Johnny "Guitar" Watson

John Watson Jr. (February 3, 1935 – May 17, 1996),[1] known professionally as Johnny "Guitar" Watson, was an American blues, soul, and funk musician and singer-songwriter.[2] A flamboyant showman and electric guitarist in the style of T-Bone Walker, Watson recorded throughout the 1950s and 1960s with some success. His creative reinvention in the 1970s with funk overtones, saw Watson have hits with "Ain't That a Bitch" and "Superman Lover". His successful recording career spanned forty years, with his highest chart appearance being the 1977 song "A Real Mother For Ya".[3]

Johnny "Guitar" Watson
Watson in 1976
Background information
Birth nameJohn Watson Jr.
Also known asYoung John Watson
Born(1935-02-03)February 3, 1935
Houston, Texas, United States
DiedMay 17, 1996(1996-05-17) (aged 61)
Yokohama, Japan
GenresBlues, funk blues, soul, funk
InstrumentsVocals, guitar, piano, keyboards, bass guitar, drums
Years active1952–1996
LabelsFederal, RPM, Keen, Class, Kent, Arvee, Goth, Escort, King, Highland, Jowat, Okeh, Fantasy, DJM, A&M, Valley Vue, Wilma
Associated actsChuck Higgins, Floyd Dixon, Larry Williams, The Mighty Hannibal, Etta James, Frank Zappa

Early life

Watson was born in Houston, Texas.[4] His father John Sr. was a pianist, and taught his son the instrument.[1] But young Watson was immediately attracted to the sound of the guitar, in particular the electric guitar as played by T-Bone Walker and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown.[1]

His grandfather, a preacher, was also musical. "My grandfather used to sing while he'd play guitar in church, man," Watson reflected many years later. When Johnny was 11, his grandfather offered to give him a guitar if, and only if, the boy didn't play any of the "devil's music".[1] His parents separated in 1950, when he was 15. His mother moved to Los Angeles, and took Watson with her.

Early career

In his new city, Watson won several local talent shows. This led to his employment, while still a teenager, with jump blues-style bands such as Chuck Higgins's Mellotones and Amos Milburn.[1] He worked as a vocalist, pianist, and guitarist.[1] He quickly made a name for himself in the African-American juke joints of the West Coast, where he first recorded for Federal Records in 1952.[5] He was billed as Young John Watson until 1954.[1] That year, he saw the Joan Crawford film Johnny Guitar, and a new stage name was born.

In 1953, Shorty Rogers had Watson as part of his Orchestra perform for the famed ninth Cavalcade of Jazz concert held at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles which was produced by Leon Hefflin, Sr. on June 7. Also featured that day were Roy Brown and his Orchestra, Don Tosti and His Mexican Jazzmen, Earl Bostic, Nat "King" Cole, and Louis Armstrong and his All Stars with Velma Middleton.[6][7]

Watson affected a swaggering, yet humorous personality, indulging a taste for flashy clothes and wild showmanship on stage.[1] His "attacking" style of playing, without a plectrum, resulted in him often needing to change the strings on his guitar once or twice a show, because he "stressified on them" so much, as he put it.[8] Watson's ferocious "Space Guitar" single of 1954 pioneered guitar feedback and reverb.[1] Watson would later influence a subsequent generation of guitarists. His song "Gangster of Love" was first released on Keen Records in 1957. It did not appear in the charts at the time, but was later re-recorded and became a hit in 1978, becoming Watson's "most famous song".[9]

He toured and recorded with his friend Larry Williams, as well as Little Richard, Don and Dewey, The Olympics, Johnny Otis and, in the mid-1970s with David Axelrod.[1] In 1975 he was a guest performer on two tracks (flambe vocals on the out-choruses of "San Ber'dino" and "Andy") on the Frank Zappa album One Size Fits All.[10] He also played with Herb Alpert and George Duke. But as the popularity of blues declined and the era of soul music dawned in the 1960s, Watson transformed himself from southern blues singer with pompadour into urban soul singer in a pimp hat. His new style was emphatic – wearing the gold teeth, broad-brimmed hats, flashy suits, fashionable outsized sunglasses and ostentatious jewelry.

