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Johnny Watson, Pioneering R&B; Guitarist, Dies

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Johnny “Guitar” Watson, seminal rhythm and blues recording artist whose flamboyant technique influenced Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa, has died at the age of 61.

Watson, who sometimes referred to himself as the “Gangster of Love,” the title of a hit album he first made in 1958 and reprised in 1977, died Friday night of a heart attack during a performance in Yokohama, Japan.

His sudden death was announced over the weekend by Al Bell, president of Bellmark Records in Los Angeles, which recorded his most recent album, “Bow Wow,” in 1994. Watson lived in Los Angeles.

Enjoying renewed popularity, Watson only last March received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation in a presentation and performance ceremony at the Hollywood Palladium.

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The “Bow Wow” album was nominated for a Grammy for best contemporary blues collection in 1995.

“We’re enjoying a period of reinvention,” the guitarist told a Los Angeles audience at the House of Blues last year, delighted with adaptations of his work by the likes of Snoop Doggy Dog and Ice Cube.

Born in Houston, Watson started out playing piano like his father. But the guitar always held a fascination for the youth, especially after he inherited one from his grandfather, a Southern preacher who warned him against playing blues.

“My grandfather used to sing while he’d play guitar in church, man,” Watson told The Times in 1993. “It’s kind of hung with me for a long time.”

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Young John Watson, as he was originally known, was also influenced by T-Bone Walker and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown.

Watson started playing piano with the Chuck Higgins’ Mellowtones in Los Angeles but soon switched to guitar, recording the futuristic “Space Guitar,” which pioneered use of reverberation and feedback.

Touring and recording with the Olympics and then Little Richard, Watson became known for his enthusiastic showmanship and bad-boy charm in trademark hat and shades. He played the guitar standing on his hands, by picking it with his teeth or while leaping into the audience attached to amplification equipment by a 150-foot cord.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Watson enjoyed occasional hits including “Those Lonely, Lonely Nights” and “Cuttin’ In.” He also toured and recorded with popular rock ‘n’ roll singer Larry Williams.

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Watson hit his stride in the late ‘70s, walking a middle line between pop disco and freaky funk, with half a dozen hit albums. Among them were “Ain’t That a Bitch,” “A Real Mother for Ya,” “Funk Beyond the Call of Duty” and “Master Funk.”

Watson is survived by his mother, Wilma; his wife, Susan, and two children, DeJohn and Virginia.


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