Hound Howl #005 Preview

A birthday shout-out to sonic space rocker Johnny Guitar Watson (Space Guitar on 78 RPM and other goodies…) and maybe we’ll figure out a way to get the 60th anniversary of Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens deaths in there…

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Young John Watson (Johnny Guitar Watson) 1953-62

Johnny “Guitar” Watson, onstage at the Twisted Wheel, Manchester, ’65 (photo by Brian Smith).

Young John Watson, perpares to take his Stratocaster on a space trip.

John Ray Watson Jr. was born in Houston, Texas, February 3, 1935 , and learned to play piano from his father, a blues and boogie woogie man who played around Houston’s Dowling Street on occassion. After witnessing Gatemouth Brown, John Jr. borrowed his grandfather’s guitar (promising with his fingers crossed behind his back he would not play the blues on it, as Gramps was a man of god with no use for the devil’s music), and soon he had mastered the instrument. Eventually Watson would play not only piano and guitar but sax, drums, and almost any other instrument that came into his hands.

In 1950, when his parents split up, Watson arrived in Los Angeles with his father (he’d bring his mother out west later and live with her for most of the rest of his life), and, spotted at a local talent show, soon found work pounding piano in Chuck Higgin’s Mellotones, a highly popular tenor sax honkin’ R&B outfit who where especially popular with Mexican teenagers in the area (hence their hit Pachuko Hop). In 1952, with Higgins’ band, Watson made his recording debut, singing lead and pounding the 88’s on the Combo label singles like Motorhead Baby (the flipside of Pachuko Hop), Love Me Baby b/w Ain’t Gonna Leave Baby, Stormy b/w Blues Mambo, Just Won’t Treat Me Right b/w Bug Jump, and appearing as pianist on many of Higgins’ Combo instrumentals like Cotton Picker, Iron Pipe, Chuck’s Wig, et al.
By 1953 Johnny Watson was leading his own band and was soon signed to Federal, a subsidiary of Cincinnati’s King Records. Billed as Young John Watson, his first session was held in L.A. on February 20, 1953, and with Watson singing and playing piano he was backed by guitarist Wayne Bennett (long time star of Bobby Blue Bland’s band and later with Ray Charles) and a local rhythm section, it produced two excellent blues rockin’ singles– No I Can’t b/w a remake of Motorhead Baby, followed by Highway 60 b/w Sad Fool. A second session was held in May and two more singles were released– I Got Eyes b/w What’s Going One and Walkin’ To My Baby b/w Thinking, Harold Grant replaced Bennett on guitar on these sides. These singles were all in a solid Fats Domino/Lloyd Price mold, with riffing saxophones and an emphasis on the beat. But they merely hinted at what would soon come.
It was Johnny Watson’s third Federal session, on Febuary 1, 1954 that he first played guitar.
Man, did he play guitar. The first of the four tunes recorded that day, the echo laden instrumental Space Guitar is still one of the wildest, most unusual, and greatest guitar instrumentals ever waxed. It is still ahead of it’s time. Space Guitar b/w Half Pint Of Whiskey remains, and will always remain, near the top of my own personal pantheon of sides. In 1991
this alternate take of Space Guitar found it’s way onto a Charley Records CD that is long out of print. A second single from the session– Gettin’ Drunk b/w You Can’t Take It With you, laid the ground work for the style of music Johnny Watson would make for the next eight years.
A stomping R&B beat over which Johnny shouted the blues in his high, slightly nasal tenor, what makes these discs so special is his highly unique style of guitar playing. Influenced by Gatemouth Brown and probably Guitar Slim, his style of using clipped, stuttering phrases, followed by violent, explosive outbursts of dissonant notes, changed the sound of the guitar forever. Frank Zappa would learn to mimic this style and use it to great effect on early singles like Baby Ray & the Ferns’ How’s Your Bird b/w The World’s Greatest Sinner and
the Heartbreakers’ Cradle Rock b/w Everytime I See You (both on Donna). Despite the greatness of these recordings, Young John Watson’s six singles had not made the charts and failed to sell, and soon he parted ways with Federal, signing with the Bihari Brothers’ Hollywood based RPM label in late 1954.
Now billing himself as Johnny “Guitar” Watson and working with Maxwell Davis’ band, he cut six singles for RPM between 1954-56: Hot Little Mama b/w I Love To Love You, Too Tired b/w Don’t Touch Me (I’m Gonna Hit The Highway), a cover a Earl King’s Those Lonely Lonely Nights b/w Someone Cares For Me, Oh Baby b/w Give A Little, Three Hours Past Midnight b/w Ruben, She Moves Me b/w Love Me Baby, all good sellers in the L.A. area, making him something of a local star, although only Those Lonely Lonely Nights would chart nationally, peaking at #10 on Billboard’s R&B charts in 1955. An interesting rarity was issued on the parent label Modern in 1955– Cordella De Milo’s Ain’t Gonna Hush (an answer song to Joe Turner’s Honey Hush) b/w Lonely Girl, both which prominently feature Watson’s blaring guitar.
