An individual exhibiting such uniqueness or individuality that he or she will cause a roomful of bar cronies to exclaim, "That's one interesting motherfucker!" Actual sexual relations with one's mother are not required.
Is Johnny "Guitar" Watson the greatest guitar player you've never heard of? Maybe, possibly... unless you have heard of him. And, being that you're reading a quality, hipster Internet publication like Acid Logic, it's very likely you're part of the cool club and are familiar with Watson's work. But there's a slim possibility you're some kind of know-nothing dork and need to be clued in to one of the groovinest cats around. So this article is for you... know-nothing dork!
Envision this: it's deep in the 1970s and you decide to step out one evening for some of this "music" that all the kids are raving about. You walk into a local swank nightclub just as the featured act takes the stage. It's a funk group fronted by a high-heeled guitar player who's wrapped up in a silver sequined suit and topped off with a fedora. A fellow bar patron informs you that this is the legendary Johnny "Guitar" Watson. Watson introduces the first song by speaking in a halting, Capt. Kirk cadence and peppering his sentences with blocks of unpredictable silence. As the song kicks off, he doesn't so much play his guitar as he attacks it*, drawing forth strange sounds from the magnetic pickups: droning sirens, percussive blips, cat calls and classic T-bone Walker style blues riffs. But the music has some competition for your attention: Watson's stage performance is a creature of its own; he fluctuates between perfectly timed karate chop maneuvers and robotic, somewhat spastic gyrations that make one wonder whether he's about to fall over. Regardless of the kooky flavor of the whole show, there's no denying one thing: this is great music. Funky, uncompromising and soulful.
* Watson's ferocious abuse of his instrument was all the more impressive due to the fact that he played not using a plectrum but rather with the flesh of his own thumb.
Okay, we both know that if we spend even just a couple more minutes in the 1970s we're guaranteed to get herpes, so let's time travel back to present day and compare notes. Being that I'm writing this article and actually put some research into it, my notes are probably more extensive than yours. For instance, I can tell you that John Watson was born in Houston, Texas in 1935. He began playing guitar early in his teenage years and in 1950 moved to Los Angeles where he quickly became a professional musician. Sporting a pompadour and teen idol looks, he began recording blues and R&B numbers like "Hot Little Mama," "Three Hours Past Midnight" and Earl King's swamp rocker "Those Lonely, Lonely Nights," (a song which shares several similarities with Freddy Fender's classic "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.") The recordings were all capably done and perfectly in tune with the times but offered little to differentiate themselves from similar artists of the era such as Ike Turner, Buddy Holly, Little Richard or Watson's close friend, R&B crooner/songwriter Larry Williams.
One song from this early period does stand out. In 1954, Watson recorded the blues instrumental "Space Guitar." Drenched in a thick reverb which engenders the guitar with an almost theremin-esque quality, the tune sounds simultaneously futuristic and comic. It's doubtless indebted to Ike Turner's 1951 instrumental "Rocket 88" and both songs were a nod to the ever-increasing influence technology --- particularly technology related to the exploration of outer space --- was having on culture. (Keep in mind that Russia was just about to launch the first satellite into space in 1957.) Guitar effects were becoming "spacier" and guitars themselves being given technological names such as the Telecaster or the Hi-Flyer.
As a blues artist, Watson continued recording and touring (with artists such as Little Richard, Johnny Otis and Larry Williams) into the 1960s. But the times, as you may have heard, were a' changing. Rock 'n roll was undergoing a metamorphosis, becoming more elaborate, more psychedelic and aimed at adults. Additionally, rock 'n roll was becoming a business. Eventually, the 60s turned into the 70s, and many of the utopian platitudes of the hippie counterculture were dashed upon the jagged rocks of escalation in Vietnam, unemployment and urban violence.
It was the largely conventional nature of Watson's early career that made what happened next so unpredictable. By the mid-70s, the baby faced teen idol was gone and Watson had been transformed into a swaggering, sequined, sexual soul singer who could've walked out of central casting for any of the underground blaxploitation films that were playing in the seedy theaters of New York's Times Square. And the music he played was no longer basic blues and R&B, but sophisticated, horn laden (and horny) funk music. He released a series of singles such as "Superman Lover," "A Real Mother for Ya," and "Gangster of Love" (a remake of his earlier version), all of which were quintessential 1970s funk in both form and appearance.
