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Johnny "Guitar" Watson

Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson - guitarist, vocalist

A working bluesman since his teenage years in the early 1950s, Johnny "Guitar" Watson scored numerous chart successes in the 1970s with a unique guitar-based sound that mixed the feel and instrumental technique of the blues with the bass-heavy sound of funk. Watson also excelled as a vocalist. His singing was by turns sexy, humorous, and political; his guitar playing exploited the full range of the instrument's powers. He was also a prolific songwriter. When Watson died in 1996 at the age of 61, he was receiving the most modern form of musical homage: rappers and hip-hop musicians quoting or "sampling" his recordings.

Watson was born in Houston on February 3, 1935. His father was a pianist who instructed his son in the rudiments of music, and at age 11 Watson was given a guitar by his grandfather, a preacher who disapproved of the blues and made the gift conditional on his never playing that most secular of musical forms. He could hardly help it, for the postwar years might be considered the golden age of blues guitar. Black guitarists who had moved to cities in the North and West from their Southern homes found ready audiences in urban barrooms and dance halls. They started to play electric instruments and rapidly honed their skills, making great leaps in both dexterity and imagination.

As a youth, Watson had heard the blues guitar of fellow Texan T- Bone Walker. He was also influenced by guitarist Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, a showman given to unusual guitar performance styles and to such onstage surprises as playing a fiddle. Moving with his family to Los Angeles around 1950, "Young John Watson," as he was billed on a 1953 single record, developed his own gift for showmanship, entering and winning a variety of talent contests and shows. This exposure led to work as a sideman (sometimes still on piano) in various West Coast jump blues and jazz bands of the time, including those led by Chuck Higgins and Amos Milburn.

Signed to the Federal label (a division of the famed Cincinnati independent King Records) in 1953, Watson began to create his own distinctive style with an instrumental single called "Space Jam." Well ahead of its time, the record featured experimentation with reverb and feedback guitar effects, and it brought the young guitarist his first hit. He recorded for various small Los Angeles labels through the 1950s, including RPM, owned by West Coast rhythm-and-blues entrepreneurs the Bihari brothers.

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Album Review

Johnny "Guitar" Watson: Blues Masters: The Very Best of Johnny "Guitar" Watson

Read "Blues Masters: The Very Best of Johnny "Guitar" Watson" reviewed by Ed Kopp


Johnny “Guitar" Watson was a vastly underappreciated blues and R&B trendsetter whose adventurous guitar style influenced the likes of Bo Diddley, Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa. The Very Best of Johnny “Guitar" Watson focuses on the years 1952 through 1963, the period when Watson made his best music. Many of these tracks were previously unavailable on CD, so this collection is a must-have for anyone interested in the roots of modern blues, R&B or classic rock.Born in Texas, ...

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