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Music / Johnny "Guitar" Watson

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The original "Gangster Of Love".

Johnny "Guitar" Watson Jr. (February 3, 1935 May 17, 1996) was an American blues singer and guitarist, best remembered for his hits "Those Lonely, Lonely Nights" (1955) and "Gangster Of Love" (1957)

His father was a pianist, who taught him music. Johnny's grandfather, a preacher, gave him his first guitar, but told him to never play blues music, which still had a sleazy reputation in the 1930s and 1940s. Johnny evidently broke that promise and became first noticed after winning local talent shows. He started his career as a guitarist and pianist for other Jump Blues bands such as Chuck Higgins and Amos Wilburn.

In 1954 he signed to the Federal label and released "Space Jam" (1954), which featured innovative guitar effects such as reverb and feedback. As he explained himself: "I used to play the guitar standing on my hands, I had a 150 foot cord and I could get on top of the auditorium - those things Jimi Hendrix was doing, I started that shit!" Watson still scored hits in the 1960s and 1970s, as he made mixed Disco, Funk and even Jazz in his playing: "Superman Lover", "I Need It" and "A Real Mother For Ya" (1977) were his biggest hits from this period.

Though not a huge name in blues his music is widely acclaimed. Steve Miller covered "Gangster Of Love" in 1968. Stevie Ray Vaughan saw Watson as one of the best blues guitarists ever. Etta James went on record as saying: "I got everything from Johnny... He was my main model... My whole ballad style comes from my imitating Johnny's style... He was the baddest and the best... Johnny Guitar Watson was not just a guitarist: the man was a master musician. He could call out charts; he could write a beautiful melody or a nasty groove at the drop of a hat; he could lay on the harmonies and he could come up with a whole sound. They call Elvis the King; but the sure-enough King was Johnny 'Guitar' Watson." Frank Zappa saw him as one of his prime influences and especially liked the fact that his guitar solos were longer than those from other blues guitarists at the time. "Three Hours Past Midnight" was one of his favorite records of all time, according to a 1975 interview for "Let It Rock" and a 1989 appearance in the American radio show "Castaway's Choice". He also said that if he had to narrow his choices down to one record it would be that song. Later in his career Watson and Zappa became lifelong friends. Watson also performed on Zappa's albums One Size Fits All (1975), Them or Us (1984) and Thing-Fish (1985).

Johnny "Guitar" Watson's work provides examples of:

  • Alliterative Title: "You Got A Hard Head".
  • Cool Shades: Later in his career his broad-brimmed hat, gold teeth, sunglasses and jewelry were part of his public image.
  • Cradle of Loneliness: "Those Lonely Lonely Nights" and "Three Hours Past Midnight" have man longing for his lover.
    Oh, I toss and tumble on my pillow
    But I just can't close my eyes
    If my baby don't come back pretty soon
    Yes, I just can't be satisfied now
  • Deadpan Snarker: He has a strong stake to be this for the blues in general.
    I used to jump on my white horse Cadillac
    And ride across the border line
    I'd rope 55 girls, kiss 'em all at the same time
    I take 35 or 40 and I put them on a freight
    There's a 950 million dollar reward for me
    In each and every state
    The sheriff say "Is your name Johnny 'Guitar' Watson?" in a very deep voice
    And I say "Yes, brother sheriff, and that's your wife on the back of my horse."
  • Early Instalment Weirdness: Early in his career he recorded an album of cocktail lounge music, singing and playing piano: I Cried For You. And it's still awesome.
  • Genre Mashup: Watson is First and Foremost known as a Blues artist, but also interspersed Funk, Disco and Hip-Hop in his music.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Everybody called him "Johnny" and always mentioned the word "Guitar" in his name.
  • Scatting: "The Real Deal"
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: Watson started out wearing cool suits in the 1950s, and by the 1970s he'd adopted the signature look of broad-brimmed hat, shades and gold jewellery.
  • Shout-Out:
    • His nickname "Guitar" is a reference to the film Johnny Guitar (1954).
    • "Superman Lover" references Superman
    Is it a bird? Is it a plane? It's the Superman lover!
    She doesn't know what a thing she's causing
    Got me running round wanna holler like Tarzan
  • Singer Name Drop: "Lovin' You" mentions himself.
  • Soul Brotha: From the late 1960s on he fell into this trope by wearing Cool Shades, dreads, a hat, talking in jive while still playing like a "real mother for ya".
  • Three Chords and the Truth: Watson was notable for being very minimalist in his playing. As Frank Zappa put it in a 1987 interview for Guitar World:
    The solo on "Those Lonely, Lonely Nights," the one-note guitar solo? Says it all! Gets the point across. I can remember guitar players in high school learning that solo and just going, "But how does he get it to sound that way?" It really was one note. If you can play that note against those chord changes and derive the same emotional impact that he got from playing that note, then you're onto something. He can make that one be so nasty. You know, like, "What's behind that note? What is the mode? Why are you continuing to play the tonic when the dominant chord comes around? Are you goin' like this [gestures with his middle finger in the F-you" position] with your playing or what?" You have to learn how to do that. (...) generally the people who write about music don't know music. Anybody can tell whether these four notes are faster than these four notes. But what does it take to listen to Johnny Guitar Watson's one note, and know that he's doin' that? Did you ever point that out to a reader? Did you ever get across that there's something more to it than rilly-rilly-ree?
  • Vine Swing: "Tarzan"
    Oh, let me swing down on this grapevine here

References to Johnny 'Guitar' Watson in popular culture:

  • Steve Miller referenced "Gangster Of Love" twice:
    • "Space Cowboy"
    And you know that I'm a gangster of love
    • "The Joker"
    Some call me the gangster of love
  • Frank Zappa listed Watson as an influence in the sleeve of his debut album Freak Out (1966). He also references "Hot Little Mama" in "Road Ladies" from Chunga's Revenge:
    Don't you ever miss your house at the countryside and your hot little mama too?
  • Pearl Jam recorded a song called "Johnny Guitar", about the singer, on their album "Backspacer".
  • "Superman Lover" is used in Grand Theft Auto V.