The life and death of a guitar-slinger

With his fedora and his Gibson, his pimp-chic style and his flamboyant playing, Johnny 'Guitar' Watson lived and died, on stage, for the blues. Andy Gill looks back in wonder
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The Independent Online
Earlier this month, the blues world lost one of its most innovative and enduring practitioners. There are few recording artists in any genre who can claim to have kept themselves in gainful musical employment for four decades - James Brown, the Isley Brothers, a few venerable bluesmen such as BB King and John Lee Hooker - but few bar Johnny "Guitar" Watson have managed the feat without becoming, in part, static caricatures of their earlier selves. JB still screams inarticulately and gets on the good foot; Hooker still rides that stolid foot-stomp boogie like a predatory lizard. Watson, by contrast, was a stylistic chameleon whose career touched bases none of his peers came close tog. As a result, he was less well- known than they, though his influence stretches as far as theirs.

"In the blues world, there are very, very few innovative talents of the size of a Johnny 'Guitar' Watson," says his friend and colleague, the renowned blues producer Mike Vernon. "John has constantly experimented, he's tried to stay with the times, and created a lot of fantastic music which the anoraks of the blues world tend to pooh-pooh. A talent like John's is very hard to keep in check."

He was also universally regarded as one of the nicest guys in music, even when enduring the ravages of cocaine along with virtually every other musician in the Seventies. "He was a wonderful guy, generous, sweet, always smiling and happy," recalls his former manager Danny Keffler, with great fondness. "I was certainly aware of his drug problems, but they never affected him adversely: he never missed a show, never missed a plane, never missed an interview. Our relationship was always great. He was a gentleman all the way."

Born in Houston in 1935, Watson moved to Los Angeles in 1950, and was playing piano professionally by the time he was 17, for such as Big Jay McNeely, Amos Milburn and Little Richard. After seeing his fellow Texan Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown performing, however, he switched to guitar, modelling his style on Gate's crowd-pleasing antics.

He swiftly became a great guitar-slinger in the T-Bone Walker tradition, an audacious showman whose natural flash didn't serve him too well during the drably "authentic" Sixties blues boom. It's an enduring commonplace of black music that the qualities prized by white "purists" in their black heroes - pain, suffering, tribulation - are precisely the qualities that black performers, and black audiences, most wish to transcend. As with the outrageous costumes and theatrical gimmickry of Seventies funk outfits like Funkadelic and Earth, Wind & Fire, a flamboyant sense of instrumental style is a coded signal of empowerment for black musicians, an indication of supreme control and self-determination.

It was also, for Watson, a lot of fun. "When me and Guitar Slim used to tour together, we would be playing with our teeth, playing with my foot, doing back-flips and playing guitar behind my back," he told Paul Trynka, author of the recently published Portrait of the Blues. "Slim had this big guy he'd ride on the back of, so I had to get me this bigger guy, he had this long guitar lead where he'd walk into the audience, so I got this long guitar lead - man, it was totally insane!"

Watson's act was hugely influential on a lot of young American guitarists, especially Texan kids like Johnny Winter, Tony Joe White and Steve Miller, for whom Watson's "Gangster Of Love" became something of a theme-tune. The young Frank Zappa, too, was struck by the distinctive feedback and distortion Watson employed on tracks such as "Space Guitar" (1952). "I started out imitating the guitar solos off records like 'Three Hours Past Midnight' by Johnny 'Guitar' Watson," he admitted to me a few years ago. It's some measure of the bluesman's ability that, later in his career, Zappa - the most demanding of musical taskmasters - would return the favour by employing Watson's talents as guitarist and vocalist on his albums One Size Fits All, Thing-Fish and Them And Us. Watson, for his part, was mightily impressed when, the first time they met, Zappa played him the solo from one of his own songs, note for note - "then the first time I met (Zappa's son) Dweezil, he did exactly the same thing!"

Through the Sixties, Watson cast around for a style he could call his own, turning his capable hands to a variety of projects. He made a cocktail- lounge piano album for Chess Records, and an album of Fats Waller covers for OKeh Records. Then he hooked up for a while with Larry Williams - best known as a Little Richard manque for songs such as "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" and "Short Fat Fannie", but in terms of income, first and foremost a pimp and drug-dealer. Busted several times for dealing, Williams developed a lifestyle way beyond the level of his musical success, acquiring a luxury $500,000 home in Los Angeles' fashionable Laurel Canyon with a garage large enough to take his fleet of Porsches, Cadillacs and Rolls-Royces. It was in this garage that he was found by his mother, early in 1980, with a .38 bullet in his brain; the police claimed it was suicide, but Larry's friends and family believed it was more likely a drug hit.

