Johnny "Guitar" Watson, the L. A.-based bluesman whose influence
stretched from Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and Eric Clapton to Snoop Doggy Dogg
and Ice Cube, (and who is currently known as the godfather of the "Free Soul"
movement in dance music), collapsed on stage at the Blues Cafe in the port city
of Yokohama, southwest of Tokyo last Friday evening (May 17) and later died of
an apparent heart attack after being taken to a nearby hospital. Watson, who
turned 60 this year, had performed in Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya, and Sapporo earlier
in the week as part of a week long series of concerts collectively known as
"Japan Blues Carnival '96." He was scheduled to perform at the final show
yesterday (Sunday, May 19) in Tokyo, along with the Robert Cray Band and two
Japanese blues acts, "Jirokichi Blues Friends" and "Begin."
Houston, Texas, in 1935, he started playing modern blues, mainly in Los
Angeles, in the 1950s. His sex-charged recordings included "The Gangster of
Love," "Those Lonely, Lonely Nights," "Hot Little Mama," "I Love to Love You,"
"A Real Mother for Ya," "I Don't Want to Be a Lone Ranger" and "Ain't That a
Back in the '70s, the late Frank Zappa frequently mentioned Watson
as an inspiration during interviews. Zappa told reporters that hearing Watson's
1957 recording "Three Hours Past Midnight" had inspired him to start playing
Watson's most recent album, Bow Wow was released in
1993; it was his first album in 13 years.
At the Hibiya Amphitheater yesterday,
Watson's band took the stage at their designated time, without their
instruments, and without their leader, to speak to the audience about their
loss. It was a touching moment. Saxophonist Charles Green, speaking in both
Japanese and English on behalf of the band, noted that Watson had told him that
if he were to die, he wanted to die on stage. He then proceeded to lead the
audience in calling "Johnny.....Johnny."
Many in the audience had been
looking forward to seeing Watson at yesterday's concert, and were shocked to
learn upon arriving at the Hibiya Park Amphitheater of his death. Blues harp
legend James Cotton and his band, who were also in town with the Blues Carnival
but were not originally scheduled to play yesterday, performed a spirited and
musically impressive 50-minute set in place of Watson.