Gangster Of Love : Johnny "Guitar" Watson ©2002 JCMarion


Johnny Watson was born in Houston, Texas, in February of 1935. His interest in music was formed early in his life and he subsequently learned the rudiments of the piano from his father John Sr. As a teenager he moved to Los Angeles in 1950 and began to explore his musical opportunities. After seeing a performance by Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Watson turned to the guitar. By 1951 he was a sideman that toured and recorded with some of the top R & B performers in the Southern California area such as Chuck Higgins, Big Jay McNeeley, Maxwell Davis, and Joe Houston. Those days calling himself Young John Watson, he was on recordings by Chuck Higgins & The MelloTones, and later Amos Milburn.

Watson doubled on piano as in the rocking tune "Motorhead Baby" with Chuck Higgins which became the signature tune of the Higgins combo. In March of 1953, he was featured on Federal #12120 with the tunes "Highway 60" and "No I Can't". Not making much of a mark on the R & B scene he continued to work clubs in the Los Angeles area. About a year later he recorded under his own name, again for Federal. "Half Pint-a-Whiskey" and "Space Guitar" were released on #12175. This record does not sell, but "Space Guitar" will be recalled as an influential guitar song years later by many musicians. Two months later, Federal tries again with "Gettin' Drunk" and "You Can't Take It With You" on #12183. Watson does a well received week at Gibson's in Watts and was followed by his former band leader, Big Jay McNeeley. In October of 1954 Watson shares the stage with Muddy Waters for a weekend at the Club 5-4, and joins Muddy with Guitar Slim, Chuck Higgins, and many others at an all star R & B show at the Shrine Auditorium in L.A. On New Year's Eve, the show at the Savoy in L.A. featured Watson along with Charles Brown and The Dominos.

In January of 1955, Modern Records signs Watson to a recording contract and will list him as Johnny "Guitar" Watson (supposedly suggested by the 1954 motion picture "Johnny Guitar"). The next month Watson tours the West Coast in a show billed as the "Hollywood Revue". Also featured are Roy Brown, Linda Hayes, and the Tommy Jones band. "Hot Little Mama" and "I Love To Love You" for Modern's subsidiary label RPM ( #423) is selling well on the West Coast and the record helps Watson draw big crowds to the 5-4 Ballroom in Los Angeles. The sold out dates prompt management to hold him over for an extra week. In early April a new touring show called the "Modern Records Caravan" will hit the road featuring Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Etta James & The Peaches, and Richard Berry. The tour will do one nighters in the South and Southwest. Comparisons are made between Watson and B.B. King on guitar, and Ray Charles on vocal styles.

In July of 1955, "Don't Touch Me" and "Too Tired" are released by RPM Records on #431. In late summer of the year RPM releases #436 by Watson - "Those Lonely Lonely Nights" and "Someone Cares For Me". Both sides are bluesy ballads, with "Someone" a tune with interesting chord changes. Both sides showcase Watson's steely, singing, guitar style with fast metallic bursts of notes in his unique style. "Nights" takes off immediately for Watson even though there is a competing R & B version (the original one) by Earl King for Ace Records ( #509). During late summer and into September, a dynamite package featuring Johnny Watson, B.B. King, Louis Jordan, Donna Hightower, Harold Conner, and Dottie Smith hit the road in Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Sellouts were the order of the day in Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and Little Rock. The two competing versions of "Nights" fight it out for sales superiority. Watson's owns both coasts while King's sells well in New Orleans, Memphis, and St. Louis. Johnny appears at the first telecast of Hunter Hancock's Saturday night TV show for KNXT in Los Angeles. In October Watson joins up again with former band leader Chuck Higgins, and The Turks for a weeklong show at the 5-4 Ballroom. Through Thanksgiving weekend, the 5-4 Ballroom is the scene for a battle of the blues guitarists with Johnny Watson and Guitar Slim on stage. Also on the bill is R & B vocalist Young Jessie. Watson closes out the year appearing at Bard's Theater in Los Angeles with Tony Allen & The Champs and The Sounds.

"Give A Little" and "Oh Baby" are released by RPM on #447 early in the new year. In February of 1956 Watson does a well attended week at Chicago's Birdland Club. His new RPM record in April is "Ruben" / "Three Hours Past Midnight" on # 455. After a summer on the road, RPM releases #471 - "Love Me, Baby" and "She Moves Me". Times are now getting hard for a Texas R & B performer as the late fifties see the teen idols take over center stage. Early in 1957 Watson is part of the backup band for a number of shows on the West Coast. The band includes Joe Houston, Chuck Higgins, and Riff Ruffin. During the summer Watson tours with a show that includes The Cadillacs, Coasters, Lowell Fulson, and Ernie Freeman.Late in 1957, Johnny Watson is let go by RPM as a sign of the times, but he records a song he will be most identified with for the rest of his life "Gangster Of Love" for Keen Records on #4005. The flip side is "One Room Country Shack". Another Keen release - #4023 featured the tunes "Deana Baby" and "Honey" was issued in September of 1958.

In early 1959 Watson records "The Bear" and "One More Kiss" for the Class Records label on #246. By now Johnny Watson had returned to his former position as a sideman working with Don & Dewey, The Marathons / Olympics vocal group, and even a stint with Little Richard. It wasn't until 1962 that Watson saw success again, this time for the King label with a tune named "Cuttin In". He then embarked on a successful teaming with 50s R & B singer-pianist Larry Williams that produced recordings and international tours. By the 70s he was in the process of re-inventing himself as a funk-disco-rap performer both vocally and on the guitar. He was a sideman on Frank Zappa's "One Size Fits All" and in the late 70s two gold albums for Watson on the Dick James DJM label in England - "A Real Mother For Ya" and "Ain't That A Bitch". In the nineteen eighties he did a bit of a disappearing act but came back strong once again in the 90s with a Grammy nominated album called "Bow Wow" in 1994. A short while after seeing a third wave of success in his career he passed away on stage at the Ocean Boulevard Blues Cafe in Yokohama, Japan on May 17, 1996.

Johnny "Guitar" Watson was one of the few R & B pioneers from out of the late forties that survived the great changes in the music and American society to prosper well into the nineties. That he died on the stage that he was so much a part of, making music for many appreciative fans, was a truly fitting end for one of America's true R & B heroes. A great retrospective of his work during the 1950s is "The Very Best of Johnny 'Guitar' Watson" on the Collectables label. It includes most of his 1950s sides up to "Gangster Of Love" and is a worthy part of your music collection.

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