Johnny "Guitar" Watson
1935 - 1996

"Watson took the possibilities of the blues guitar to the edge and this edge was
Jimi Hendrix's starting point."

Born John Watson in Houston, TX, February 3, 1935; died on stage of a heart attack, May 17, 1996, in Yokohama, Japan; married Susan Maier; two children: son DeJohn and daughter Virginia.

Performing artist, guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter, early 1950s-1996; moved with family to Los Angeles, ca. 1950; played in West Coast jazz and blues bands, 1950-53; signed to Federal label, 1953; released experimental instrumental single "Space Jam," 1953; released single "Gangster of Love," later covered by Steve Miller, 1957; toured with Little Richard, late 1950s; toured Britain with vocalist Larry Williams, mid-1960s; signed with Fantasy label, 1972; recorded with Frank Zappa on Zappa's One Size Fits All LP, 1975; signed with DJM label, 1976; series of successful blues-funk albums, 1976-80; signed with Bellmark label, 1994.

"Gangster of Love" (1957)
"Those Lonely, Lonely Nights" (1955)
"Motorhead Baby" (1954)
"Three Hours Past Midnight" (1956)

  • FROM ETTA JAMES - "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."
  • FROM FRANK ZAPPA - "Watson's 1956 song, 'Three Hours Past Midnight' inspired me to become a guitarist."

    Grammy nomination for Bow Wow album, 1995; Pioneer Award from Rhythm & Blues Foundation, 1996.

  • Albums Ain't That a Bitch, DJM, 1976 (reissued on Collectables label, mid-1990s).
  • A Real Mother for Ya, DJM, 1977 (reissued on Collectables label, mid-1990s).
  • Funk Beyond the Call of Duty, DJM, 1978 (reissued on Collectables label, mid-1990s).
  • Giant, DJM, 1979 (reissued on Collectables label, mid-1990s).
  • What the Hell Is This?, DJM, 1979 (reissued on Collectables label, mid-1990s).
  • Love Jones, DJM, 1980 (reissued on Collectables label, mid-1990s).
  • The Very Best of Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Collectables, 1996.
  • Recorded singles for Combo (1952), Federal (1953-55), RPM (1955-57), Keen (c. 1957-59),
    King (1960?63), Okeh (late 1960s), Fantasy (1972?76), and DJM labels, also for various smaller labels.