By 1954 Johnny “Guitar” Watson was a big draw live in the L.A. area, known for all manner of guitar acrobatics including playing with his teeth, hanging from the rafters, and the obligatory 50 foot chord to wander through the audience with on his roadie’s shoulders. Nearly everything Jimi Hendrix would do, Watson had done more than a decade earlier.
In the early 90’s, musician John Zorn brought me back a double CD from Japan on the P-Vine label called Gonna Hit The Highway: The Complete RPM Recordings. The only other copy I’ve ever seen is the one Zorn brought back for Bob Quine. Now that I think about it, I don’t remember if I ever thanked him, so thanks John. Anyway, on this CD we hear Johnny in session, working with Maxwell Davis’ band to get a master take, may I present for purely historical purposes these fascinating outtakes: Those Lonely Lonely Nights Takes 1-10, Hot Little Mama Takes 2-6, Hot Little Mama #2 Takes 2, 3,5, Too Tired takes 1-3, Ruben takes 1-4, She Moves Me takes 1-4, as well as additional alternate takes of Too Tired ,Don’t Touch Me and this demo of Gangster Of Love with Johnny at the piano. It’s obvious from the fly on the wall quality of these recordings that Watson was all busines in the studio, and it showed in the final product. His RPM singles sound as good today as they did when they were issued in the 50’s.
After splitting with the Bihari’s, he cut an unissued session for Johnny Otis’ Dig label in 1956 (finally released on the U.K. Ace’s label’s Dig These Blues series, Telephone Boogie is one of his best instrumentals), and in late ’56 producer Bumps Blackwell brought him to Keen Records where he cut two singles– Gangster Of Love (actually a cover of the Cadets’ Love Bandit)b/w One Room Country Shack, followed by Honey b/w Deana Baby in 1958. From there he would label hop for the next eight years cutting more rock’n’roll oriented sides like The Bear b/w One More Kiss for Class, Rat Now b/w Falling In Love for Goth, Untouchable b/w Johnny Guitar for Arvee, The Eagle Is Back b/w Looking Back for Escort, before ending up back at King for another seven singles between 1961-62, the best of which was the gorgeous pimp-blues ballad Cuttin’ In which would rise to #6 R&B in March of ’62. A fabulous dance floor grinder, it never fails to put chills up my spine. The rest of the early 60’s King sides are a mixed bag, with fine remakes of Gangster Of Love and Those Lonely Lonely Nights mixed in with crap like Posin’ and Embraceable You. King would issue an LP (his first) in late ’63. He cut a forgettable single for Highland– Wait A Minute Baby b/w Oh So Fine in ’64 before striking up a musical partnership with Larry Williams later that year, touring Europe together and finally getting signed to Okeh where they made the Two For The Price Of One LP covered in last month’s Larry Williams post, as well as an album of Fats Waller covers In A Fats Bag featuring Johnny at the organ.
Johnny “Guitar” Watson would go on to appear on several Frank Zappa/Mothers albums, and later recorded with David Axlerod, Herb Albert, and George Duke amongst others. But from here on out his style of music would change, he was no longer a blues shouting guitar slinger but a soul man who would eventually evolve into the super-player funk star scoring a string of funk hits for the DJM label between 1976-79 including A Real Mutha For Ya and Love Jones, then moving on to A&M in the early 80’s for more of the same except the A&M records didn’t sell. His last chart entry was 1984’s Strike On Computers on Valley View which petered out at #77 R&B.
Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s offstage life, like that of his partner Larry Williams, was colorful to put it mildly. He lived the life of a player, pimping and dealing on the side. He drove an Excalibur, and many customized pimp mobiles, dressed in outlandish hats, gold teeth, and fur coats, he looked like an extra in a Pam Grier film. But hey, it’s tough to make money in the music business, and the R&B market is the most fickle of all (which is why so many R&B singers return to the gospel circuit when their run of hits records is over). Like all of us, he played the hand he was dealt. Watson kept making music, always trying to keep up with the times. He had a good following in Europe and Japan where he often toured. It was in Japan, on May 17, 1996, that he suffered a heart attack onstage at a club in Yokohama. He keeled over and died in the middle of a guitar solo. Somehow, I think that might have been the way he wanted to go out, living up to his legend to the end.
These days I look at (and try to listen to) guitar players, and there’s a lot of technically good ones, with their racks and racks of foot pedals and effects and they all sound the same. Same tone, same phrasing, same everything. But when I pull out the old shit– Johnny Guitar Watson, Lafyette Thomas, Wild Jimmy Spruill, Mickey Baker, Pete “Guitar” Lewis, (add your favorite name here), I’m amazed at how unique their sound was, how easily recognizable their style is.
I wonder why that is?

