The original gangster

By Sergio Ariza

Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson is one of those men who has fallen unjustly into oblivion. In the 50s he took his guitar into space with his innovative flashy style, without the need for a pick he found a vocal sound in the best tradition of Texan blues, by making his guitar sing. In the 60s he was crowned the gangster of love and the 70s saw him as a funk icon. His fingerprint can be seen on a variety of people like Etta James, Frank Zappa, Prince, Hendrix and Steve Miller, but Watson never attained the fame of his admirers.

John Watson Jr. was born February 3, 1935 in Houston, Texas. His father was a professional pianist and he taught the boy how to play it, his grandfather was a preacher who played the guitar and promised to get him one as long as he stayed away from the “devil’s music. Young Watson got his guitar but the first notes he played were pure blues in the style of his hero Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown. The devil had won the game. Before he was 15 he was playing with future stars from the Texas scene such as Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland but, beyond Brown, the man who left a mark on him in these early days was T-Bone Walker, from whom he learned all the theatrical tricks possible, like playing behind his back, and with his teeth.

In 1950 he moved to Los Angeles with his mother and began to make a name for himself on the local scene. At the time his main instrument was the piano and lived the bebop explosion in California, seeing giants like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. According to his memories at the time, jazz and blues were two communicating vessels.  

In 1952 he debuted Motorhead Baby in the studio with Chuck Higgins’ band, playing the piano and singing. A year later he signed with the Federal label, where he was baptised as Young John Watson, but the true start of his career, and perhaps his biggest contribution to the music world was when he replaced the instrument that he was taught by his father with the one taught by his grandfather. In 1954, with the guitar hanging off his shoulder, he recorded the revolutionary Space Guitar, an instrumental 10 years, at least, ahead of its time. With just under 20 years of age, he displayed all his talent, fiercely attacking the strings, without a pick, and he was pioneering the use of ‘reverb’ and ‘feedback’, although there was no such thing as the latter at the time. His experimentation with reverb achieved completely alien sounds for the 50s, becoming one of the most significant pieces in the development of the electric guitar, influencing diverse people like Hank Marvin of the Shadows, Frank Zappa, one of his biggest followers, Jimi Hendrix and Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth.

However, despite the cult classic status that the song has now, it went unnoticed at the time and Federal let it go. In 1955 he signed up with RPM Records, the Bihari brothers label, where he proved he was one of the hottest blues guitar players in the world, thanks to such extraordinary things like Hot Little Mama and Those Lonely Nights, his first sales success, a song that contains an amazing solo with just one note that earned the praise of Zappa who called him “the original minimalist guitarist, someone who said everything with just one note. It was the beginning of his first big period, with songs like Three Hours Past Midnight, recorded in 1956, with another sharp solo by Watson. It was in these years when after seeing the film with Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden that he decided to add ‘Guitar’ to his name. Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson found his definitive nickname.  

The following year his love for western movies would move him to write his most famous song, Love Bandit, later on it was re-baptised as Gangster of Love, a song which led Watson to adopt a ‘gangsta’ image which made him famous in the 70s: “The Sheriff says, are you Guitar Watson (in a very deep voice), I say yes sir brother Sheriff, and that’s your wife on the back of my horse”. By then he had changed labels again, this time with Keen, something that was more common in the late 50s.

In these early years Watson opted for the stinging sound of Fenders, especially the Stratocaster, although he occasionally used a Telecaster. His style was sharp and aggressive, without a pick and used capos that allowed him to open tuning. While the studio didn’t produce great hits, onstage he was a real whirlwind, sharing tours with folks like Sam Cooke, B.B. King, Louis Jordan, Little Richard and Jackie Wilson. It was well known what he did with Eddie Jones, better known as Guitar Slim, where the two of them performed all the tricks with the guitar that Hendrix would popularise with white audiences many years later. It was also on one of these tours that he became the vocal model for young tornado Etta James, a singer who has always considered him as one of the greatest, showing that Watson was much more than a great guitarist.  
At the start of the 60s he had another commercial awakening when he signed with King Records, and recorded the irresistible blues ballad Cuttin’ In (1961) and made the definitive version of Gangster Of Love a year later. It would be that version which another of his disciples, Steve Miller would make his own.

However, in 1963 the popularity of the blues wasn’t at its highest among the black community in the USA, and soul was opening doors at a furious rate. The next year Johnny hooked up with Larry Williams, a singer who had great success in the early years of rock with songs like Bony Moronie and Dizzy Miss Lizzy, and even started their own label together. The best offers came from England where Williams’ songs were covered by bands of the ‘British Invasion’. They travelled there, where Williams sold ‘Guitar’ Watson by saying that he had been Elvis’ guitarist (a total lie). It worked well and they recorded some songs for Decca Records. In addition the sound was pure soul with sung versions of Mercy, Mercy, Mercy by Cannonball Adderley and For Your Love by the Yardbirds, and there wasn’t much room for Watson's guitar, a Martin F-65, which he preferred in the 60s. One of the funny things that happened in the late 60s was the collaboration between these two and the psychedelic group Kaleidoscope on a great single called Nobody.  

At the beginning of the 70s he once again showed his chameleon qualities, black music had evolved again towards a more torrid soul, closer to funk, with references to Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. In 1973 he signed with Fantasy and delivered Listen, a record very much of the time with extensive sensual jams like If I Had the Power. A couple of years later appeared the similar, I Don’t Want to Be Alone, Stranger. That same year, 1975, the man who said listening to Three Hours Past Midnight was what made him pick up the guitar, Frank Zappa, had the pleasure of having him on his record One Size Fits All, where Watson brings his voice to San Ber’dino and Andy. By that time the Gibsons had already come into his life, mainly the ES-335, and the ES-347, the guitars that would define his most successful sound of its time.


Then Watson’s success came all of a sudden in 1976, when his ‘Gangster of Love’ image became his trademark, a type of ‘cat’ very much in the vein of ‘blaxploitation’ of the times, with flashy suits, golden teeth and hats, pushing the ‘gangsta’ and pimp image of hip-hop. Musically he embraced the funk of George Clinton and Sly Stone, and put out Ain’t That a Bitch in 1976 and A Real Mother for Ya a year later under the label DJM. It was the 2nd peak of his career, with his Gibson delivering solos mixing the blues flavour with funk as on Superman Lover, using the wah wah, or the acoustic on Lover Jones.

The records kept coming, like Funk Beyond the Call of Duty and Love Jones, and Watson was still incorporating elements of the black music of the times, showing off his great ear, as when in 1980 he was one of the first to rap in a song, Telephone Bill. A number that unites hip-hop and bebop by finishing with a solo that quotes Salt Peanuts by Dizzy Gillespie. His influence in hip-hop would go further and over the years his music would be ‘sampled’ frequently, and one of his lines “bow wow wow yippie yo yippie yay” became a catch phrase for rappers like Snoop Doggie Dog.

After Strike On Computers in 1984 he fell into oblivion yet again, saved by covers of his mates who were fascinated by him like Robert Cray, Gary Moore and the Vaughan brothers. But in 1994 he came back with Bow Wow, a record that won him a Grammy. In May of 1996 he took the stage in Yokohama, Japan, on a tour with James Cotton. He started to play Superman Lover  and Watson gripped his guitar for what he was, “the most dangerous gunslinger there was out there(in Bobby Womack’s words), he began to play, but half way in he had a heart attack  and died right there with his boots on. He couldn’t have dreamed of a better ending, up on stage, doing what he was born to do. Even if the devil won the biggest game...