          A working bluesman since his teenage years in the early 1950s, Johnny "Guitar" Watson scored numerous chart successes in the 1970s with a unique guitar-based sound that mixed the feel and instrumental technique of the blues with the bass-heavy sound of funk. Admired by guitarists specializing in various styles of music, and recruited as a sideman by the avant-garde rock musician Frank Zappa, Watson also excelled as a vocalist. His singing was by turns sexy, humorous, and political; his guitar playing exploited the full range of the instrument's powers. He was also a prolific songwriter. When Watson died in 1996 at the age of 61, he was receiving the most modern form of musical homage: rappers and hip-hop musicians quoting or "sampling" his recordings.
          Watson was born in Houston on February 3, 1935. His father was a pianist who instructed his son in the rudiments of music, and at age 11 Watson was given a guitar by his grandfather, a preacher who disapproved of the blues and made the gift conditional on his never playing that most secular of musical forms. But "that was the first thing I played," Watson recalled, according to an article in the Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music. He could hardly help it, for the postwar years might be considered the golden age of blues guitar. Black guitarists who had moved to cities in the North and West from their Southern homes found ready audiences in urban barrooms and dance halls. They started to play electric instruments and rapidly honed their skills, making great leaps in both dexterity and imagination.
          As a youth, Watson had heard the blues guitar of fellow Texan T- Bone Walker. He was also influenced by guitarist Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, a showman given to unusual guitar performance styles and to such onstage surprises as playing a fiddle. Moving with his family to Los Angeles around 1950, "Young John Watson," as he was billed on a 1953 single record, developed his own gift for showmanship, entering and winning a variety of talent contests and shows. This exposure led to work as a sideman (sometimes still on piano) in various West Coast jump blues and jazz bands of the time, including those led by Chuck Higgins and Amos Milburn.
          Signed to the Federal label (a division of the famed Cincinnati independent King Records) in 1953, Watson began to create his own distinctive style with an instrumental single called "Space Jam." Well ahead of its time, the record featured experimentation with reverb and feedback guitar effects, and it brought the young guitarist his first hit. He recorded for various small Los Angeles labels through the 1950s, including RPM, owned by West Coast rhythm-and-blues entrepreneurs the Bihari brothers.
          One day, Watson and company co-owner Joe Bihari went to see the 1954 Sterling Hayden film "Johnny Guitar," and Watson acquired the nickname that would stick with him for his entire performing career. During this period he also began to style himself as the "Gangster of Love," after the title of a 1957 single Watson cut for the Keen label. This blues piece was successfully covered by rock musician Steve Miller in 1968 and again by Watson himself in 1978.
          Watson toured with such luminaries as Little Richard and acquired a reputation for exciting stage theatrics. "I used to play the guitar standing on my hands," he recalled in an interview quoted by the Guinness volume. "I had a 1 50-foot cord and I could get on top of the auditorium--those things Jimi Hendrix was doing, I started that s--t." It is entirely possible that Hendrix followed Watson's example, for the two musicians shared similar backgrounds and aims. Watson had taken the possibilities of the blues guitar to the edge, and this edge was Hendrix's starting point. Both guitarists were active as sidemen and session players during the early and middle 1960s, backing leading soul-music acts of the day.
          Watson scored a number six rhythm-and-blues hit with the orchestrally accompanied "Cuttin' In" on the King label in 1962. During the 1960s he also teamed frequently with vocalist Larry Williams, with whom he toured successfully in Britain as well as in the U.S. and recorded the much-covered "Mercy Mercy Mercy" in 1967. In 1972, once again showing a knack for identifying the top marketing talent on the West Coast, Watson signed with the Berkeley, California-based Fantasy Records, which featured an impressive roster of soul musicians. He notched some minor hits for the label, produced recordings by other artists, and continued to find his services as a guitarist in demand, appearing on Frank Zappa's 1 975 release, One Size Fits All. Zappa cited Watson's 1956 single "Three Hours Past Midnight" as the piece of music that had inspired him to become a guitarist himself.
          Full-scale chart success finally came Watson's way when he signed with the British-owned DJM label in 1976. Given complete creative control by owner Dick James, Watson rose to the challenge with a series of recordings that merged his blues guitar skills with the emerging funk style, which was rhythmic, laid-back, and bass-heavy. "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."
          Much like its white counterparts, black pop music is often dominated by young people, and Watson's emergence into the spotlight at the age of 41 was remarkable. His first two albums for DJM, Ain't That a Bitch (1976) and A Real Mother for Ya (1977) both were certified as gold records for sales of over 500,000 copies each. The title track of the latter album was a major hit and provides an excellent illustration of Watson's style on the DJM recordings. Handling vocals, guitar, and bass, he topped off his blues-funk fusion with a tense, sardonic rendition of lyrics that described a set of difficult circumstances; Watson beautifully delivered such fine rhymes as "That's a real mother for ya/Make you wanna run for cover."
          Two other aspects of Watson's style seemed to point the way to the incipient rap movement: lengthy spoken interludes in such recordings as the 1978 "Gangster of Love" remake, and a group of songs that dealt frankly with poverty. Watson's music was indeed sampled in the 1990s by such stars as Ice Cube and Snoop Doggy Dogg. But Watson's activities were curtailed in the 1980s, although a series of summer appearances in France led to his becoming known there as the "Godfather of Funk." "I got caught up with the wrong people doing the wrong things," he was quoted as saying by the New York Times.
          The 1990s brought a creative resurgence for Watson with the release of the album Bow Wow in 1994, which was nominated for a Grammy in 1995. In March of 1996 he was honored with a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, and his performing career appeared fully reinvigorated. However, he was stricken with a heart attack while performing at a blues club near Tokyo. He died in Yokohama, Japan on May 17, 1996.

  • Harris, Sheldon, Blues Who's Who, Arlington House, 1979.
  • Larkin, Colin, ed., The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Guinness, 1992.
  • Romanowski, Patricia, and Holly George-Warren, eds., The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, 1995.

