May 17, 1996 – Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson was born on February 3rd 1935 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 played by 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”. Watson agreed, but later said “that was the first thing I did, play the devil’s music”. A musical prodigy, he 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 Watson with her. From there his musical career took him through the entire genre field of blues, soul music, rhythm & blues, funk, rock music, and hip-hop music.
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 first recorded for Federal Records in 1952. He was billed as Young John Watson until 1954. That year, he saw the Joan Crawford film Johnny Guitar, and a new stage name was born.
Watson 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. Guitar Watson’s ferocious “Space Guitar” of 1954 pioneered guitar feedback and reverb, which later influenced a subsequent generation of 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 undergroound composer/performer 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 effortlessly from the southern blues singer with pompadour into the urban soul singer with a pimp hat. His new style was emphatic – the gold teeth, broad-brimmed hats, flashy suits, fashionable outsized sunglasses and ostentatious jewelry made him one of the most colorful figures in the West Coast funk scene.
He modified his music accordingly. His albums 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 1970s funk. “Telephone Bill”, from the 1980 album Love Jones, featured Watson rapping.
The shooting death of his friend Larry Williams in 1980 and other personal setbacks led to Watson briefly withdrawing from the spotlight in the 1980s. “I got caught up with the wrong people doing the wrong things”, he was quoted as saying by the New York Times.
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 Award nomination.
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 for his Brooklyn, New York-based blues radio show The Other Half. Watson discussed at length his influences and those he had influenced, 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 singing on the track “Bo Diddley Is Crazy”.
His music was sampled by Redman (who based his “Sooperman Luva” saga on Watson’s “Superman Lover” song), Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Jay-Z, and Mary J. Blige. 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 also played the guitar on the G-Funk remix of Dr. Dre’s Grammy award winning single Let Me Ride in 1993.
“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 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 of a myocardial infarction on May 17, 1996, collapsing on stage while on tour in Yokohama, Japan. According to eyewitness reports, he collapsed in the midst of a guitar solo and his famous last words were “ain’t that a bitch“. He was 61.