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Johnny "Guitar" Watson (1935-1996)

Johnny "Guitar" Watson

Johnny "Guitar" Watson (February 3, 1935 - May 17, 1996) was an American musician whose long career influenced the development of blues, soul music, rhythm & blues, funk, rock music, and rap music. John Watson, Jr. was born in Houston, Texas. His father John Sr. was a pianist, and taught his son the instrument. But young Watson was immediately attracted to the sound of the guitar, in particular the electric guitar as practiced by the "axe men" of Texas: T-Bone Walker and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. His grandfather, a preacher, was also musical. "My grandfather used to sing while he'd play guitar in church, man," Watson reflected many years later. When Johnny was 11, his grandfather offered to give him a guitar if, and only if, the boy didn't play any of the "devil's music" -- blues. Watson agreed, but "that was the first thing I did." A musical prodigy, Watson played with Texas bluesmen Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland. His parents separated in 1950, when he was 15. His mother moved to Los Angeles, and took Johnny with her. In his new city, Watson won several local talent shows. This led to his employment, while still a teenager, with Jump blues style bands such as Chuck Higgins's Mellotones and Amos Milburn. He worked as a vocalist, pianist, and guitarist. He quickly made a name for himself in the African-American juke joints of the West Coast, where he was billed as "Young John Watson" until 1954. That year, he saw the Sterling Hayden film Johnny Guitar, and a new stage name was born. He affected a swaggering, yet humorous personality, indulging a taste for flashy clothes and wild showmanship on stage. His seminal blues album Gangster of Love was recorded in 1953 or '54, and first released on Keen Records in 1957. Watson's ferocious Space Guitar of 1954 pioneered guitar feedback and reverb. Watson would later influence a subsequent generation guitarists. He toured and recorded with his friend Larry Williams, as well as Little Richard, Don & Dewey, The Olympics, and Johnny Otis. He also played with Sam Cooke, Herb Alpert and George Duke. But as the popularity of blues declined and the era of soul music ascended in the 1960s, Watson in his inimitable style transformed himself from a southern blues singer with a pompadour into an urban soul singer with a pimp hat. He went all out - gold teeth, broad-brimmed hats, fly suits, designer sunglasses, and ostentatious jewellery made him one of the most colorful figures in the West Coast funk circle. He modified his music accordingly. His LPs Ain't That a Bitch and Real Mother For Ya were landmark recordings of '70s funk. The shooting death of his friend Larry Williams in 1980 and other personal setbacks led to Watson briefly withdrawing from the spotlight in the Eighties. The release of his album Bow Wow in 1994 brought Watson more visibility and chart success than he had ever known. The album received a Grammy nomination, and retrospective releases of his work showered him with critical acclaim. In 1995, he was given a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation in a presentation and performance ceremony at the Hollywood Palladium. Watson died on stage May 17, 1996, while on tour in Yokohama, Japan. His remains were brought home for internment at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. (quoted from

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