  • Guitar Player, October 1996, p. 19.
  • Jet, June 3, 1996, p. 16.
  • Los Angeles Times, May 21, 1996, p. B1.
  • New York Times, May 19, 1996.
  • Rolling Stone, July 11-25, 1996, p. 22.
  • Village Voice, June 4, 1996, p. 44.
  • Washington Post, May 20, 1996, p. B4.

    Source: and
    Biography Resource Center
    ©2001, Gale Group, Inc.

    Liner notes from Collectables CD COL-5807,
    The Very Best of Johnny "Guitar" Watson:

    History can be cruel. Historians, like all human beings, make mistakes. Chroniclers of this country's popular music are particularly prone to error. I believe, because the art form is relatively new and especially fashion. The canon of rock-sold books on African-American music us sparse. And even such accepted masterworks as Arnold Shaw's encyclopedia Honkers And Shouters miss the mark when it comes to the seminal subject of this fabulous compilations. In the 528 pages of Shaw's text subtitled The Golden Years of Rhythm and Blues, Johnny "Guitar" Watson's name never mentioned, not even as a footnote.
          So let the records show that there are serious students of soul music who consider Watson a figure of critical importance in the evaluation of blues-based music. Many put him in the same company as other pioneers -- like Ike Turner and Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, Ray Charles and James Brown. This disc concentrates on Watson's early period, when his reputation as a bluesman was first forged. Decades later, Johnny remains an unheralded hero, a man whose talents jumped over genres to influence a group od imitators and emulators who, ironically, would gain more fame than the man they revered. I'm thinking of Etta James, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix and Steve Ray Vaughn, to name but a few.
          "I got everything from Johnny." Etta James told me when I first met her in the late '70s. "My base was gospel, but this whole business of singing blues and rhythm and blues comes from Johnny and the days I traveled on the road with him. He was my main model. He taught me how to squawl, taught me how to phrase. My whole ballad style style comes from imitating his ballad style - the way he combined pop with blues. He was the baddest and the best. Johnny could pick up any instrument and make it sound like modern jazz. We once bought him one of those little ol' recorders, a toylike instrument on the order of a Flute-ophone. Well, he took that thing and started playing bebop all over it. Sounded like a bird.

          Don't get me wrong - Johnny wasn't just a guitarist: the man was a master musician. He could call out charts; he could write him 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."

    JOHNNY "GUITAR" WATSON - Lone Ranger
    Fantasy FCD-24741-2

    ... with Gabriel Fleming, Jimmy Reed, Larry Wilson, Henry "Hank" Redd, Rudy Copeland, Andre Lewis, Emory Thomas, Maxayn. A major influence on such diverse artists as Frank Zappa, Etta James, and Jimi Hendrix, singer, songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Johnny "Guitar" Watson began his career as a bluesman in the T-Bone Walker/Gatemouth Brown tradition. Yet he refused to stand still artistically and followed his creative muse into the soul, jazz, and funk realms albeit with blues at their core. All of those elements can be heard on these two brilliant mid-Seventies albums, on which Watson's deeply soulful vocals and incisive guitar picking are matched by the hipster wisdom and sardonic wit of his original compositions. Included are the hits "Why Don't You Treat Me Like I'm Your Man," "It's Way Too Late," and "I Don't Want to Be a Lone Ranger."   TRACKS: If I Had the Power, You've Got a Hard Head, Lovin' You, It's All About You, You're the Sweetest Thing I've Ever Had, I Get a Feeling, Why Don't You Treat Me Like I'm Your Man, You Bring Love, You Stole My Heart, I Don't Want to Be a Lone Ranger, Your New Love Is a Player, Tripping, Lonely Man's Prayer, You Make My Heart Want to Sing, It's Way Too Late, Love Is Sweet Misery, You Can Stay But the Noise Must Go, Strong Vibrations


    Johnny Guitar Watson, a Houston-born guitarist and singer known for his wild style of guitar playing and the sound which merged blues music with touches of R&B and funk, died of cardiac infarction on May 17, 1996 in Yokohama during his recent tour of Japan. He was 61. He had arrived in Japan on May 11 for the Japan Blues Carnival event, and had already finished dates in Osaka, Kyoto and Nagoya. After this tragic night, he was originally scheduled to perform on May 18 and 19 in Tokyo and return to U.S. the following day. His original schedule also included Sapporo on the 16th, but he canceled it due to the tiredness coming from the tight schedule.

