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Friday, May 30, 2014

Johnny "Guitar" Watson - The Gangster Is Back - The Early Years

Watson's roots resided within the fertile blues scene of Houston. As a teen, he played with fellow Texas future greats Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland. But he left Houston for Los Angeles when he was only 15 years old. Back then, Watson's main instrument was piano; that's what he played with Chuck Higgins' band when the saxist cut "Motorhead Baby" for Combo in 1952 (Watson also handled vocal duties).
He was listed as Young John Watson when he signed with Federal in 1953. His first sides for the King subsidiary found him still tinkling the ivories, but by 1954, when he dreamed up the absolutely astonishing instrumental "Space Guitar," the youth had switched over to guitar. "Space Guitar" ranks with the greatest achievements of its era -- Watson's blistering rapid-fire attack, done without the aid of a pick, presages futuristic effects that rock guitarists still hadn't mastered another 15 years down the line.
Watson moved over to the Bihari Brothers' RPM label in 1955 and waxed some of the toughest upbeat blues of their time frame (usually under saxist Maxwell Davis's supervision). "Hot Little Mama," "Too Tired," and "Oh Baby" scorched the strings with their blazing attack; "Someone Cares for Me" was a churchy Ray Charles-styled slow-dragger, and "Three Hours Past Midnight" cut bone-deep with its outrageous guitar work and laid-back vocal (Watson's cool phrasing as a singer was scarcely less distinctive than his playing). He scored his first hit in 1955 for RPM with a note-perfect cover of New Orleanian Earl King's two-chord swamp ballad "Those Lonely Lonely Nights."
Though he cut a demo version of the tune while at RPM, Watson's first released version of "Gangster of Love" emerged in 1957 on Keen. Singles for Class ("One Kiss"), Goth, Arvee (the rocking introduction "Johnny Guitar"), and Escort preceded a hookup with Johnny Otis at King during the early '60s. He recut "Gangster" for King, reaching a few more listeners this time, and dented the R&B charts again in 1962 with his impassioned, violin-enriched blues ballad "Cuttin' In."
Never content to remain in one stylistic bag for long, Watson landed at Chess just long enough to cut a jazz album in 1964 that placed him back behind the 88s. Along with longtime pal Larry Williams, Watson rocked England in 1965 (their dynamic repartee was captured for posterity by British Decca). Their partnership lasted stateside through several singles and an LP for OKeh; among their achievements as a duo was the first vocal hit on "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" in 1967 (predating the Buckinghams by a few months).
Little had been heard of this musical chameleon before he returned decked out in funk threads during the mid-'70s. He hit with "I Don't Want to Be a Lone Ranger" for Fantasy before putting together an incredible run at DJM Records paced by "A Real Mother for Ya" in 1977 and an updated "Gangster of Love" the next year.
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10 comments:

Dave said...

First off, great blog. Secondly, thanks for posting this Johnny Guitar Watson comp; I used to play 'Space Guitar' in a record shop I worked in 25+ years ago, and it was great fun to watch customers' jaws drop when they heard it, even more so once we explained that it wasn't Hendrix and predated Jimi by 10+ years!
Again, thanks!
-Porter

boogieman said...

Dear Gyros,

That old Red Lightin' LP ! I bought it when it came out, 30 years ago. It had a great review in blues Unlimited which was The Bible for any blues collector in those years. I know that all those things are available on CD now. But not with that great front cover.
The Ike Turner 's Kings of Rhythm issued at about the same time was fantastic too.
It brings back happy memories.
Cheers

Xyros said...

Glad both of you liked the lp and the cover which was the main reason for posting it.
Red Lightnin" released some great lp's and gave me a chance to hear some rare music at the time. The fun of saving up my money and hunting down and finding the releases was a kick.
I miss those days now that every burp and fart is available on cd in 10 different versions and can be downloaded from a blog, newsgroup, P2P or whatever. No challenge or kick anymore. Believe me I'm as old as I sound also.

Duncanmusic said...

When I saw the mention of Red Ligthning Records my antennae went up...I still have Jukebox @ Eric's and used to have a couple other of these pseudo-official reissue compilations ... The one I remember and am craving id i believe called 'Blues In D Natural' that featured Earl Hooker doing 'Tanya' and Frankie Lee Sims and others. i only had a hand lettered plain white sleeve edition when I had it and have never seen an actual cover to it...

Any chance you (or someone els might have this for posting?

Also, read your comment (or someone else) about the ease of finding stuff these days on the internet, Usenet, etc...maybe so, but you still have to know what you're looking for and that takes some prior knowledge and experience which is what many of the best bloggers provide and I thank them all (including you).

Xyros said...

the early Red Lighting releases were always worth while looking out for and I still try and buy them if they're not to expensive.
Blues in d natutal is one of the releases I'm still trying to find. If I do it will be posted soon after it arrives.
Also I'm glad you like the music that I've put online.

Anonymous said...

I have been trying to get Johnny Guitar Watson's version of "gangster of love" for some time

Thank you

Rhod

p.s Please don't go !!!!!!!!

marìa eugenia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marl G said...

Most of the Red Lightnin' LPs are great.
Particularly-
The Leading Brand
Blues in D Natural
Guitar Star
I'm Tore Up
San Antonio Ballbuster
No Friend Around
-All Killer!
I have one problem with this LP- Why did they include those terrible instrumentals with Shuggie Otis!? That space on the vinyl could have included "Space Guitar", "Baby Don't Leave" or the excellent "Late Freight Twist" instead of those generic tracks that display none of what makes Watson so brilliant. Maybe it had to do with copyrights or the fact that Watson was still alive. Sorry for the babble but where else could I complain about such things?
Great blog. Keep up the good work!

Bob Mac said...

I also had a problem with this LP, shame about all those comments by Johnny Otis between tracks.

Daver88 said...

Xyros - Thanks for this & all the other great posts.
Love the cover & like some of your other posters i agree that the Otis comments & the two throwaway jamming tracks could have been left out.
I just edited out all the Otis stuff in Audacity. Now I have a great 14 track compilation.