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Johnny "Guitar" Watson
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Johnny "Guitar" Watson

Johnny "Guitar" Watson (February 3, 1935 - May 17, 1996) was an American Blues and Funk guitarist/singer.

Early life

John Watson, Jr. was born in Houston, Texas. His father John Sr. was a pianist, and taught his son the instrument. But young Watson was immediately attracted to the sound of the guitar, in particular the electric guitar as practiced by the "axe men" of Texas: T-Bone Walker and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown.
His grandfather, a preacher, was also musical. "My grandfather used to sing while he'd play guitar in church, man," Watson reflected many years later. When Johnny was 11, his grandfather offered to give him a guitar if, and only if, the boy didn't play any of the "devil's music"--blues. Watson agreed, but "that was the first thing I did." A musical prodigy, Watson played with Texas bluesmen Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland.
His parents separated in 1950, when he was 15. His mother moved to Los Angeles, and took Johnny with her.
In his new city, Watson won several local talent shows. This led to his employment, while still a teenager, with Jump blues style bands such as Chuck Higgins's Mellotones and Amos Milburn. He worked as a vocalist, pianist, and guitarist.
He quickly made a name for himself in the African-American juke joints of the West Coast, where he was billed as "Young John Watson" until 1954. That year, he saw the Sterling Hayden film "Johnny Guitar," and a new stage name was born.
He affected a swaggering, yet humorous personality, indulging a taste for flashy clothes and wild showmanship on stage. His "attacking" style of playing, without a plectrum, resulted in him often needing to change the strings on his guitar once or twice a show, because he "stressified on them" so much, as he put it.

Early career

His seminal blues album Gangster of Love was recorded in 1953 or '54, and first released on Keen Records (his labelmates included Sam Cooke) in 1957. It was not especially heralded at the time - the title song in particular was deemed too fast, too raw, and too witty, especially compared to the likes of the then-kingpins of blues Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. Watson's ferocious "Space Guitar" of 1954 pioneered guitar feedback and reverb. Watson would later influence a subsequent generation guitarists. Frank Zappa, for example, would cite Watson as one of his all-time favourite guitarists.

He toured and recorded with his friend Larry Williams, as well as Little Richard, Don & Dewey, The Olympics , Johnny Otis and, in the mid 1970's with David Axelrod. He also played with Sam Cooke, Herb Alpert and George Duke. But as the popularity of blues declined and the era of soul music ascended in the 1960s, Watson, in his inimitable style, transformed himself from the southern blues singer with pompadour into the urban soul singer with pimp hat. He went all out - the gold teeth, broad-brimmed hats, fly suits, designer sunglasses, and ostentatious jewellery made him one of the most colorful figures in the West Coast funk circle.

He modified his music accordingly. His LPs Ain't That a Bitch (from which the successful singles Superman Lover and I Need It were taken) and Real Mother For Ya were landmark recordings of '70s funk. "Telephone Bill" (on Love Jones 1980) featured complex, rapid-fire lyrics that foreshadowed rap music. His subsequent LPs employed and popularized the modern "computer sound"

In his exhaustively researched book Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke (2005), Peter Guralnick claims that Watson was an actual pimp, as well as a performer. Watson himself, however, reportedly felt "ambivalent" about prostituting women, even though it "paid better" than music.

Later career

The shooting death of his friend Larry Williams in 1980 and other personal setbacks led to Watson briefly withdrawing from the spotlight in the Eighties. "I got caught up with the wrong people doing the wrong things", he was quoted as saying by the New York Times. Nevertheless, a series of summer appearances in France resulted in his becoming known there as the "Godfather of Funk".
The release of his album Bow Wow in 1994 brought Watson more visibility and chart success than he had ever known. The album received a Grammy nomination, and retrospective releases of his work showered him with critical acclaim.
In a 1994 interview with David Ritz for liner notes to The Funk Anthology, Watson was asked if his 1980 song "Telephone Bill" anticipated rap music. "Anticipated?" Watson replied. "I damn well invented it!... And I wasn't the only one. Talking rhyming lyrics to a groove is something you'd hear in the clubs everywhere from Macon to Memphis. Man, talking has always been the name of the game. When I sing, I'm talking in melody. When I play, I'm talking with my guitar. I may be talking trash, baby, but I'm talking".
In 1995, he was given a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation in a presentation and performance ceremony at the Hollywood Palladium.
In February 1995, Watson was interviewed by Tomcat Mahoney on his Brooklyn, New York-based Blues radio show, The Other Half, on WNYE FM. Watson discussed his influences and those he influenced at length with Tomcat, referencing Guitar Slim, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
He made a special guest appearance on Bo Diddley's 1996 album A Man Amongst Men, playing vocoder on the track "I Can't Stand It" and on vocals on the track "Bo Diddley Is Crazy".
His international bookings soared. Back home, his music was sampled by Redman (He based his Sooperman Luva saga on Johnny "Guitar" Watson's Superman Lover song),Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Jay-Z, and Mary J. Blige. He sometimes would enter the studio with rappers, at their request. Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre borrowed P-Funk's adaptation of Watson's catchphrase "Bow Wow Wow yippi-yo yippi-yay" for Snoop's hit "What's My Name".
"Johnny was always aware of what was going on around him", recalled Susan Maier Watson (later to become the musician's wife) in an interview printed in the liner notes to the Collectables album The Very Best of Johnny 'Guitar' Watson. "He was proud that he could change with the times and not get stuck in the past".
Watson died on stage May 17, 1996, while on tour in Yokohama, Japan. According to eyewitness reports, he collapsed mid guitar solo. His last words were "ain't that a bitch", probably in reference to his song of the same name. His remains were brought home for internment at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.

