Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Essential Johnny “Guitar” Watson

Johnny “Guitar” Watson was already a legend for many years when Steve Miller copped Watson’s act and song “Gangster of Love” and declared himself to be Stevie “Guitar” Miller. Starting as a pianist in the 40’s and early 50’s, Johnny moved to guitar in the mid-50’s and became a nearly instantaneous hit. This is a collection of recordings from about that time and has some amazing tunes!

While primarily drenched in the blues, there is a good amount of variety on this CD, from straight guitar blues, to horn-drenched urban tones to the almost doo-wop r’n’b of “Those Lonely, Lonely Nights” to the Ray Charles influenced “Someone Cares for Me”. Included here is a demo version of “Love Bandit”, which later became his infamous “Gangster of Love”. There is a definite (and intentional) New Orleans feel to “Give a Little” and a raw, rough and vicious blues guitar in what is considered a tour de force by the man, “Three Hours Past Midnight”. He is not a smooth and clean player like someone like BB King – Watson sounds like he stabs at his guitar as if he was pissed off at it. He retains a fluidity and speed and shows why he was an influence on guitarists for generations to come.

Johnny reinvented himself over the years, occasionally returning to piano, but always coming back to guitar, and hitting big in the 70’s with bona fide Top Five R&B smash “A Real Mother For Ya”. This is the stuff that clicks with me though – wildly fantastic blues guitar riffs played over a more polished, horn-drenched background. Maybe not as down & dirty as some of the best Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf, but great nonetheless and spectacular guitar throughout.