Larry Williams

Larry Williams (center) meets some fans, 1958.


Picture sleeve for his two sided smash.

Specialty Records gig poster– The Atomic Rock Buster.
Larry Williams was born May 10, 1935 in New Orleans, where as teen he put in some time as Lloyd Price’s chauffeur. Price, then riding high on Lawdy Miss Clawdy remembered the well dressed teen– “Larry couldn’t decide whether he wanted to be a musician or a pimp”. Worried about his future, his family sent him to live with relatives in the Bay Area, and it was in Oakland, fronting a group called the Lemon Drops he came to the attention of Specialty Records producer/A&R man Bumps Blackwell. Blackwell saw the nineteen year old Williams as a possible successor to Specialty’s meal ticket of that time– Little Richard, who having seen the trail of Sputnik in space while touring Australia (or more likely, seen how small his royalty checks were, having signed a publishing deal with Art Rupe that gave him a mere half-cent a disc), threw his jewelry into the ocean, denounced rock’n’roll and enrolled in Bible college.
Lloyd Price, whose own career had lost momentum when he was drafted, was no longer recording for Specialty, and attempting to launch his own label (KRC) with manager Harold Logan (later assassinated at his own Times Square nightclub– The Turntable). Price and Logan knew they had a sure fire hit in the tune Just Because. Specialty’s owner Art Rupe had Blackwell and their newly newly inked young protege Larry Williams record a note for note cover of Just Because, and with Specialty’s better distribution and more money for promotion, Williams cover beat out Price’s original, to rise to #11 on Billboard’s R&B chart in 1957.
Larry Williams was more than a good mimic however, he was an excellent singer, pianist and songwriter, and backed by the greatest studio band ever assembled, was soon churning out classic, original rock’n’roll discs. He was indeed the crown prince to Little Richard’s claim as the King Of Rock’n’Roll, and in the years 1957-1958 he would give Richard, and everyone else a run for their money.
Larry Williams’ Specialty sessions, produced at various times by the aforementioned Bumps Blackwell, and later by Art Rupe, Harold Battiste and finally, Sonny Bono, employed the creme de la creme of West Coast session musicians, many of them New Orleans transplants, and veterans of countless rock’n’roll classics by Fats Domino, Little Richard, Smiley Lewis, Shirley & Lee, Ritchie Valens, etc. ad infinitum. Drummer Earl Palmer, guitarist Rene Hall, bassists Ted Brinson and Jewel Grant, saxophonists Plas Johnson, Alvin “Red” Tyler, Lee Allen, and Harold Battiste played some of their most inspired rock’n’roll behind Larry Williams. At least one of Williams sessions was done in New Orleans with Charles “Hungry” Williams on drums, Frank Fields on bass, and Roy Montrell on guitar.
It was Larry Williams sophmore disc that set the template– — Short Fat Annie b/w High School Dance (the b-side from the pen of future U.S. congressman and ski spazz Sonny Bono), a Little Richard styled rocker, lyrically rather dumb in fact, it still rocked like crazy and it became a #1 R&B hit, rising to #5 on the pop charts, and for the moment Larry left behind his stable of whores for the equally sleazy pastures of rock stardom.
That same year (’57) came Williams third disc, another lyrically trite, but musically smokin’ platter– Bonie Moronie b/w You Bug Me Baby, the a-side, another Williams original, it would be the commercial zenith of his career when it peaked on Billboard’s pop charts at #14 (#4 R&B), while the flip, co-written with Bono– You Bug Me Baby had its own chart run, where it rose to #45. Larry Williams was white hot shit, appearing on American Bandstand (one of the few to refuse to lip sync, where is that clip today?), and in February of ’58 he hit his musical pinnacle of his rock’n’roll style with another two sided slammer– Dizzy Miss Lizzie (heard here in the extended version that appeared only on the 78 rpm pressing) b/w Slow Down. Although it only got to#69 on the pop charts, it was a steady seller and over the next two years probably sold as many discs as his previous three hits. Rupe understood the importance of jukebox play, mastering Specialty’s 78’s especially “hot” (i.e. loud), and jukebox hits would sell over a long period of time. Most especially to juke box operators, since most jukes at the time still used 78’s, which would wear out after several dozen plays, and a tune that took in the coins would have to be replaced every week, and would stay on the juke for many months, if not years.
