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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.

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