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?
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