    The show was held at the Ocean Boulevard Blues Cafe in Yokohama that night. Right after he came on the stage and sang the first verse of the first song, "Superman Lover", he made a gesture like pushing the microphone stand towards the audience with his hand on his chest and fell down on his back. The time was around 19:40. Many of the audiences couldn't understand what had happened, and many thought it was some kind of stage performance. After a while, an ambulance was called by the promoter. Approximately 10 minutes later he was taken into a hospital near by but his heart had already stopped when he was examined. The heart massages were given to Watson, but it was too late to bring him back to life. He was officially pronounced dead at 21:16 the same night.

    Many who caught the shows before Yokohama say that he was powerful putting on a great show, and there were no signs whatsoever of this kind of accident would happen to him in the near future. Toshinari Yoshida, the Chief Producer of the Ocean Boulevard Blues Cafe, said that Johnny Guitar had been one of his all-time favorites, and it had been his dream to bring him to the club. He said he was saddened for what happened.

    On the Sat., 18th and Sun., 19th at the Hibiya Yagai Ongakudo, Tokyo where Watson was originally scheduled to appear, there were repeated announcements and postings about the accident at the gate. There were many who heard the news for the first time there, and they looked quite shocked to find out about it.

    On Saturday, Ukadan and James Cotton were other performers who were scheduled to appear. Ukadan showed their feelings for Watson by changing a part of the lyrics in their early classic "Chicago Bound" singing "Old man Johnny died and now I have nothing better to do but to drink". The crowd seemed to be much quieter compared to how it had been in the previous years.

    On Sunday, the members of Watson's band appeared on the stage between the shows and expressed their feeling for him. One of them said, "Johnny once said that if he were to die, he wanted to die on stage", and the crowd responded with an applause. The appearance of the band members gave the audience a touching moment, but it made many sad again making them realize once again that he was really gone.

    The staff at Blues Ginza would like to express our sincere condolences for Johnny. He was great, and we will miss him very much. --couresty:

    Highlights . . .

  • BORN: 3rd February 1935, Houston, Texas, U.S.A.
  • DIED: 17th May 1996, Yokohama, Japan
  • Before Watson made a name for himself in the 70's playing funk R & B, he had a long career
            stretching back to the early 50's.
  • His father played piano, which also became Johnny's first instrument.
  • On seeing Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown perform, he convinced himself that he had to play guitar.
  • He inherited a guitar from his grandfather, a sanctified preacher, on the condition that he
            did not play the blues on it - 'that was the first thing I played', Watson later said.
  • In the early 50's his family moved to Los Angeles, where he started playing piano in the Chuck Higgins
            band and was billed as 'Young John Watson'.
  • Switching to guitar, he was signed to Federal and recorded 'Space Guitar', an instrumental far ahead
            of its time in the use of reverberation and feedback.
  • He also played 'Motorhead Baby' with an enthusiasm that was to become his trademark.
  • He recorded the same track for Federal with the Amos Milburn band in tow.
  • Watson became in demand as a guitarist and in the late 50's toured and recorded with the
            Olympics, Don And Dewey and Little Richard.
  • Johnny 'Guitar' Watson was from the same mold of flamboyance that motivated another of Little Richard's
            guitarists, Jimi Hendrix.
  • Watson later stated: '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!'
  • Moving to the Modern label in 1955, he had immediate success with a bluesy ballad, 'Those Lonely,
            Lonely Nights' (US R & B 'Top 10), but failed to follow up on the label.
  • In 1957 the novelty tune 'Gangster Of Love' (later adopted by Steve Miller) gave him a minor hit on
            the west coast.
  • A partnership with Larry Williams was particularly successful and in 1965 they toured
            England and recorded an album for Decca.
  • Watson did not return to the charts until 1962, when on the King label he hit with 'Cuttin' In' (US
            R & B number 6), which was recorded with string accompaniment.
  • The following year he recorded I Cried For You, a 'cocktail-lounge' album with hip renditions of 'Polkadots
            And Moonbeams' and 'Witchcraft'.
  • Watson recorded two soulful funk albums for the Fantasy label (Listen and 'I Don't Want To Be Alone,
            Stranger') with keyboardist Andre Lewis (who later toured with Frank Zappa).
  • As if to repay his enthusiasm for Watson's guitar playing, which Zappa had often admitted to admiring,
            Watson was recruited for Zappa's 'One Size Fits All' in 1975.
  • In 1976, Watson released 'Ain't That A Bitch' on DJM Records, a brilliant marriage of 50's rockin' R & B,
            Hollywood schmaltz and futuristic funk.
  • Watson produced, played bass, keyboards and drums on the album, which went gold; a further six albums
            appeared on DJM to the same formula.
  • In 1981, he left the label for A & M Records, but the production diluted Watson's unique sound and the
            record was a failure.
  • One positive side effect was a characteristic solo on Herb Alpert's 'Beyond'.
  • Watson retired to lick his wounds, emerging with 'Strike On Computers' at the end of the 80's and an
            appearance at London's 'Town & Country Club in 1987.
  • In the 90's his music was sampled by Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr Dre, and the album 'Bow Wow' made the US charts.
  • Watson died of a heart attack while performing at the Yokohama Blues Cafe on 17th May 1996.
  • A sad loss to soul music.