The duo scored one medium-sized hit with "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" in 1967, Watson adding sly, street-jive lyrics to Joe Zawinul's melody. Williams' legacy persisted, however, in Watson's sense of style, which leaned heavily on the classic pimpsuit look: big rings and gold chains accessorising garish pink or white suits, the whole ensemble topped off by a trademark wide-brimmed fedora and outsized shades. (In later years, he would match the clothes with a garish turquoise pimpmobile, one of only six Stutz Bear Cats ever made.) It's also likely that it was around this time that the guitarist started getting heavily into drugs, though unlike many of the era's casualties, he came through it relatively unscathed.

"At that time, everybody was doing drugs," he admitted. "I don't know anyone that escaped - anyone that says they did was a liar. It was just a part of that time. Everybody was snorting cocaine, smoking weed ... I'm just thankful to God I made it through that period and still have my sanity."

Then, in 1976, Watson finally struck paydirt. Acting on Mike Vernon's recommendation, DJM Records signed him to do an album, with a sizeable advance and, unusually, no strings attached. It was later rumoured - not least by Watson himself - that DJM was planning to use his album as a tax write-off against the enormous revenues generated by Elton John's records and publishing rights, but what they actually got was a ground- breaking funk record, Ain't That A Bitch, which was an immediate and huge worldwide hit.

As with most of his records, Watson overdubbed many of the instruments himself, devising a fizzing Moog bass sound for the album, the like of which had never been heard before. It proved to be one of the most important developments in dance music since the drum-machine had first appeared on Sly & The Family Stone's "Family Affair" a few years before, but it took considerably longer to exert its influence - indeed, it was not until the likes of Ice Cube and Dr Dre started using samples of Watson's Seventies tracks on their G-Funk records that the debt became obvious.

"When I recorded that album I had a serious ego problem," Watson later recalled. "I was having all these arguments with people who were telling me, 'You're crazy, man, you can't use a synthesiser for bass, there ain't gonna be enough bottom.' I just ignored them. I was listening to lots of different things, particularly what Stevie Wonder was doing with synthesisers. I was experimenting because I loved the music."

It wasn't just the loping bass bounce that he bequeathed to rap music, either: as early as 1957's "Gangster Of Love" Watson was making what were basically prototype rap records, jive-talking excursions which played off the rascally persona favoured by black hustlers through the ages, with cheeky lines inflating his own sexual prowess, and a sly snook-cocking aimed at law-enforcement operatives. Watson was a splendid, sly lyricist, equally accomplished on love brags like the self-explanatory "Superman Lover" and wry social commentaries such as "Telephone Bill" (another rap, from 1980). He loved pulling off excruciating, dubious rhymes - "She doesn't know what a thing she's causin'/Got me runnin' round, wanna holler like Tarzan" - and delighted in sneaking risque rudeness past radio censors. He even went so far as to use a cheeky allusion to the familiar Oedipal expletive as an album title - A Real Mother For Ya, 1977 - but was self- deprecatory enough to use a sleeve photograph of himself, thumb aloft and grinning widely beneath the ubiquitous fedora, being pushed in an absurd fake-Cadillac pram by his own mother. Blues purists may have blanched, but the sleeve won a design award, and the record sold like crazy. "People were saying, 'This guy Johnny 'Guitar' Watson is out of his mind!' " he recalled. "I was having so much fun I was a little mad too, I really was. I went all the way - whatever direction I saw something, I just went all the way."

For all his outward flamboyance, Watson was an essentially level-headed man who, after the usual poor business deals early in his career, quickly developed a shrewd streak which would keep him in comfort for the rest of his life. In 1980 he made a decision to ease back on his career throttle, touring less and working from home more. Unlike most other bluesmen from the Fifties, he kept well abreast of contemporary technical developments in music - not just the synth bass, but also computers, of which he was an early adherent, mastering sequencer technology and developing a flourishing sideline in production. Much more than a Jack, he was a master of all musical trades. As he noted in 1976, on the title-track of Ain't That A Bitch, "I programme computers/I know accounting and psychology/I took a course in business/And I can speak a little Japanese."

He could, too; doubtless he had just dashed off some wry between-songs patter in the local tongue when, on Friday 17 May, he collapsed on stage in Japan and died. As a working musician, it was the way he would have wanted to go: not just with his boots on, but with his fedora and shades on too.