1996 – Blues guitarist Johnny “Guitar” Watson dies while touring Japan.
b. 3rd February 1935, Houston, Texas, U.S.A.
d. 17th May 1996, Yokohama, Japan.
Johnny Guitar Watson’s career went back to the early 50’s in Houston.
As a teenager, Johnny played with various artists including Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland.
His father played piano, which also became Johnny’s first instrument.
Johnny left Houston for Los Angeles when he was only 15 years old.
He played piano with Chuck Higgins’ band when he recorded ‘Motorhead Baby’ for the Combo imprint in 1952.
Johnny also performed the vocal chores on that song.
On seeing Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown perform, he convinced himself that he had to play guitar.
He inherited a guitar from his grandfather, a preacher, on the condition that he did not play the blues on it .
Johnny later admitted that ‘that was the first thing I played’.
He was listed as Young John Watson when he signed with Federal in 1953.
There he recorded ‘Space Guitar’, utilising reverberation and feedback, an unusual technique at the time.
Johnny also recorded ‘Motorhead Baby’ at the time (a song he also recorded for Federal with the Amos Milburn Band).
He then relocated to the Bihari Brothers’ RPM label in 1955.
Under saxist Maxwell Davis’s supervision, he released the songs ‘Hot Little Mama’, ‘Too Tired’, and ‘Oh Baby’.
‘Someone Cares for Me’ and ‘Three Hours Past Midnight’ followed.
Johnny had his first hit in 1955 for RPM with a cover of the Earl King song ‘Those Lonely Lonely Nights’, which hit the U.S. R & B ‘ Top 10.
He also recorded with the Olympics, Don And Dewey and Little Richard at the time.
In 1957, the song ‘Gangster Of Love’ gave him a minor hit on the west coast on the Keen imprint.
That tune was later to be adopted by Steve Miller.
Johnny recorded singles for the Class imprint (including ‘One Kiss’), the Goth label, Arvee and the Escort label.
He also worked with Johnny Otis at the King label during the early ’60s.
Johnny re-recorded ‘Gangster Of Love’ for the same label and reached the charts in 1962 with his blues ballad ‘Cuttin’ In’, a song recorded with string accompaniment.
In 1963 he recorded ‘I Cried For You’, an album with his own renditions of ‘Polkadots And Moonbeams’ and ‘Witchcraft’.
An association with Larry Williams followed, and in 1965 they toured England and recorded an album for Decca.
This pairing achieved their first vocal hit with ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy’ in 1967.
In the Seventies, Johnny recorded two soulful funk albums for the Fantasy label, (Listen and ‘I Don’t Want To Be Alone, Stranger’) with keyboardist Andre Lewis (who later toured with Frank Zappa).
He also contributed to Frank Zappa’s album ‘One Size Fits All’ in 1975.
By 1976, Johnny released ‘Ain’t That A Bitch’ on DJM Records, an album that was to change his recording career.
The dancer, ‘I Need It’, became an enormous Pop and R & B hit both sides of the Atlantic and paved the way for further successful album offerings.
Johnny produced, played bass, keyboards and drums on the album and a further six albums appeared on the DJM imprint.
In 1981, he relocated to A & M Records, although the resulting releases were not critically acclaimed.
Johnny released ‘Strike On Computers’ at the end of the 80’s and had an appearance at London’s Town & Country Club in 1987.
In the 90’s his music was sampled by Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr Dre, and the album ‘Bow Wow’ made the U.S. charts (an association with Toni Tony Tone).
Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson died of a heart attack whilst performing at the Yokohama Blues Cafe in Japan on the 17th May 1996.
An excellent retrospective was released in 2005, called ‘The Funk Anthology’.