It's hard to believe, but in the late 1940s, Lightnin' Hopkins, Johnny Copeland, Joe Hughes, Albert Collins and Little Joe Washington were all living within a few blocks of one another in the Third Ward. And until 1950, there was even a sixth musical great among them, a boogie-woogie pianist's son named Johnny "Guitar" Watson, who moved to Los Angeles when he was 15.
As famous and talented as Hopkins, Copeland and Collins all were, Watson had more influence than all of the rest of them. In fact, you can make a case for Watson's having been one of the most influential American musicians of the 20th century. Where most bluesmen had to scuffle to survive through the 1970s disco and funk boom, Watson was just about the only one who not only survived but actually thrived, and he did it all by simply playing the same greasy and funky Third Ward blues riffs amid more updated arrangements. Watson never sold his soul; he just put new beats behind it from time to time.
Before earning his nickname, Young John Watson (as he was billed then) was a child prodigy as a piano player. Local lore has it that he played talent shows at the Eldorado Ballroom seated on phone books so he could reach the keys. Before his death from an onstage heart attack at a show in Japan in 1996, the sly-voiced singer and fiercely clever guitarist left his mark on not just the blues, R&B, and rock and roll he played as a young man and never completely left behind but also on rap and funk, both of which he helped invent in his thirties and forties. (Rerelease specialists Shout! Factory have just issued The Funk Anthology, a vital and amazingly well put together two-CD set culling some unreleased material and the best from eight of his 1970s and 1980s albums, all of which Shout! plans to reissue this year.)
Johnny "Guitar" Watson
Along the way, Watson won the praises of everyone from Lightnin' Hopkins to Marvin Gaye to the Geto Boys. He released an album of piano jazz on Chess, and played keyboards, bass and guitar on most of his records. Prince, Sly Stone, Rick James and George Clinton all built on the funk foundation he laid down, and after that Ice Cube, Jay-Z, Mary J. Blige and Dr. Dre all sampled his songs. Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre borrowed P-Funk's adaptation of Watson's catchphrase "Bow Wow Wow yippi-yo yippi-yay" for Snoop's smash hit "What's My Name." Just this year Pimp C dropped Watson's name on his new album, and his slinky "Superman Lover" now flies high on the Roll Bounce soundtrack, while his "Ain't That a Bitch" kicks off the excellent, if amusingly titled, collection The Bernie Mac Show Non-Stop Funk Party. Watson also recorded with Frank Zappa and was cited as a primary influence by each of the Vaughan brothers, Jimi Hendrix and Etta James, who loves being called "the female Johnny G."
Houston hip-hop legend Devin the Dude is another fanatic -- he cites Watson's out-of-print Lone Ranger compilation as his favorite album ever. "I liked the way he played that guitar and made it sound like a voice, man," he says. "Even before the Vocoder-type thing, he had a way to play it and talk through the mike and it all blends in together, so his guitar was really, really like another voice. And his vocals he had a Southern drawl that makes you feel like you're at home, and it really blends in with his style of music -- the blues. And his lyrics man, they are as meaningful now as they were then."
To Watson, funk was more than music; it was also a philosophy. "Funk is funny," he told author David Ritz in a 1994 interview that's included in part in the liner notes to The Funk Anthology. "Funk is looking at the world and saying, 'It ain't what it should be. It ain't what I expected. It's funky.' "
What's more, funk to Watson was also a style. In his 1993 book, Blues on CD: An Essential Guide, British author and music journalist Charles Shaar Murray could only quote an Ice-T rap to describe Watson: "the dopest, flyest, O.G. pimp hustler gangster player hardcore motherfucker alive today." The "Gangster of Love" persona Watson took on from the 1970s onward -- the gold teeth, broad-brimmed hats, pimp suits, designer shades, bling and alternately swaggering and self-deprecating humor -- provided not just a rock hit for Steve Miller and a Geto Boys tune but also a musical forebear for Kings of Comedy cats like Bernie Mac and Bruce Bruce and a playa-riffic style that most West Coast and Dirty South rappers still adopt to this day.
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"Yeah, he did have a lot to do with that, especially the stuff coming from the South," Devin says. "And he even had a rap: 'Telephone Bill.' That's one of the coldest raps I've heard still to this day!" (Watson's hilarious Percy Mayfield co-write "I Don't Want to Be President" is also raplike; both are included on The Funk Anthology.)
In the liner notes, Ritz mentioned the 1980 recording of "Telephone Bill" and asked Watson if the song "anticipated" the advent of rap.
"Anticipated?" Watson asked. "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."
And today, you can still hear Johnny G.'s trash-talking in the rap thumping out of car stereos at every traffic light. You can still see the pimp chic he helped pioneer in the threads, jewelry, ice grills and tricked-out rides you see every day. Johnny Guitar Watson was Dirty South before Dirty South was cool.