Born John Watson in Houston, TX, February 3, 1935; moved with family to Los Angeles, 1950. Married Susan Maier, they had two children: son DeJohn and daughter Virginia.
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, enhanced significantly by a tight brass section. Less known was his ability (thanks to dad) at playing the piano.
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 guitar playing exploited the full range of the instrument’s powers. He was also a prolific songwriter.
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 musical form. But “that was the first thing I played,” Watson recalled, according to an article in the Guinness Encyclopaedia of Popular Music. He could hardly help it, for the post-war 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 lad, Watson had heard the blues guitar of fellow Texan ‘T- Bone’ Walker. He was also influenced by guitarist Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown (featured elsewhere in this blog and admired also by yours truly), 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.
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.
One day Watson 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 (achieving ‘gold’ status) and again by Watson himself in 1978.
Watson scored a number six rhythm-and-blues hit with the orchestra accompanied ‘Cuttin’ In’ on the King label in 1962.
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.
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.
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.
Sadly, he was stricken with a heart attack while performing at a blues club near Tokyo. He died in Yokohama, Japan on May 17, 1996.