Watson, Johnny [Guitar] (1935–1996)

By: James Head

Type: Biography

Published: December 8, 2006

Updated: July 25, 2017

Johnny Watson, guitarist, pianist, and vocalist, known as "Guitar" Watson, was born in Houston on February 3, 1935. His father, a pianist, taught young Johnny to play. When Johnny was eleven, his grandmother gave him his grandfather's guitar. Watson eventually decided the guitar would be his instrument of choice after watching Gatemouth Brown perform.

The Watsons moved from Houston to Los Angeles in the early 1950s, and Johnny joined the Chuck Higgins Band as its pianist. After switching to the guitar, he developed his style when he toured with New Orleans bluesman Guitar Slim in the early 1950s. In order to be heard in the loud juke joints where they played, both men learned to pull on the strings of their guitars with their bare fingers to increase their volume. Watson also developed his flamboyant "bad-boy" stage act in the early 1950s. Wearing trademark sunglasses and a hat, he often played the guitar while standing on his head, or played it with his teeth or feet. His style, outrageous for the 1950s, was a generation before its time. It influenced countless younger guitarists, including Eric Clapton, Frank Zappa, and Jimi Hendrix.

Watson recorded his first single, "Space Guitar," in 1954. In another of his innovations that was years ahead of its time, he pioneered the use of feedback and reverberation. Unfortunately for him and for Federal Records, the public of the early 1950s, before rock-and-roll, was not prepared for his kind of music, and the record did not sell very well. He had greater success in 1955 with his song "Those Lonely, Lonely Nights," recorded on the Modern label. This recording hit the rhythm-and-blues Top 10. In 1957 Watson recorded "Gangster of Love," a song that Steve Miller turned into a huge hit in the late 1960s. Watson toured with the group Olympics, and later with Little Richard, in the late 1950s. He made the charts again in 1962 with his song "Cuttin' In," which hit Number 6.

He achieved his greatest success in the 1970s, when he released a number of hit albums. Ain't That a Bitch, recorded on the Collectables label, went gold. In the mid-1970s his releases included Funk Beyond the Call of Duty, and A Real Mother for Ya. In addition to these recordings, Watson also performed on selected Frank Zappa albums and played solo on Herb Alpert's Beyond. During the late 1970s and 1980s he continued to tour and record, but with less success than in the mid-1970s.

Watson made a comeback in the 1990s. He toured with the O'Jays, and, in 1994, recorded his first album in fourteen years, Bow Wow. In 1995 it was nominated for a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album. Watson also received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation in 1996. By the 1990s he also became a major influence for rappers, including Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre. On May 17, 1996, while performing onstage at the Yokohama Blues Café in Japan, Watson collapsed and died of a heart attack. He was buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California, and was survived by his wife, Susan, a son and a daughter, and his mother, Wilma. In 2008 Watson was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame.

Chicago Sun–Times, February 6, 1995. Guardian (London), May 20, 1996. Colin Larkin, ed., The Guiness Encyclopedia of Popular Music (New York: Stockton Press, 1995). Los Angeles Times, May 21, 1996. Orange County Register, May 18, 1996. Jon Pareles and Patricia Romanowski, ed., Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (New York: Rolling Stone Press / Summit Books, 1983). Seattle Times, May 18, 1996. Washington Post, May 20, 1996.

  • Music
  • Genres (Rock and Roll, Rhythm and Blues, and Rockabilly)
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Houston
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • East Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

James Head, “Watson, Johnny [Guitar],” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 28, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/watson-johnny-guitar.

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December 8, 2006
July 25, 2017

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