Classics: Johnny Guitar Watson – Superman Lover (DJM Records)
“I’m stronger than a locomotive…”, sings Johnny Guitar Watson while opening the ‘Clasic Superman Lover’. Something you could tell, judging by his repertoire which made of him one of the most influential artists in the history of Blues, Soul, Disco and Funk. From his unique way of singing to his electric guitar play (he was a recognized Fender Stratocaster virtuoso). The 70’s saw him reinventing himself, from a Southern Blues singer into a stylish (Funk) performer, prefiguring somehow how would look the West Coast rappers a few years after.
‘Superman Lover’ which would receive a cover version by the likes of Chico DeBarge, Eric Sermon and Redman perfectly embodies Watson‘s unique style. Counting as one of his biggest classics, along with ‘Ain’t That a Bitch’, ‘I Need It’ and ‘A Real Mother For Ya’. But also ‘I Want To Tata You’ and ‘Booty Ooty’ to a lesser extend.
A Houston, TX native, Johhny Jacob Watson, Jr. first learnt piano from his dad who was a pianist, although he found more interest in the sound of the guitar. And more precisely the electric guitar such as T-Bone Walker and Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown used to play it. He would get to his favorite instrument at the age of eleven. Receiving a guitar from his grand dad who was singin’ and playin’ in church. A musical prodigy, Watson played with Texas bluesmen Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland. And when his parents parted ways in 1950, his mom moved to Los Angeles, CA and took him with her.
There, he first found a job as a pianist/organist, playing on Herb Alpert‘s early recordings in the 60’s. In the meantime, he also developped his own style of playing guitar along with Jimi Hendrix. The latter crediting him as a major influence.
Meanwhile Johnny Otis had helped him to sign his first record deal as a solo artist in the early 50’s. This resulting in the release of cuts such as ‘Motor Head Baby’ and ‘Space Guitar’ on Federal Records. Eventually pioneering effects such as feedback and reverb.
Watson recorded a demo version of ‘Gangster Of Love’ in the mid-50’s while on RPM Records. It finally saw the light in 1957 on Keen Records. It didn’t generate any noise in the charts. However Watson and Otis re-recorded it 6 years later for King Records. And although it didn’t chart neither, it gained some wider exposure. Its next recording some 15 years after for DJM Records would be the one, reaching #32 on Billboard’s Hot Soul Singles chart during a stay of 13 weeks (* Wikipedia). Therefore becoming his most famous song ever.
The 60’s saw Watson touring extensively with countless luminaries. From Sam Cooke to Jackie Wilson and Little Richard. To Herb Alpert and George Duke among others. Not to mention Larry Williams who became one of his closest friends. Eventually appearing as a guest performer on two tracks on Frank Zappa‘s 1975 ‘One Size Fits All’ album. By then, with the popularity of Blues declining, he went into some drastic change. Turning himself from a Southern Blues singer with a pompadour hairdress into an urban Soul singer. Wearing a pimp hat and flashy suits with fashionable outsized sunglasses and ostentatious jewelry. All in all making of him one of the most colorful figures in the West Coast Funk scene at the time.
He changed his music accordingly. Delievering landmark albums on DJM Records such as ‘Ain’t That A Bitch’, ‘A Real Mother For Ya’ and ‘Love Jones’ to a lesser extend. A many offerings featuring gems such as ‘Superman Lover’ and ‘I Want To Ta Ta You Baby’, although the latter never saw the light as a single. But also ‘A Real Mother For Ya’, ‘Booty Ooty’ and ‘Telephone Bill’ which saw him eventually rappin’.
The shooting death of his friend, Larry Williams, back on Jan.07, 1980 happened to be much of a shock for him. Incidentally takin’ him away from the spotlights soon after. He would nevertheless make a big come back in 1994, eventually receiving a Grammy nomination for his ‘Bow Wow’ album.
Watson released a total of 25 studio albums between 1953 and 1994. With his music influencing countless artists. From Chico DeBarge, Redman and Erick Sermon who sampled ‘Superman Lover’. To Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg and Mary J Blige among others.
He sadly died of a myocardial infarction on May 17, 1996. Collapsing on stage while on tour in Yokohama, Japan. According to eyewitness reports, he collapsed mid-guitar solo. His last words ironically being “Ain’t that a bitch”.