©2022 By Burt Kearns and Jeff Abraham
Johnny “Guitar” Watson, who would have celebrated his eighty-seventh birthday on February 3, was more than an influential Black musician who spent forty years riding the wave of changing tastes and genres, from the blues to R&B, rock ’n’ roll to soul, funk to disco and back again. Johnny “Guitar” Watson was a hardcore guitar gunslinger with a sound described as “an icepick to the forehead.” He was the Gangster of Love, and he proved it in the way he played, the way he lived – and the way he died.
John Watson Jr. was born in Houston, Texas, in 1935. His father was a pianist who taught him the keys when he was a child, but it was the guitar, specifically the electric guitar as played by the Texas blues showman T-Bone Walker, that grabbed the boy. He was eleven when his preacher grandfather bought him a guitar, and he learned quickly. Soon he was a figure on the Bayou City blues scene, a prodigy playing alongside the likes of Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland.
Then, in 1950, John’s parents split and his mother dragged him away to Los Angeles. Still a teen, John made his bones playing jump blues and jazz in South L.A. juke joints, and gained a rep as a flamboyant purveyor of West Coast rhythm and blues. He made first record in 1953 as Young John Watson. The following year, he watched the Joan Crawford movie Johnny Guitar. The psychosexual lesbian melodramatics may have gone over his head, but the film’s title stuck and gave him an identity he’d stick with. Johnny “Guitar” Watson would be a flashy, good-humored showboat who dressed sharp and played his instrument, like T-Bone Walker, behind his back – and one-upping his hero by playing with his teeth and feet, as well.
Watson’s 1954 single “Space Guitar,” with its pickless “attacking style” guitar licks, feedback and reverb, was years ahead of its time. You can picture young James Marshall Hendrix spending hours wearing out the grooves of the 45, trying to decipher and translate the techniques that he’d eventually carry to another dimension.
“I first met him when we were both on the road with Johnny Otis in the ‘50s when I was a teenager,” blues singer Etta James recalled. “We traveled the country in a car together so I would hear him sing every night… I got everything from Johnny. He was my main model. He was the baddest and the best… not just a guitarist: the man was a master musician. They call Elvis ‘The King,’ but the sure-enough king was Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson.”
The Gangster Is Back
In the 1960s, with the rise of and rock & roll and soul music, Watson slipped into a groove as a sideman and made a lasting friendship with Larry Williams, an R&B and rock ’n’ roll singer, songwriter and producer out of New Orleans. Williams was a contemporary and close friend of Little Richard, and when Richard suddenly quit rock & roll for the ministry in 1957, Williams was groomed as his successor. He released his biggest hits that that year. “Bony Moronie” and “Short Fat Fannie” each sold more than a million copies.
Larry Williams also turned out to be one of the rare American rock ’n’ rollers who wasn’t trampled by the British invasion, because many of the invaders, including the Rolling Stones, recorded cover versions of his old songs. More to the point, the Beatles recorded his songs “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” “Slow Down,” and “Bad Boy.” Williams and Johnny “Guitar” Watson teamed up in a funky soul band in the 1960s, playing under the mainstream radar, but big on the road.
As the decade ticked away, rock ’n’ roll became “rock” and the music became more sophisticated, Johnny “Guitar” Watson extended his own influence over the white American boys printing money by appropriating Black music. It was Frank Zappa who’d compared Watson’s sound to that of an icepick to the forehead. Zappa said Watson’s 1956 recording of “Three Hours Past Midnight” inspired him to take up guitar.
“Watson, he’s the original minimalist guitar player,” Zappa enthused on the interview that became part two of The Frank Zappa Interview Picture Disc series. “The solo on ‘Lonely Nights,’ the one-note guitar solo? Says it all! Gets the point across. I can remember guitar players in high school learning that solo and just going, ‘But how does he get it to sound that way?’ It really was one note. If you can play that note against those chord changes and derive the same emotional impact that he got from playing that note, then you’re onto something. He can make that one be so nasty. You know, like, ‘What’s behind that note? What is the mode? Why are you continuing to play the tonic when the dominant chord comes around? Are you goin’ like this (gestures with his middle finger in the ‘F-you’ position) with your playing or what?’ You have to learn how to do that.