 Influence

Watson has been compared to Jimi Hendrix and allegedly became irritated when asked about this comparison, supposedly stating: "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." - although he did have an overly long lead, standing on his hands and "getting on top of the auditorium" were not features of Hendrix' act with the 'Jimi Hendrix Experience'. Hendrix did not cover "Gangster of Love." This is one of many tracks released by Johnny Brantley that he incorrectly attributed to be Hendrix. It is in fact a Jimmy Norman single.
T-bone Walker's wild stage persona in the 1940s and Charlie Patton in the early 1930s are just two examples of many previous performers in the African American music tradition to use acrobatic tricks while playing the guitar. It is accurate to say that guitar tricks are certainly not of Watson's invention. This performance style has been linked to so many different artists that it is impossible to give credit.
Frank Zappa stated that "Watson's 1956 song 'Three Hours Past Midnight' inspired me to become a guitarist." Watson contributed to Zappa's albums One Size Fits All (1975), Them or Us (1984), Thing-Fish (1984) and Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention (1985). Zappa also named "Three Hours Past Midnight" his favorite record in a 1979 interview.
Steve Miller not only did a cover of "Gangster of Love," he made a reference to it in his 1969 song "Space Cowboy" ("Don't you know that I'm a gangster of love ") as well as his 1973 hit song "The Joker" ("Some call me the gangster of love").
Sly Stone was influenced by Watson growing up, and later they became friends.
Jimmie Vaughan, brother of Stevie Ray Vaughan, is quoted as saying: "When my brother Stevie and I were growing up in Dallas, we idolized very few guitarists. We were highly selective and highly critical. Johnny 'Guitar' Watson was at the top of the list, along with Freddie, Albert and B.B. King. He made magic."
Elvis Costello's bootleg 1984 album is titled "The Gangster Is Back," a nod to Watson's 1975 album of the same title, which was also a bootleg compilation.
Bobby Womack: "Music-wise, he was the most dangerous gunslinger out there. Even when others made a lot of noise in the charts - I'm thinking of Sly Stone or George Clinton - you know they'd studied Johnny's stage style and listened very carefully to Johnny's grooves."
Near the end of his career, Watson toured with the O'Jays.
Etta James stated in an interview at the 2006 Rochester Jazz Festival: “Johnny "Guitar" Watson... Just one of my favorite singers of all time. I first met him when we were both on the road with Johnny Otis in the ‘50s, when I was a teenager. We traveled the country in a car together so I would hear him sing every night. His singing style was the one I took on when I was 17 – people used to call me the female Johnny 'Guitar' Watson and him the male Etta James... He knew what the blues was all about...” Etta James is also quoted as saying: "I got everything from Johnny... He was my main model... My whole ballad style comes from my imitating Johnny's style... He was the baddest and the best... Johnny Guitar Watson was not just a guitarist: the man was a master musician. He could call out charts; he could write a beautiful melody or a nasty groove at the drop of a hat; he could lay on the harmonies and he could come up with a whole sound. They call Elvis the King; but the sure-enough King was Johnny 'Guitar' Watson."
Most recently, Talib Kweli's song "Hot Thing", produced by Will.i.am samples the song "We're No Exception", from Watson's 1976 album Ain't That a Bitch.
In Scottish writer Irvine Welsh's novel Glue, there is a character named Johnny Watson, a guitarist who is given the nickname Johnny "Guitar" Waston.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2007

www.myspace.com/johnnyguitarwatson

 

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