Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson – Space Guitar

17th November 2021 · 1950s, 1954, Music

Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson is the forgotten guitar legend of rock’n’roll. Perhaps he was just too far ahead of his time. This is simply extraordinary.

Who knew that electric guitar pyrotechnics like this even existed way back in 1954? It was a year before Chuck Berry released Maybellene and 13 years before Jimi Hendrix released Hey Joe.

The pop charts were dominated by MoR crooners like Perry Como and Eddie Fisher, Rosemary Clooney and Doris Day.
In Memphis, Elvis Presley was cutting primitive rockabilly tunes without a drummer.

Meanwhile, a teenage Texan called Young John Watson was recording this reverb-drenched masterpiece. And he didn’t even use a plectrum.

Incredibly, the guitar was only his second instrument. Watson started out in his early teens playing piano in blues bands in and around his hometown of Houston.

When he was 16 his parents split and he moved to LA with his mother, playing jump-blues in juke joints and beginning to develop his swaggering style of flamboyant clothes, wild stage persona, and aggressive guitar playing – without a pick.

Soon he had earned the nickname Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson.

Equally adept at singing, guitar and piano, Watson swapped styles with regularity, encompassing blues, jazz, soul and swamp pop, before reinventing himself from pompadoured southern soul man to a pimped-up fedora-wearing funkateer.

That brought him his biggest success in the Seventies, with tunes like Ain’t That A Bitch, Superman Lover, Real Mutha For Ya and a re-recording of one of his own songs from 1957, Gangster Of Love.

He also played on several albums by Frank Zappa, one of many musicians who regarded him as a formative influence on their guitar playing (specifically his 1956 song Three Hours Past Midnight).

Others include his fellow Texas bluesman Jimmie Vaughan (brother of Stevie Ray Vaughan) and Steve Miller, who covered Gangster Of Love (and referred to it in two of his other songs, Space Cowboy and The Joker).

Bobby Womack placed him above Sly Stone and George Clinton in the pantheon of funk greats – and Etta James modelled her singing style on him, earning herself the title “the female Johnny Guitar Watson.”

All of which makes it strange, and disappointing, that Watson, who died onstage in 1996, is not a household name. He’s more than that – he’s a legend.

Ps. Not that anyone will notice, but the other musicians on this recording are Bill Gaither on tenor sax, Devonia Williams on piano, Mario Delagarde on bass, and Charles Prendergraft on drums