Yeah, yeah, the Beach Boys, The Doors, the Eagles, Spirit, Love, blah, blah, blah. How many times do we have to entertain the conceit that the spirit of California is best embodied by white dudes in guarachi sandals, driving woodies, and smoking dope in Topanga Canyon with the Lizard King? For my money, the greatest personification of the spirit of rock and roll who ever came out of California was Johnny “Guitar” Watson.
Yeah, the spirit of rock and roll. Fuck the spirit of California. I’m enough of an East Coaster to feel comfortable saying that. Rock and roll is about hustle and flow, and — Lord — that was what Mr. Watson was all about. His whole musical life was a hustle, changing musical skins and styles as often as he needed — from revolutionary blues guitar slinger to hard-rockin’ style-o-phile to ’70s jazz-funk pimp, and eventually, to gold-toothed elder statesman. Before he died in 1996, Johnny got his well-deserved, long-overdue ass-kiss from most of the 21st century’s great Californian composers — Dr. Dre, Snoop, and a bunch of other R&B types I’m not hip enough to be able to remember now. But all those snakey, sinuous grooves you liked on Snoop Dogg’s breakout album? Those were JGW riffs, from start to finish. Check out that awesome concert footage above if you don’t believe me.
And while you’re at it, take special note of what Johnny’s singing about here. This is the soundtrack to the real California existence: being broke, getting dumped on by The Man, and shopping for dinner in the baloney section. Ain’t that cold?
Which is not to say that JGW couldn’t get sexy and sensitive as well. One of my favorite love songs of all time is his supremely funky “I Wanna Ta-Ta You”, a link to which you can follow by clicking the song title. (Wish I could embed it here, but the dude who posted it on YouTube disabled that function for some incomprehensible reason.) What starts out sounding like yet another song about fucking turns out to be one of the sweetest love songs you’ll ever hear, whether in Compton or at Carnegie Hall.
Pretty sensitive stuff for a guy who dressed like a pimp, swaggered like a pimp, cracked wise like a pimp, and may have actually been a pimp for a brief period in the ’80s, when his fortunes ran a bit low. But — like most pimps, I’m told — all that meant that Mr. Watson was one heck of a lot smarter than the average bear. Yeah, yeah, he was a multi-instrumental do-it-yourselfer, guitar genius, etc., etc. But the guy was also very certain about who he was, and what he brought to the table as a man. Here’s a great interview with Don Cornelius from the ’70s, when JGW saw his greatest popularity:
For all of Watson’s reluctance to claim his position as a Blues legend, that’s how he started out, back in the ’50s — in Los Angeles, the real home of the Blues! Once you’ve heard his blues work, you start being able to spot his style in a whole generation of white guy blooz/guitar hero artistes: Jimmy Vaughan, Billy Gibbons, and Frank Zappa, to name a few. And there’s a reason they picked up what Watson was layin’ down. One listen to his 1954 freakout “Space Guitar” says it all:
So, there it is. I’ve done my small part to spread the word about Johnny “Guitar” Watson. I strongly urge any of you who might be into funk of any flavor to check out his string of awesome LPs from the ’70s — you know, the ones with weird cover art on them, like the one featuring Johnny being pushed around in a baby carriage, decked out in pimp regalia, by a weird looking valet with an afro.
The dude played an Explorer, for crying out loud!
RIP, JGW. All the real people in California will miss you.