One of the most versatile rock stars of all-time who could – and did – tackle any stylistic variation of the music over forty years, mastering two lead instruments while scoring hits in each decade from the mid-1950’s through the mid-1990’s.

John Watson was born in Texas in February 1935, playing piano, as his father did, before picking up guitar which was his grandfather’s instrument of choice. Moving to California in 1950, Watson wasted no time before becoming ensconced in the Los Angeles rock scene playing piano and singing with Chuck Higgins Mellotones in 1952.

When Watson’s desire to switch to guitar threatened to upstage saxophonist Higgins, he departed the group and signed with Federal Records as a solo act dubbed Young John Watson, not yet 18 years old. Yet he still wasn’t allowed to play guitar on his initial sides which included a slowed-down version of the song he cut with Higgins the year before, all of which showed his versatility, strong but lithe voice and his vivid writing skill.

Finally in 1954 Watson got to play his preferred instrument and shocked listeners with the groundbreaking “Space Guitar”, an instrumental that showcased his talent in the most electrifying manner possible. Despite the excitement the record caused in those who heard it, not enough people did to propel it onto the charts and in 1955 he landed at RPM Records where he scored his first hit with a fairly faithful cover of Earl King’s “Those Lonely Lonely Nights”.

The rest of the 1950’ saw him joining Jesse Belvin in various makeshift doo wop groups, as well as cutting the original version of his anthem “Gangster Of Love” for the small Keen label before heading to King Records to kick off the new decade where he worked with Johnny Otis and scored his second national hit with the country-styled composition, “Cuttin’ In”. Soon though he laid down a jazz album, cut a string of snarling rock singles and toured England with pal Larry Williams, with whom he recorded a few albums including the Northern Soul favorite Two For The Price Of One whose cover laid down the look of the pimp-rock/rap image.

By the 1970’s when his career should’ve been fading after twenty years it started to pick up again as he adopted the funk-rock sounds that were dominating the era and with his guitar adding new wrinkles to the style he scored a succession of hit albums and singles broadening his gangster of rock persona. At the start of the 1980’s he scored a hit with a proto-rap tune, moved into synth-rock and in the 90’s he notched two more hits while his older music began getting sampled for hip-hop.

While his mainstream success was limited, though widely spaced over over forty years, his influence seemed to know no bounds, as he was Frank Zappa’s primary guitar inspiration, Etta James’ model for singing ballads and Snoop Dogg took his signature phrase “Bow wow wow, yippie-yo, yippie-aye” directly from Watson.

Before his death from cancer, Frank Zappa made it clear that should be be posthumously elected into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame he wanted Watson to induct him. The Hall refused on the basis that despite his own success over multiple generations he wasn’t widely known, which more or less tells you that his own career has no respect from an institution rumored to be dedicated to celebrating the history of rock ‘n’ roll… a style of music that Johnny Watson embodied for four decades, playing virtually every type of rock successfully during that time.

He even died like a rock star, in the middle of a song on stage while on tour in Japan in 1996. He was 61 years old and had spent the last 44 years as one of rock’s most versatile and unpredictable weapons.

JOHNNY “GUITAR” WATSON DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

(Combo 12; December, 1952)
As sideman to… Chuck Higgins

(Combo 12; December, 1952)
As singer/pianist to Chuck Higgins. A breakout performance by Watson whose irrepressible energy fuels this self-penned track that he sings at reckless speed with clever lyrics and unquenchable enthusiasm while the band hangs on tight. (8)