He modified his music accordingly. His albums Ain't That a Bitch[1] (included funk blues singles "Superman Lover") and Real Mother For Ya(1977) fused funk and blues[11]. Watson had album Love Jones in 1980. Reviewing Watson's 1977 LP A Real Mother for Ya, Robert Christgau wrote in Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies (1981): "Watson has been perfecting his own brand of easy-listening funk for years, and this time he's finally gone into the studio with his guitar Freddie and his drummer Emry and a bunch of electric keyboards and come up with a whole album of good stuff. The riff-based tracks go on too long but go down easy and the lyrics have an edge. Granted, Watson can't match George Benson's chops, but this is dance music, chops would just get in the way. And I prefer his Lou-Rawls-without-pipes to Benson's Stevie-Wonder-ditto."[12]

Later career

The shooting death of his friend Larry Williams in 1980 and other personal setbacks led to Watson briefly withdrawing from the spotlight in the 1980s. "I got caught up with the wrong people doing the wrong things", he was quoted as saying by The New York Times.[13]

The release of his album Bow Wow in 1994 brought Watson more visibility and chart success than he had ever known. The album received a Grammy Award nomination.

In a 1994 interview with David Ritz for liner notes to The Funk Anthology, Watson was asked if his 1980 song "Telephone Bill" anticipated rap music. "Anticipated?" Watson replied. "I damn well invented it!... And I wasn't the only one. Talking rhyming lyrics to a groove is something you'd hear in the clubs everywhere from Macon to Memphis. Man, talking has always been the name of the game. When I sing, I'm talking in melody. When I play, I'm talking with my guitar. I may be talking trash, baby, but I'm talking".

In 1995, he was given a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in a presentation and performance ceremony at the Hollywood Palladium. In February 1995, Watson was interviewed by Tomcat Mahoney for his Brooklyn, New York-based blues radio show The Other Half. Watson discussed at length his influences and those he had influenced, referencing Guitar Slim, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and Stevie Ray Vaughan. He made a special guest appearance on Bo Diddley's 1996 album A Man Amongst Men, playing vocoder on the track "I Can't Stand It" and singing on the track "Bo Diddley Is Crazy".

His music was sampled by Redman (who based his "Sooperman Luva" saga on Watson's "Superman Lover" song), Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Jay-Z, and Mary J. Blige. Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre borrowed P-Funk's adaptation of Watson's catchphrase "Bow wow wow yippi-yo yippi-yay" for Snoop's hit Who Am I? (What's My Name?). Johnny also played the guitar on the G-Funk remix of Dr. Dre's Grammy award winning single Let Me Ride in 1993.

"Johnny was always aware of what was going on around him", recalled Susan Maier Watson (later to become the musician's wife) in an interview printed in the liner notes to the album The Very Best of Johnny 'Guitar' Watson. "He was proud that he could change with the times and not get stuck in the past".

Death and material loss

Watson died of a heart attack on May 17, 1996, collapsing on stage while on tour in Yokohama, Japan.[14] His remains were brought home for interment at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California and buried in the Great Mausoleum, Sanctuary of Enduring Honor, Holy Terrace entrance.

On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Johnny "Guitar" Watson among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.[15]


Watson, a recognized master of the Fender Stratocaster guitar, has been compared to Jimi Hendrix and allegedly became irritated when asked about this comparison, supposedly stating: "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."[16]

Frank Zappa stated that "Watson's 1956 song 'Three Hours Past Midnight' inspired me to become a guitarist". Watson contributed to Zappa's albums One Size Fits All (1975), Them or Us (1984), Thing-Fish (1984) and Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention (1985). Zappa also named "Three Hours Past Midnight" his favorite record in a 1979 interview.

Steve Miller not only did a cover of "Gangster of Love" on his 1968 album Sailor (substituting "Is your name "Stevie 'Guitar' Miller?" for the same line with Watson's name), he made a reference to it in his 1969 song "Space Cowboy" ("And you know that I'm a gangster of love") as well as in his 1973 hit song "The Joker" ("Some call me the gangster of love"). Miller had also borrowed the sobriquet for his own "The Gangster Is Back", on his 1971 album Rock Love.

Jimmie Vaughan, brother of Stevie Ray Vaughan, is quoted as saying: "When my brother Stevie and I were growing up in Dallas, we idolized very few guitarists. We were highly selective and highly critical. Johnny 'Guitar' Watson was at the top of the list, along with Freddie, Albert and B.B. King. Watson influenced Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Etta James, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.[17]

Bobby Womack said: "Music-wise, he (Watson) was the most dangerous gunslinger out there, even when others made a lot of noise in the charts ~ I'm thinking of Sly Stone or George Clinton".

