Obituary: Johnny "Guitar" Watson

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The Independent Online
When Johnny "Guitar" Watson joined the archdevil of dada- istic rock, Frank Zappa, on the road, it was a bit like Muddy Waters joining Karl-Heinz Stockhausen (or, to mention a similarly unlikely teaming that actually happened, when the Chieftains joined John Cage on stage). But Watson was said to have been the seminal influence on Zappa's own guitar playing, and anyway Zappa's admiration for the more hard-core blues players was well known, as witness his hiring blues fiddler Sugarcane Harris to play with the Mothers of Invention in the early Seventies.

Surprisingly, when Watson recorded with Frank Zappa later that decade, it was mostly on vocals ("One Size Fits All", "Them Or Us", and "Thing- Fish") that we heard him on record, though he played some mean riffs on the live version of the scatalogical "In France" on the album FZ Meets the Mothers of Prevention.

For Watson's part, one of the songs on his 1993 album, Bow Wow - his first for 13 years - was supposedly dedicated to Zappa.

Born in Houston, Texas in 1935, Watson was influenced by the pioneer of electric blues, T-Bone Walker, first recorded as Young John Watson, had a Top Ten R&B hit with "Cuttin' In" in 1962, and co-wrote the Larry Williams hit, "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" in 1967.

As well as touring with Williams, Watson also worked with Big Jay McNeely, Amos Milburn, Bumps Blackwell, Sam Cooke, George Duke, and even the quasi- mariachi trumpet player Herb Alpert, for whose A & M record label Watson recorded "That's What Time It Is" in 1981. He also recorded with Chuck Higgins, an example of which ("Motorhead Baby") is currently available on the CD re-release of his 1957 album, Three Hours Past Midnight, the one which supposedly first attracted Zappa to blues guitar playing.

Other seminal albums, such as the eponymous Gangster of Love (his nickname for a while) of 1973 and I Don't Want to Be a Lone Ranger (1975) are also available. He had some success in the lower end of the rock album charts with his multi-tracked Johnny Guitar Watson and the Family Clone (1981) on which he played all the instruments.

Like T-Bone (who was also a jazz trombonist of some distinction), Watson was if anything more interested in jazz than the blues, and last year he confessed that though he went to hear people like B.B. King appear at clubs in Los Angeles during his teenage days, it was the jazz guests who really turned him on. He also made several jazz piano albums, though he came to the instrument comparatively late in life.

He was not a flashy guitar player, espousing the "less is more" philosophy of fretwork, which didn't stop him from influencing Jimi Hendrix (who could also play simply and sweetly, when required). Most recently, his guitar riffs have turned up on rap songs by Snoop Doggy Dogg and Ice Cube.

In the blues hierarchy, he'd probably be placed well below the real giants like King and Waters, and more towards the funk end of the spectrum, but his neat, well-constructed solos never strayed far from their roots, and pointed putting over of his sexy lyrics made him a favourite with audiences. He was last seen in Europe in April.

John Watson (Johnny "Guitar" Watson), musician: born Houston, Texas 3 February 1935; married (one son, one daughter); died Yokohama, Japan 17 May 1996.