Of course, Larry Williams hit the road, where he could make some real money, billed as “The Atomic Rock Buster” he tore up package shows, appearing with virtually every big name rock’n’roll and R&B artist of the era, while still maintaining a regular schedule of club gigs.
Larry Williams cut two more records for Specialty in ’58, neither as good as what had come before– Hootchie Koo b/w The Dummy and Peaches and Cream b/w I Was A Fool both failed to chart. By 1959 Art Rupe was tiring of the record biz, having lost Little Richard, he also made the ill advised decision to give Sam Cooke (who’d been recording for Rupe as a member of the gospel shouting Soul Stirrers)’s contract to Bumps Blackwell in lieu of royalties owed, he started to concentrate on his other investments, mostly in real estate. Hence, when Larry Williams recorded one of his finest discs– She Said Yeah b/w Bad Boy it failed to chart.
Bad Boy was one of the greatest rock’n’roll records of all time and some of the alternate takes might be even better than the issued verion. One alternate, created by splicing various takes together showed up on the 1986 LP The Unreleased Larry Williams (the splicing was done by Little Walter DeVenne who was transfering the tapes) and was not included by Ace on their definitive Larry Williams-At His Finest (The Specialty Years) double CD as the compilers of that package thought that Billy Vera (who compiled the LP) and Little Walter were re-writing history by fucking with the original master tapes, which is true, but it’s still fun to listen to, since Rene Hall lets loose a blistering guitar solo that seems to burn right through the stylus. For more on the subject see my Rene Hall posting from June 2009. Specialty would issue three more singles by Larry Williams that year– Steal A Little Kiss b/w I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You, Give Me Love b/w Teardrops, and his swansong at Specialty– Ting A Ling b/w Little Schoolgirl, the best of the three. Specialty also issued the LP Here’s Larry Williams, a collection of his singles that year. Rupe had some excellent un-issued material in the vault which wouldn’t see release for three decades or more.
His days as a hitmaker over, and Williams drifted back into the life– pimping and dealing drugs. He spent part of late 1959 in jail on a narcotics charge. His next recordings would be a on the Chess label– starting with My Baby’s Got Soul b/w Everyday I Wonder. He was attempting to update his sound, and was a bit ahead of the curve. Four more singles were issued by Chess (1960-1), solid but unspectacular R&B, not quite soul, not quite rock’n’roll, they garned little airplay and almost no sales. He had no discs released in 1962 and only one in ’63, on Mercury, I Can’t Help Myself b/w Woman, a below par soul outing. In 1964 Williams struck up a partnership, musical and other, with another giant talent from rock’n’roll’s gravy years who had fallen into obscurity– Johnny “Guitar” Watson, although their first disc together– Beatle Time pts 1 & 2 on Jola was less than something to shit your panties over.
One can understand why Williams would want to pay tribute to the Beatles, since they covered no less than three of his tunes–Dizzie Miss Lizzy, Slow Down and Bad Boy, while the Rolling Stones opened their Out Of Our Heads (UK) and/or side two of December’s Children (US) LP with a seething rendition of She Said Yeah, sporting one of Keith Richard’s coolest guitar riffs ever, and paced at a balls to the wall tempo.
In the 1965 Larry Williams toured the U.K., bringing along Johnny Guitar Watson, where he cut two live LP’s– Larry Williams On Stage (Sonet), a live run through of his hits filled out with Little Richard and James Brown covers, and The Larry Williams Show featuring Johnny Guitar Watson with the Stormville Shakers (Decca) which was highlighted by a version of the Yardbirds’ For Your Love. From here he’d leave the old sound of rock’n’roll behnd for good.