Etta James stated, in an interview at the 2006 Rochester International Jazz Festival: "Johnny 'Guitar' Watson... Just one of my favorite singers of all time. I first met him when we were both on the road with Johnny Otis in the '50s, when I was a teenager. We traveled the country in a car together so I would hear him sing every night. His singing style was the one I took on when I was 17 – people used to call me the female Johnny 'Guitar' Watson and him the male Etta James... He knew what the blues was all about...".

James is also quoted 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. Pearl Jam recorded a song entitled "Johnny Guitar", about Watson, for their 2009 album Backspacer.

Watson's 1976 song "Superman Lover" features on the soundtrack of the video game Grand Theft Auto V.[18]



  • 1958 Gangster of Love (King)
  • 1963 I Cried for You (Cadet 4056) (featuring Watson on piano)
  • 1963 Johnny Guitar Watson (King)
  • 1964 The Blues Soul of Johnny Guitar Watson
  • 1965 Larry Williams Show with Johnny Guitar Watson (guest musician)
  • 1967 Bad
  • 1967 In the Fats Bag
  • 1967 Two for the Price of One (with Larry Williams)
  • 1973 Listen (Fantasy 9437)
  • 1975 I Don't Want to Be Alone, Stranger (Fantasy 9484)
  • 1975 The Gangster Is Back
  • 1976 Ain't That a Bitch (DJM 3)
  • 1976 Captured Live
  • 1977 A Real Mother for Ya
  • 1977 Funk Beyond the Call of Duty (DJM 714)
  • 1978 Watsonian Institute- Master Funk" (DJlPA-13)
  • 1978 Giant (DJM 19)
  • 1978 Gettin' Down with Johnny "Guitar" Watson
  • 1979 What the Hell Is This? (DJM 24)
  • 1980 Love Jones
  • 1981 Johnny "Guitar" Watson and the Family Clone
  • 1982 That's What Time It Is
  • 1984 Strike on Computers
  • 1985 Hit the Highway
  • 1992 Plays Misty
  • 1994 Bow Wow (Wilma 71007)


Chart singles

Year Single US label
& no.
Chart Positions
US Pop[19] US
1955 "Those Lonely, Lonely Nights" RPM 436 10
1956 "Three Hours Past Midnight" RPM 455
1962 "Cuttin' In" King 5579 6
1967 "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy"
Larry Williams & Johnny Watson
Okeh 7274 96 23
1968 "Nobody"
Larry Williams & Johnny Watson with The Kaleidoscope
Okeh 7300 40
1974 "Like I'm Not Your Man" Fantasy 721 67
1975 "I Don't Want To Be A Lone Ranger" Fantasy 739 99 28
"It's Too Late" Fantasy 752 76
1976 "I Need It" DJM 1013 101 40 35
"Superman Lover" DJM 1019 101 19
1977 "A Real Mother For Ya" DJM 1024 41 5 44
"Lover Jones" DJM 1029 34
1978 "Love That Will Not Die" DJM 1034 59
"Gangster of Love" DJM 1101 32
1979 "What The Hell Is This?" DJM 1106 83
1980 "Love Jones" DJM 1304 28
"Telephone Bill" DJM 1305 45
1982 "The Planet Funk" A&M 2383 62
1984 "Strike on Computers" Valley Vue 769 77
1994 "Bow Wow" Wilma 72515 89
1995 "Hook Me Up" Wilma 72533 48