Any career reinvention is always a gamble, but for Johnny "Guitar" Watson it paid off. His singles raced up the charts, partly because they captured a kind of cultural zeitgeist; they were spirits for the times. For America in the middle of a recession, tunes like "Ain't That a Bitch," and "A Real Mother for Ya" offered themselves up as workingman's funk, bemoaning the high cost of gas and love. Though these were not blues songs, they possessed the gravitas of the blues, with lyrics like, "They're working everybody, working poor folk to death... and when you pay your rent and car, you ain't got nothin' left... ain't that a bitch?" But Watson's new persona did not do away with his romantic side. In "Superman Lover" he gently reminded listeners of his sexual prowess, while in "Lover Jones" he offered tribute to his women with an almost frightening honesty.
As the 70s morphed into the 80s, funk became disco. This was a controversial transition. A synopsis of the conventional distinction between the two styles is perhaps best captured in this statement from "Groove Mama "on the Bass Player Magazine forum.)
Funk is the natural, organic evolution of '60s Soul; pure of heart, music of the people. Disco, on the other hand, is the commercialized, schlocky, bastard stepchild of Soul and Funk.This is a common complaint made of many music genres (folk, punk and grunge come to mind): it was all fun and groovy until the corporations came in and ruined everything. But this analysis may be too simplistic. Funk and soul were certainly never produced without some aspirations towards commercial success, and some fine musical moments can be found in disco. Nonetheless, one has to concede that funk music of the 1970s had a certain grime, grit and balls that was largely absent from the "aiming for mass appeal" disco songs of the 80s*.
*Admittedly, blocking funk off into the 70s and disco in the 80s is imprecise. Both forms of music were produced in both decades.
How did Johnny Watson handle the transition? Any observer would have to concede that he embraced disco. His songs --- still funky --- took on some of the highly produced "disco sheen" and he began releasing tunes such as "Ms. Frisco (Queen of the Disco)," "Guitar Disco" and "Tu Jours Amour" (a tune clearly indebted to one of disco's great success stories, Chic, who often incorporated French phrases into their music.)
This begs an interesting question about Watson. Was he an authentic artist who used his music to convey great emotional truths or was he a money hungry fraud who reinvented himself as music fads came and went? Like the debate involving disco and funk, there's no clear answer. Watson brought an obvious excitement to his music (particularly his guitar playing) that made clear he loved what he was doing. Buuuuut... it's also understood that he had a love for the high life, particularly coke and broads, and probably wasn't above tweaking his musical formulas to chase commercial success.
As the 80s dragged on (and believe me, they dragged; I was there), Watson's revitalized music career faded. His record output dropped and he performed with declining frequency. But, in 1994, he returned with an album of modern funk/disco songs entitled "Bow Wow." Again, Watson seemed to be chasing fads --- this time the canine motif that had been popularized by Snoop Dogg and the Dogg Pound (who themselves had borrowed it from George Clinton) --- but the album charted well, and he began performing again. In 1996, he was on stage in Yokohama, Japan, playing a guitar solo when he collapsed and ultimately died of myocardial infarction. (His last words were, reportedly, "ain't that a bitch.")
Since Watson's death, his legacy has simmered, but there's no doubt that rock and pop music benefited greatly from his presence. Artists as varied as Frank Zappa, Steve Miller, Jimmie Vaughan and Etta James unashamedly credited his influence. Many of Watson's classic funk riffs ended up as samples used in rap music of the 80s, 90s and 2000s. Even the "space rock" that Watson, together with Ike Turner, pushed in his early career had an incubating effect on the crazed, intergalactic themes of groups such as George Clinton's P-Funk and Parliament.
That's a real mother for ya.
Wil Forbis is the pen named shared by such noted authors as James Ellroy, Katie Roiphe, and Jim Thompson. E-mail him, I mean, them, at firstname.lastname@example.org
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