Born: February 3, 1935 in Houston TX
Died: May 17, 1996 in Yokohama, Japan
Often unheralded, but seldom underrated, Johnny "Guitar" Watson took the guitar from its humble blues music roots and shot it straight into the stratosphere of electrifying space-funk. An innovative and imaginative guitarist, Watson was also a flamboyant showman. Watson's career ranged from the raw blues and R&B he pursued in the 1950s and '60s to the hardcore funk that he helped define in the 1970s. The range of artists inspired by Watson ranges from rockers like Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, and Prince to rappers and modern blues musicians.
Johnny "Guitar" Watson's Early Days
Watson was born in Houston, Texas and was originally taught the piano by his musician father. Inspired by Texas blues musicians like T-Bone Walker and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, the future fret wizard instead began playing the guitar at the young age of 11. A natural on the instrument, Watson performed alongside such Lone Star bluesmen as Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland while still a teen. In 1950, at the age of 15, his parents divorced and the young guitarist moved to Los Angeles with his mother.
Watson made an immediate splash on the West Coast club scene, where he was known as "Young John Watson," the young performer earning a reputation for his piano playing. Watson performed in several L.A. area jump blues bands, including those led by Amos Milburn and Chuck Higgins. By 1954, Watson had made the move over to guitar, taking on his "Guitar" nickname. The original axe-mangler, Watson usually played his guitar without a pick, attacking the strings so much that he had to change them several times throughout a show because, as Watson put it, he had "stressified on them."
Gangster Of Love
Watson signed with Federal Records in 1953, releasing his earliest sides for the label's King subsidiary. Still playing the piano at the time, Watson's first breakthrough was with the inventive six-string instrumental "Space Guitar;" the song's use of reverb and feedback was decades ahead of its time. Watson would go on to record for several labels like Keen, RPM, Chess, and Okeh throughout the 1950s and '60s, mixing blues and R&B on hits like "Gangster Of Love," "Three Hours Past Midnight," and "Cuttin' In."
Well into the 1960s, Watson toured and recorded with talents like Little Richard, Johnny Otis, and Sam Cooke, among others, effectively bridging the gap between soul music and rock & roll. Watson recorded several songs with his friend Larry Williams, the acclaimed rock/R&B songwriter and performer, the two scoring a hit with "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" in 1967. As blues music began to fall out of favor with African-American audiences during the '60s, the guitarist's music began moving more towards urban soul and away from its original Texas blues sound.
A Real Mother For Ya - The Funk Years
Watson's musical change in direction was completed during the 1970s as he literally became the "Gangster of Love." Clad in platform shoes, flashy clothing, and outrageous pimp hats, Watson began cranking out a scorching funk-rock hybrid sound that included elements of soul and blues music as its foundation. Beginning in 1976 with Ain't That A Bitch - Watson's first album to be certified Gold™ - the guitarist enjoyed a string of best-selling albums that included 1977's A Real Mother For Ya, 1978's Giant, and 1980's influential Love Jones.
These vinyl platters, and Watson songs like "Telephone Bill," its lyrics delivered with rhythmic spoken vocals, would prove to be of enormous influence on the fledgling hip-hop community. Rappers such as Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, and Jay-Z all sampled from Watson's influential funk albums in creating their own music.
When his friend Larry Williams was killed in 1980, Watson largely retreated from touring, save for an annual trek to France that led to his French audiences dubbing him the "Godfather of Funk." Watson recorded sporadically during the 1980s, but the 1994 release of his final album, Bow Wow, launched Watson back into the spotlight and he toured heavily until his death two years later. The album earned the artist a Grammy™ Award nomination, and in 1995 Watson received the "Pioneer Award" from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation.
Recommended Albums: Although The Funk Anthology covers Watson's groundbreaking 1970s-era funk, Space Guitar: The Essential Early Masters captures the guitarist's essential late-1950s and early-60s blues music and R&B sides, including the hit "Cuttin' In," the influential "Gangster Of Love," and the incredible instrumental "Space Guitar."