  • Gangster Of Love (King 1958)
  • Johnny Guitar Watson (King 1963)
  • The Blues Soul Of Johnny Guitar Watson (Chess 1964)
  • Bad (Chess 1966)
  • With Larry Williams Two For The Price Of One (OKeh 1967)
  • Johnny Watson Plays Fats Waller In The Fats Bag (OKeh 1968)
  • Listen (Fantasy 1974)
  • I Don't Want To Be Alone, Stranger (Fantasy 1975)
  • Captured Live (1976)
  • Ain't That A Bitch (DJM 1976)
  • A Real Mother For Ya (DJM 1977)
  • Funk Beyond The Call Of Duty (DJM 1977)
  • Gangster Of Love (DJM 1977)
  • With the Watsonian Institute Master Funk (1978)
  • Giant (DJM 1978)
  • With Papa John Creach Inphasion (DJM 1978)
  • With the Watsonian Institute Extra Disco Perception (1979)
  • What The Hell Is This? (DJM 1979)
  • Love Jones (DJM 1980)
  • Johnny 'Guitar' Watson And The Family Clone (DJM 1981)
  • That's What Time It Is (A & M 1981)
  • Strike On Computers (Valley Vue 1984)
  • Bow Wow (M-Head 1994)

    Johnny "Guitar" Watson: The Very Best (Rhino)
    When it comes to naming blues guitar greats Johnny Watson isn't a name that usually comes up but as evidenced on this new collection he earns his middle name and then some. Watson's sizzling fret work is all over this 18 song collection from his early days and you'll be hearing that guitar echoing in your brain long after the CD stops spinning . This collection focuses on Watson's early years, 1952-1963, and is nothing but burning blues and R&B. Years before he donned his super bad funk persona he was a bonafide bluesman and above all a tremendous musician. In addition to guitar he played sax and piano and wrote some great charts plus he had a dynamic voice to top things off. Rhino has selected an excellent cross section that displays all of Watson's skills.

    Things start off in dramatic fashion with an amazing  feedback-drenched instrumental appropriately titled "Space Guitar" that's a good 15 years ahead of it's time. Watson tinkles the ivories on Chuck Higgin's jumpin' "Motorhead Baby" and plays guitar on another road song, "Highway 60" that's firmly rooted in the West Coast blues style. There's plenty of guitar pyrotechnics to be found from the oft covered "Hot Little Mama" to the blistering, lowdown "Three Hours Past Midnight" to Floyd Dixon's "Late Freight Twist" which turns in to a one man guitar clinic. Watson's marvelous singing is showcased on an impassioned reading of Earl King's "Those Lonely, Lonely Nights" and the gospel drenched soul of "That's the Chance You've Got to Take." Classics abound on this disc including Watson's brash signature tune "Gangster of Love." It's hard to argue with the song selection although a couple of gems might have been over looked such as the tough answer song "Ain't Gonna Hush" and the hot "She Moves Me" and "Love Me Baby" to name just a couple. Still these are minor points to an otherwise well chosen collection. "The Very Best of Johnny "Guitar" Watson" is just what the title says and a testament to a true blues and R&B pioneer. This one belongs in every blues collection. -Jeff Harris

    Links . . .

  • Johnny's Additional Biography and Discography Website


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