Back in the States he signed to Columbia’s Okeh subsidiary, first re-cutting his old hits with modern, horn heavy arrangments, and producing a similar venture for Little Richard. Both are fairly dreadful. Larry Williams was not the type of guy to look back, and was constantly trying to keep up with the times. His most successful attempt at a comeback would come with his next LP, recorded in tandem with Johnny “Guitar” Watson– Two For The Price Of One (Okeh), a soul album in the style today called “Northern soul” (not because it was recorded in the Northern U.S. but because it gained popularity in Northern England at clubs like Manchester’s Twisted Wheel). Two For The Price Of One produced one minor hit, a version of Cannonball Adderly’s Mercy Mercy for which they added lyrics. Actually my favorite part of the record is the cover on which the two players, decked out in their finest sharksin pimp wear are seen surfin’ (or is that water skiing?) on their new Cadillac Eldorados.
They followed it up with a psychedelic soul single on which Williams and Watson were backed by the Frisco rock group Kaleidoscope (featuring a young David Lindley on electric sitar)– Nobody b/w Find Yourself Someone To Love, which went nowhere, but stands up today as an interesting piece of cross cultural confusion. They pre-dated Norman Whitfield’s psychedelic soul productions for Motown by a good year or so. Mercy Mercy would be Larry Williams final commercial success, and after the Okeh stint, Williams cut sides for Venture, MGM and Bell, all with Johnny “Guitar” Watson. They would part musical ways in the mid 70’s, after which Johnny Guitar Watson would finally strike gold in the late 70’s, re-igniting his career as a funk meister with A Real Mutha For You and Love Jones. By this time, Williams had once again returned to “the life”, not only pimping but dealing coke. In her autobiography I, Tina, Tina Turner blames Williams for turning Ike Turner onto freebase, Andre Williams who spent a lot of time around Ike at his Bolic Sound studio around the time remembers Larry as Ike’s main connection in the early 70’s. Somehow I think Ike would have found his way to the drugs with or without Larry Williams, but pimping and dealing are how Larry Williams supported himself for most of his life. He would record one last album, in 1978 for Fantasy– That Larry Williams
appeared with little fanfare. It opened with a disco remake of Bonie Moronie, the rest of the songs all had the word funk in the title, the less said about this disc the better.
On January 7, 1980, Larry Williams was found in his Laurel Canyon home with his hands cuffed behind his back and a bullet in his head. The LAPD deemed it a suicide but most people who knew him thought he was murdered. Various theories on who might have killed Larry Williams have been floated over the years, suspects named include Watson (which is almost certainly not true) and the LAPD. The rumor that the words Space Guitar were carved into his chest however can me traced back to yours truly and my own sad attempt at humor when writing the liner notes for the CD re-issue of Two For The Price Of One. I made it up, thinking most fans would get the joke, unfortunately I’ve seen the story re-printed as evidence that Watson had something to do with Williams murder. Not everyone gets my jokes. Anyway, at this late date it’s unlikely we’ll ever know the truth about who pulled the trigger on Larry Williams.
From the mid-80’s through 2004 many outtakes from his glory days at Specialty have surfaced, and not all of them created artificially. The aforementioned Ace package– At His Finest, is an essential part of any record collection and contains a wealth of previously un-heard material including versions of Sugar Boy Crawford’s Jockamo (Iko Iko), Huey Smith’s Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu, Little Richard’s Heebie Jeebies, Lloyd Price’s Lawdy Miss Clawdy, and among the originals left on the shelf are alternate takes and unnisued tunes like Baby’s Crazy, Bad Boy (take 5, take 6), Hocus Pocus, You Bug Me Baby, The Dummy, Slow Down, and Hey Now, Hey Now.
Larry Williams– pimp, rocker, fashion plate. He sure was something.