured a lot of great guitar playing, though it was wrapped in a veneer of smooth soul. While white audiences had by then discovered Buddy Guy and the three Kings of blues (B.B., Freddie, and Albert), and were lapping up British blues rock, Watson was trying to keep the blues relevant to African Americans by combining it with the soul and funk sounds being heard in their communities. “Just because [blues] has been presented in a way that they can’t grasp doesn’t mean the love of blues isn’t there—it is,” Watson told Rolling Stone in 1976.
At this stage of his career, the flamboyant picker’s tone shifted from switchblade sharp to a warmer, more liquid and vocallike sound. He had forsaken his ’50s Fender Stratocaster and ’60s Martin F-65 electric for Gibsons, including ES-125, Explorer, ES-335, ES-347, and (in the ’90s) SG models. He also owned Fender Telecasters and Jazzmasters, as well as a Vega acoustic.
Fantasy’s promotion of Listen left Watson wanting, leading him to hire his own independent promoter, who propelled a single from the record into the Top 20 of the R&B charts. The momentum helped his next release, I Don’t Want to Be Alone, Stranger, sell nearly half a million copies. While at Fantasy, Watson added guitar to records by trumpeters Nat Adderly and Freddie Hubbard, and used the studio time afforded him there to hone his production skills. He even got gigs producing records for Percy Mayfield and Betty Everett. By 1975, Watson was label-less again. But he was still productive, partnering with singer Lenny Williams to compose “Don’t Change Horses (In the Middle of the Stream)” for Tower of Power.