“Generally the people who write about music don’t know music. Anybody can tell whether these four notes are faster than these four notes. But what does it take to listen to Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson’s one note, and know that he’s doin’ that? Did you ever point that out to a reader? Did you ever get across that there’s something more to it than rilly-rilly-ree?”
Zappa paid his debt to Watson, featuring him on four of his albums, including One Size Fits All, the last studio album by his Mothers of Invention.
Watson’s influence in the late 1960s was more obvious yet less evident to the mainstream white audience thanks to Steve Miller, a blues-rock guitarist from Wisconsin by way of San Francisco. The Steve Miller Band featured a version of Watson’s song, “Gangster of Love,” on the Sailor album in 1968. A few years later, Miller tiptoed to the edge of identity theft when he recorded “The Gangster Is Back,” and went all-in two years later with his first number one record, “The Joker,” in which he stated that “Some people call me the space cowboy, yeah. Some call me the gangster of love.”
There was no question. Johnny “Guitar” Watson was the Gangster of Love, but he didn’t strike back immediately. At the time “The Joker” was making millions for Miller, Watson wasn’t in competition with his former self, but producing smooth soul records that would fit in nicely on “Black radio.” He waited until 1975 to turn the tables and set the record straight when he released an album called The Gangster is Back. It was beginning of another reinvention. Funk and disco had pushed R&B, soul music, and even Sly Stone into the past, and Watson’s career seemed to be over, when he suddenly turned up as a hardcore funkster in Dolemite gangsta pimp daddy drag, shaking off his pompadour for a big Afro, with wide-brim hat, oversized sunglasses, colorful skintight suits, and hit albums including Ain’t That a Bitch and A Real Mother for Ya.
Watson had a Top 5 R&B single and made it to the Top 50 of the pop charts. Most satisfying, he scored a hit in 1978 with a remake of his 1957 single which didn’t make the charts the first time around: “Gangster of Love.”
The Gangster was back.
And then, around 1980, Watson did another disappearing act. One big reason was the death of his dear friend, Larry Williams.
The ‘murder’ of Larry Williams
Thanks to producing gigs and those Beatles royalties, Williams had done well for himself by the end of the ‘70s. He had money, and a half-million-dollar home, in Los Angeles – not in the Ladera Heights, “the Black Beverly Hills,” but Laurel Canyon, north of Sunset Boulevard, where Zappa and a lot of those hippie singer-songwriters had settled and heavy drugs had moved in.
Williams’s body was found in his two-story house on January 2. His mother made the discovery. She hadn’t heard from her son in two weeks, so she had a locksmith open the door. Dead Larry Williams was on the second floor, on the floor, sprawled under a table. He was wearing his street clothes and a hat. He’d been shot once in the head, with a .38 caliber revolver. The floor was covered with dried blood. The pistol, according to the police, was in his hand. The doors to the house had been locked from the inside, and the key was in Williams’ pocket. His pockets also contained two dollars and forty cents. Williams was wearing a wristwatch and a necklace fashioned from a twenty-dollar gold piece.
The cops said Williams may have been dead a week. There was no evidence of robbery. The coroner’s office didn’t even bother to do an autopsy before it ruled the death “suicide by gunshot.”
The cops had it all figured. Williams was despondent because his third wife had left and taken their two-year-old girl – plus there was some question about whether he’d actually divorced the second wife. The estranged wife didn’t buy it. She said Larry was too full of life to take his own. The family and his friends called it murder. Everybody knew Larry Williams was involved in drugs and into pimping – but the case was closed. No one was ever arrested. Larry Williams was forty-four.
Little Richard presided over the service at the Angelus Funeral Home on Crenshaw Boulevard in South L.A. Once the wildest, sexiest, homosexual rock & roll screamer in rock ’n’ roll, Richard was now a proper evangelist (he’d run back to the ministry after Larry nearly shot him dead over a drug debt in 1977). Clad in a conservative brown suit, he stood at the pulpit and sang the gospel song “Precious Lord,” pure and sweet and drenched in tears.
