Friday, August 31, 2012

Johnny Guitar Watson - The Funk Anthology

Few folk have had as much influence in the worlds of blues soul and funk than Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson. As David Ritz notes in the liner notes of the two disc, The Funk Anthology, Watson lends a long shadow over hip hop, with the track It’s About the Dollar Bill exemplifying this best, although rappers have long sampled his grooves and Snoop Doggy Dogg lifted a trademark phrase from Watson’s Bow Wow (Which Watson in performance referred to as the dog song). He was a major influence on folks as varied as Etta James (“He’s my model. He taught me to sing blues. He taught me to sing ballads....”), Jimi Hendrix, The Vaughan Brothers (who linked him with Freddie, Albert and B.B. King of guitarists they admired... “He made magic,” according to Jimi), Prince and too many others to list as well as being admired by so many others like Marvin Gaye, the Neville Brothers and Lightnin’ Hopkins (“The blues gets all over everything. Watson is all over the blues and the blues is all over him.”).

When he collapsed on stage in Japan during the second verse of Super-man Lover, it ended a four-decade career that took him from Houston to the world and transformed Young John Watson into the Gangster of Love and Superman Lover. He was a pianist who could rock the boogie like Amos Milburn and a guitarist who wowed Frank Zappa with tracks like Three Hours Past Midnight . Then there is the incredible guitar showpiece from the mid-fifties space guitar plus his originals of Gangster of Love. I suspect Watson’s recording of One Room Country Shack inspired Buddy Guy to do that number. Then there were his acclaimed piano album, the duets with Larry Williams which probably did not catch the mood of the audience turning to Motown, the two superb albums for Fantasy which anticipated his maturation and his funkster era for DJM in the seventies.

The Funk Anthology has two and a half hours of Watson’s music from his seven DJM albums From Ain’t it a Bitch in 1976 to Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson and the Family Clone (1981), as well as his last album in 1994, Bow Wow for Bellmark). There is at least one album that Watson did in the interim not represented, but this compilation made by his children certainly is full with some terrific music, some of which has become staples of blues and funk bands today, like A Real Motha For Ya, Superman Lover, You Can Stay But the Noise Must Go and Bow Wow. 

There also is the humorous post-Watergate I Don’t Want to Be President that Watson co-authored with Percy Mayfield (and on whose Atlantic recording by Mayfield of this Watson played). I Want to Ta-Ta You Baby has to be as sexy a love song as one is gonna hear anywhere and with the mix of his soulful and bluesy vocals, modern funk feel the other songs like Ain’t It a Bitch, the humorous Telephone Bill (where he sings about calling his woman after 9:00PM when the rates go down), the closing Johnny G is Back, although of course he never left and he does revisit and funkify Gangster of Love.

I am sure that some of those who complain about ‘purists’ in the blues will also dismiss this as funk and not blues, but the simple fact is for the 70s through the 90s this was as contemporary as the blues got. Shout Factory will be reissuing the eight albums collected here separately, so this also serves as an introduction to those releases. These two discs will certainly keep things funked up quite nicely.

This review originally appeared in the December 2005 DC Blues Calendar and in a slightly abridged form in the February 2006 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 279) and I likely received my review copy from either the label directly or from Jazz & Blues Report. Here is Johnny from 1997 performing I Want to Ta-Ta You Baby in Germany.

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