Sunday, September 13, 2009
Important if Flawed Bio of Johnny Guitar Watson
Johnny 'Guitar' Watson was a musical giant who is still unappreciated over a decade after his death. His influence as a guitarist, singer, composer and performer is not acknowledged. The fact that he is still not in the rock and roll Hall of Fame says something about the sorry state of rock music criticism. He was arguably the biggest single influence on Jimi Hendrix and his pioneering funk extension of blues included the precursor of Rap, a fact acknowledged by the Hip Hop acts that have sampled his music. Listening to his "Three Hours Past Midnight," led Frank Zappa to take up guitar and listen to Etta James sing ballads and then Watson sing "Cuttin' In."
Watson's music and life is the subject of a self-published volume "The Gangster of Love: Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Performer, Preacher, Pimp" by Vincent Bakker, a Dutch author whose prior books have been about economic affairs and admits his limited knowledge about music. Given Watson's importance, and that no one else had written about Watson, he undertook to write this book. As others have commented, his English is not perfect but he does communicate things well. He uses published sources on Johnny as well as interviews with those who grew up and/or played with him (Hank Redd, Tovia Bradley, Andre Lewis,Obie Jesse (Young Jesse), Emry Thomas, Eddie 'Gip' Noble, Rudy Copeland), were fans of his (Chuck Brown), or the women in his life (Susan Maier Watson).
Bakker explores what life was like touring with Watson, his music and the way he dealt with people, some good and some bad (Gip Noble and Emry Thomas bring some of Johnny's selfish, egotistical side to light) as well go from his early days in Texas, hitching up in California with Chuck Higgins and starting his recording career and his various recordings, taking through his Modern and Federal days, a stint on Keen Records, touting England with Larry Williams and the partnership they had for a couple years. Then he signs with fantasy before Dick James signs him to DJM Records where he enjoys arguably his greatest success. And there are stories of his women (the sub-title provides a backdrop for this) as well as the fact one constant in his home-life was his mother, who lived with him. Despite having extended relationships with three women, Johnny never married and had no will when he passed away (keeling over while performing), leading to a lengthy legal battle over his estate.
Bakker does not really understand the independent record business that Watson operated in and it leads to a few major gaffes. For example on page 69, he discusses the Crown reissue "2 In Blues," as if it was a new recording of Watson along with new recordings by bobby Bland. A little research would have helped him avoid this gaffe as Crown was a budget lp line that Modern/RPM set up to reissue vintage recordings. "2 In Blues," was a reissue of previously issued recordings by Watson and Bland from those labels.The Bland recordings were likely recorded by Joe Bihari with the assistance of Ike Turner or Sam Phillips and most definitely were not newly recorded by Watson.
With the differing views of Watson presented throughput, a sense of his personality does come across. This is profusely illustrated although the reproduction of many is fair at best. Could there be a better bio of him. of course. But none is on the horizon, and this will have to do until a better book comes along. 3 1/2 stars out of 5.
This review appeared in substantially the same form on amazon.com which is where this book can be purchased.