Johnny Watson stepped up to the pulpit to sing a spiritual he’d written himself. Johnny was distraught. He swallowed hard. He took a breath. No.
“I don’t think I can sing anything,” he mumbled, and looking toward his boots, walked back to his seat, defeated.
And then he was gone.
One more comeback
“I got caught up with the wrong people doing the wrong things,” he told the New York Times.
While he was away, Watson’s legacy was kept alive and his bank account in the black by blues disciples like Robert Cray, Gary Moore, and the Vaughan brothers, Stevie Ray and Jimmie. In 1982, fellow far-out funk musician George Clinton took one of Johnny’s stage lines and made a song out of it: “Atomic Dog.” “Bow wow wow, yippie you yippie yea.” That line was Johnny’s. Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg would use a version in “Who Am I (What’s My Name?).” (Dozens of hip hop artists have sampled, and continue to use samples of Watson’s work in their songs).
It was 1994 when Johnny “Guitar” Watson made one more comeback. “I got rid of my friends, cleaned myself off and started writing more,” he said. He recorded an album, Bow Wow, injected his catchphrase into a song of that name, gained attention and sales, and was nominated for a Grammy in the Contemporary Blues category.
On February 29, 1996, the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, which provides cash and care to old “race music,” R&B, and soul artists, presented him with the prestigious Pioneer Award.
It was on the winds of this revival that Johnny “Guitar” Watson arrived in Japan on May 11, 1996, to perform in the annual Blues Carnival concert series along with Cray and James Cotton.
The Carnival tour opened in Kobe on May 12 and worked its way around the country, leading to a climactic concert at the two-thousand seat Hibaya Yagau Ongakudo outdoor amphitheater in Tokyo on May 19. Watson would return to the United States the following day.
Watson and his eight-man band performed shows in Kyoto, Osaka, and Nagoya, and on Friday, May 17, at the Ocean Boulevard Blues Cafe in Yokohama. A roomy venue with tables and a balcony, the club was packed with blues fans when Watson descended a staircase to the stage just after 7:30 PM and went into his 1976 hit, “Superman Lover.”
…I can leap tall buildings in a single bound
When it come to getting over you, baby
Well, I can’t get off the ground
But they call me the Superman lover, yeah—
Keeping up the funk behind him, the band sensed something was wrong immediately. Johnny didn’t seem to be all there. He was skipping words –
They’d call me the Superman lover, yeah
But something’s wrong, something’s wrong with me…
Something’s wrong, yeah, yes, it is…
Something was very wrong.
Faster than a speeding bullet –
With that, Johnny “Guitar” Watson grabbed the microphone stand with one hand, and holding his other to his chest, pushed the mic toward the audience, slid to the floor, onto his back, and rolled to his side.
It was a move worthy of James Brown. All he was missing was the cape draped over his shoulders. The audience was impressed. They cheered the Gangster of Love. A moment later they were silent, as keyboard player and bandleader Michael King ran to the star, took his hand and turned him over.
“I looked in his eyes and they were bloodshed red, his tongue was swollen and thick and sticking halfway out of his mouth, with a terrifying look on his face,” he recalled.
The tour manager called for an ambulance. A band member put an ear to Watson’s chest, listened for a heartbeat, and began compressions. Another began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation — all while the audience watched in silence. He was taken off the stage and brought to the ambulance outside,
The paramedics worked on Watson for a half hour in the ambulance before rushing to the hospital. They agreed he was already gone, but death was not pronounced officially until 9:16. Johnny “Guitar” Watson was dead of a heart attack at sixty-one.
“Johnny once said that if he died, he wanted to die onstage,” said Charles Green, a sax player in Watson’s band. “He went out like a champion, doing what he loved.”
Watson’s daughter Virginia agreed. “My father always said that when it was time to go, he wanted to be on stage and not know what hit him. God granted him that gift.”
BURT KEARNS and JEFF ABRAHAM wrote The Show Won’t Go On: The Most Shocking, Bizarre and Historic Deaths of Performers Onstage, published by Chicago Review Press. Burt’s biography of the actor Lawrence Tierney will be published in Fall 2022.