Non-chart singles

  • 1954 Space Guitar / Half-Pint A-Whiskey (Federal 12175)
  • 1956 Three Hours Past Midnight /Ruben (RPM 455)
  • 1957 Gangster of Love / One Room Country Shack (Keen 3-4005)
  • 1960 Johnny Guitar / Untouchable (Arvee 5016)
  • 1960 Falling In Love / Rat Now (Goth 101)
  • 1961 Looking Back / The Eagle Is Back (Escort 106)
  • 1962 Cuttin' In / Broke and Lonely (King 5579) (French cover by Johnny Hallyday: Excuse-moi partenaire)
  • 1963 Gangster of Love / In the Evenin' (King 5774)
  • 1964 Ain't Gonna Move / Baby Don't Leave (Jowat 118)
  • 1965 Big Bad Wolf / You Can Stay (Magnum 726)
  • 1966 Keep on Lovin' You / South Like West (Okeh 7263)
  • 1967 Hold On, I'm Comin' / Wolfman (Okeh 7270)
  • 1967 Johnny Watson and Larry Williams – Mercy, Mercy, Mercy / A Quitter Never Wins (Okeh 7274)
  • 1967 Johnny Watson and Larry Williams – Too Late / Two for the Price of One (Okeh 7281)
  • 1967 I'd Rather Be Your Baby / Soul Food (Okeh 7290)
  • 1967 Johnny Watson and Larry Williams – Find Yourself Someone To Love / Nobody (Okeh 7300)
  • 1967 She'll Blow Your Mind / Crazy About You (Okeh 7302)
  • 1973 Like Not Your Man / You Bring Love (Fantasy 721)
  • 1975 It's Too Late / Tripping (Fantasy 752)
  • 1976 Ain't That A Bitch / Won't You Forgive Me Baby (DJM 1020)
  • 1976 I Wanna Ta-Ta Ya
  • 1976 I Need It / Since I Met You Baby
  • 1976 Superman Lover / We're No Exception
  • 1977 A Real Mother For Ya / Nothing Left To Be Desired (DJM 1024)
  • 1977 Lover Jones / Tarzan (DJM 1029)
  • 1977 It's A Damn Shame / Love That Will Not Die (DJM 1034)
  • 1977 The Real Deal / Tarzan
  • 1978 Gangster of Love / Guitar Disco (DJM 1101)
  • 1978 Virginia's Pretty Funky / The Institute (DJM 1100) (The Watsonian Institute)
  • 1978 Miss Frisco (Queen of the Disco) / Tu Jours Amour
  • 1978 I Need It / Superman Lover
  • 1979 What The Hell Is This? / Can You Handle It (DJM 1106)

See also

  • The Gangster of LoveJohnny "Guitar" Watson: Performer, Preacher, Pimp (2009), Vincent Bakker, CreateSpace, ISBN 1-4421-4147-6, Extended Edition (2014), 476 pages, 300 illustrations, CreateSpace, ISBN 978-1495337321.


  1. Colin Larkin, ed. (1997). The Virgin Encyclopedia of Popular Music (Concise ed.). Virgin Books. p. 1236/7. ISBN 1-85227-745-9.
  2. Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. p. 593. ISBN 1-904994-10-5.
  3. Du Noyer, Paul (2003). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music (1st ed.). Fulham, London: Flame Tree Publishing. p. 164. ISBN 1-904041-96-5.
  4. "Johnny "Guitar" Watson". Retrieved October 7, 2015.
  5. Whitburn, Joel (1996). Top R&B Singles: 1942–1995. Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research Inc. p. 472. ISBN 0-89820-115-2.
  6. “More Big Names in Cavalcade” Article Los Angeles Sentinel May 21, 1953.
  7. “Jazz Cavalcade will be greatest Sunday, June 7th” The California Eagle May 21, 1953.
  8. Van Gelder, Lawrence. "Johnny (Guitar) Watson, Musical Pioneer, Dies at 61" New York Times May 19, 1996: 34
  9. Ritz, David (1999). The Very Best of Johnny "Guitar Watson" (liner notes). Rhino Records. p. 5. R2 75702.
  10. "One Size Fits All". December 4, 2014. Retrieved December 30, 2013.
  11. "Johnny Guitar WatsonP". Retrieved September 30, 2019.
  12. Christgau, Robert (1981). "Consumer Guide '70s: W". Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies. Ticknor & Fields. ISBN 089919026X. Retrieved March 22, 2019 via
  13. Van Gelder, Lawrence. "Johnny (Guitar) Watson, Musical Pioneer, Dies at 61". The New York Times. Retrieved July 14, 2016.
  14. Andy Gill. "The life and death of a guitar-slinger | News". The Independent. Retrieved October 7, 2015.
  15. Rosen, Jody (June 25, 2019). "Here Are Hundreds More Artists Whose Tapes Were Destroyed in the UMG Fire". The New York Times. Retrieved June 28, 2019.
  16. "Free Music, Listen to Music Free". May 14, 2009.
  17. "Johnny "Guitar" Watson". Retrieved September 30, 2019.
  18. "GTA 5: Extended Soundtrack". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved October 7, 2015.
  19. Whitburn, Joel (2003). Top Pop Singles 1955–2002 (1st ed.). Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research Inc. p. 756. ISBN 0-89820-155-1.
  20. Betts, Graham (2004). Complete UK Hit Singles 1952–2004 (1st ed.). London: Collins. p. 835. ISBN 0-00-717931-6.
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