No tags :(

Share it




We’ve covered more than two hundred and fifty rock artists over the genre’s first five plus years of existence – and far more if you count the sidemen and session musicians tagging along on the records – and there have been lots of big names, enduring stars and even a few immortals among them.

Many of them had careers that lasted the rest of their lives, singing or playing to paying audiences into the next century, some even getting an album into the charts decades down the road.

Today we meet a vocalist who actually will go on to chart a new hit on the singles charts in every decade from the 1950’s through his death in the mid-90’s… his entire career… and he STILL hasn’t gotten his due.


Wanna Ride All Night Long
When you talk about all-time rock ‘n’ roll legends, few people would think to bring up the name Johnny Watson.

But when you start talking about rock survivors… or rock chameleons… or historically underrated artists with tons of influence across the spectrum, then Watson is a name you can’t ever leave out.

He went from playing scintillating piano behind Chuck Higgins on these early sides when he was just 17 years old to becoming a groundbreaking guitarist within two years, giving him the name Johnny “Guitar” Watson, for which he’d always be known.

He was always a rock act (even though white people typically will categorize him as blues… in a futile attempt to keep their stolen musical gene pool pure I suppose), but even so he was rarely what you’d call a “typical” rock act, for even within a genre that is broader than any in recorded history he was remarkably diverse… almost pathologically diverse.

Aside from mastering two different lead instruments he cut songs that ran across the entire spectrum of rock ‘n’ roll. He cut doo-wop songs with Jesse Belvin, he arguably invented gangsta rock, he made his biggest splash with funky albums in the 1970’s. Yes, he scored his first hit with a blues-based song, but then his second was with a country styled tune of all things, he was big on the Northern Soul circuit for his sides with pal Larry Williams and down the road he was among the first to delve into rap and scored hits in synth-rock.

He was Frank Zappa’s biggest influence as a guitarist and Etta James biggest influence as a singer and played on a record with Dr. Dre! How much more ground would you need to cover in your résumé to be called a rock icon?

None. It’s virtually impossible.

But here’s where it began, the kid being handed the keys to the car on the self-penned Motor Head Baby… at a time he might not have legally even been allowed to drive!

Little did anyone that day know he’d be rocking until the day he died… literally on stage in 1996 right in the middle of a song.

Motherfucker was a rock star to the bitter end!

Must Be A ’52 Style
If you’re Johnny Watson’s age and in a studio for the first time, getting to sing lead on a song you wrote… would’ja be nervous?

Just a little?

The answer is probably yes, which means those of you with normal fluctuating confidence might be relieved to find that one of the cockiest rock acts on record does in fact seem a little… hyped-up shall we say here, taking this at a speed that might be designed to reflect the story about a kid bragging about his wheels, but more likely is a byproduct of his nervous energy.

But that doesn’t ruin the song… far from it in fact… as Watson’s youthful charm still comes through loud and clear on Motor Head Baby, kicking off with his own pounding piano and eager vocals which are understandably pitched a little higher than they would be when he matured and re-cut this a little down the road as a solo act.

In some ways this sounds like Little Richard, not just because they both are playing piano, but the fact that in his first sides for RCA Richard hadn’t yet figured out how to channel his own high-strung energy. But Watson does a better job of it here, in part thanks to having a great band alongside him as Chuck Higgins (who still gets lead artist credit let’s not forget) chips in with a thick toned sax in the opening that gives this more heft, while Joe Ursery’s drums double-up on Watson’s left hand rhythm beefing things up even more.

The solo starts off a little underpowered, almost as if Higgins’ didn’t hear Watson’s cry of “Let’s ride baby!”, but as it goes on things pick up a little more and it’s not as if he’s dropping a rod, to keep the driving metaphors at the forefront here.

But where Motor Head Baby really excels is in the story, as Johnny’s got a flair for words, cramming in long, but colorful, descriptions of the cars, of his girl’s interest in riding – with or on him, he’s not divulging – and the phrases he comes up with sparkle with inventiveness.

Once he settles into the quick pace you stop thinking of him as being anxious and just accept it as being a sign of his eagerness. He even admits this with the line “When you drive my baby slow, that’s the kind of thing she hates” and then later she tells him to step on the gas when he’s already hurtling down the road at 93 MPH, because she can’t get enough speed!

As anybody who began driving young can tell you, there’s a feeling of almost indescribable power to being behind the wheel after being a passenger your whole life, or worse yet, being a pedestrian. It makes you reckless of course, at least until you get it out of your system, but assuming you don’t crash along the way, it’s a helluva lot of fun.

Here young John Watson proves the same thing is true about fronting a rock band at that age. No longer playing piano in his living room, or singing to himself in the shower, he’s front and center in a studio, cutting his first record… of course he’s going to put the pedal to floor and see what she can do.

Who can blame him?


She Like The Floating Power
As stated, the career of Johnny Watson is going to cover lots of ground… without the benefit of a car… and not all phases or styles will be everybody’s cup of tea. But if you can’t find SOMETHING in his catalog to rave about, I’m not sure you’re following the right kind of music.

Already he shows his chops in three areas – as a writer, singer and instrumentalist – and he more than holds his own at all of them right off the line. As debuts go Motor Head Baby is topical, brash and above all else, exciting, which makes for a very promising start.

Granted, anytime you climb into a car with a kid who likes to drive fast it can be a little harrowing at first, but once you get your bearings – and fasten your seatbelt – you’ll enjoy the ride.

Unfortunately that ride won’t be with Chuck Higgins any longer, as Watson, as great of a pianist as he was, wanted to play guitar and whenever Higgins agreed to let him strap one on at a show he would be immediately be upstaged by the kid. When you’re the name in the act and play a solo instrument yourself – and don’t have the added benefit of singing – that can be a problem as Higgins later admitted and when the older musician stifled him too much, Johnny packed up and left.

Consequently, when we see Watson again it’ll be under his own name on another label. Of course he still won’t be allowed to play guitar for awhile, but that too will come in time and when he finally gets his chance you won’t ever forget it.

Until that time though, enjoy the piano playing singer who still is like a spirited colt bounding around the corral, waiting for his chance to jump the fence.


(Visit the Artist pages of Chuck Higgins and Johnny “Guitar” Watson for the complete archive of their respective records reviewed to date)