October 21, 2021

Johnny 'Guitar' Watson Died in 1996 Doing What He Loved to Do but Was Too Far Away from Home

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Johnny "Guitar" Watson left the world doing what he loved, in the way he wanted to. However, his friends and fans alike were stunned by how his sudden death happened. 

Johnny "Guitar" Watson was a multi-talented performer who blew people away with his impressive guitar skills. In the 1970s, he rose to fame with the R&B hits "A Real Mother for Ya" and "Superman Lover." 

Born in 1935, Watson was first introduced to music when his father taught him to play the piano. He continued to hone his craft until he was a teenager who played with Texas greats. 

Johnny "Guitar" Watson performing at Hammersmith Odeon in London in November 1976 (left), Johnny "Guitar" Watson posing with his guitar in Antwerpen, Belgium on March 29, 1988 (right) | Source: Getty Images



As a teenager, Watson lived in the blues scene of Houston, playing with fellow Texas legends Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland. However, when he was 15, he decided to leave Texas to relocate to Los Angeles. 

At the time, Watson's primary instrument was the piano. He played the instrument with Chuck Higgins' band while simultaneously handling some vocal duties. 

Johnny "Guitar" Watson with concert promoter Freddy Cousaert in Hof ter Lo, Antwerpen, Belgium on 29 March 1988. | Source: Getty Images



In 1953, he was listed as Young John Watson when he signed with Federal. A year later, he would create the magnificent instrumental titled "Space Guitar," which was also the same time he decided to switch over to play the instrument. 

The instrumental remains one of the greatest accomplishments, as Watson achieved his rapid-fire strumming and plucking without using a pick. Few rock guitarists have mastered the technique after decades. 

Musician Johnny 'Guitar' Watson and his girlfriend Tasha Erin, circa 1976. | Source: Getty Images



In 1955, Watson moved to the Bihari brothers' RPM label, where he made some of the best upbeat blues of their time with "Hot Little Mama," "Too Tired," and "Oh Baby." He scored his first hit with a cover of Earl King's "Those Lonely Lonely Nights." 

Always longing for more, Watson ventured into jazz in 1964. He toured England with his friend Larry Williams the year after, joining forces on the hit "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy." 

Studio portrait of Johnny "Guitar" Watson circa 1970 | Source: Getty Images



In the 1970s, his career had deflated. Rhythm and blues were pushed aside by soul and funk music. However, adapting to the times, Watson dressed flamboyantly and began performing hard funk music. 

In 1977, he performed at Carnegie Hall, where he wore a skin-tight sequined suit and wore a Panama hat over his Afro. Despite this performance, he vanished for most of the 1980s, returned to perform in Europe, where the French called him the "Godfather of Funk."

Portrait of Johnny "Guitar" Watson circa 1970 | Source: Getty Images



Twenty years later, his creation "Strike on Computers" was on the R&B Charts. He disappeared for a while after that, but in 1994, he made a comeback with his album "Bow Wow."

He earned a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album and toured the world. Unfortunately, his comeback campaign stopped when he passed away while touring in Japan in 1996. 

Johnny "Guitar" Watson at the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands on July 11, 1990 | Source: Getty Images



Watson, a pioneer of rhythm and blues who influenced the best performers like Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, was about to perform in Yokohama, Japan, when he suffered a heart attack. 

Previously, the musician declared that he wished to die in his sleep. However, if it weren't meant to be, he wished to die on stage. His daughter Virginia confirmed this, saying: 

"My father always said that when it was his time to go, he wanted to be on stage and not know what hit him. God granted him that gift."

Johnny "Guitar" Watson on CBS circa 1966 | Source: Getty Images



He had just finished performing his first song when he turned around and fell. People in the audience thought it was part of the show, unaware that the musician was dying. 

Watson lived for a couple more minutes after his fall. Despite people performing CPR and calling an ambulance, he was pronounced brain dead, with all of his major organs failing. 

Johnny "Guitar "Watson, American blues, soul, and funk musician and singer-songwriter on stage in Berlin in June 1980 | Source: Getty Images



Just two months prior, he was honored at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles with a Pioneer Award of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. The organization provides financial and medical assistance for performers of the 1930s to 1970s in race music, rhythm and blues, and soul. 

In 2016, 20 years after his death, renowned music artists paid tribute to Watson in the 1st Annual Johnny "Guitar" Watson Heart for Music Foundation Humanitarian Awards. Marla Gibbs was the very first recipient. 

Johnny "Guitar" Watson performing at Hammersmith Odeon in London in November 1976 | Source: Getty Images



Gibbs and Watson go way back, as she allowed him to perform at her club, Marla's Memory Lane, in the 1980s. Gibbs did this while Watson tried to fix his life after spiraling due to drug and alcohol abuse. 

The club opportunity marked a fresh start for the musician. It also paved the way for him to create new records, win awards, and even tour the world despite it all being put to a halt. 



Today, Watson remains a positive influence on musicians such as Kanye West, who sampled his music on his album "The Life of Pablo." His song "No More Parties in LA" opens with a sample of Watson's 1977 tune "Give Me My Love." 

Watson's family is grateful for the likes of West, who have used samples of his music. Other musicians who have done the same include Snoop Dogg, Redman, Method Man, and Dr. Dre. 

Johnny "Guitar" Watson posing with his guitar in Antwerpen, Belgium on March 29, 1988 | Source: Getty Images



Because of them, younger generations are learning about the late musician, bringing joy to his family. His daughter Virginia wanted to keep her father's legacy alive, not just for his fans but for his grandchildren, who never had the opportunity to meet him. She said:

"I want to keep his name out there and to make his grandchildren and other children understand that they can’t forget.  We must keep our history and stories alive.”

Johnny "Guitar" Watson" in Paradiso, Amsterdam on May 21, 1987 | Source: Getty Images

It's never easy to say goodbye to a loved one, and saying goodbye to an idol of yours, be it a musician or celebrity, is sometimes just as painful. However, it is fantastic that younger generations may now learn about the greats, thanks to foundations and initiatives put together by those close to the departed.


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