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Throwback Thursday: Johnny Guitar Watson- The Evolution Of A Funk God

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY.

In funk's now lengthy tradition, it is widely assumed that longevity might be the strongest tell-tale of a great performers influence. And their were fairly few careers that covered as much ground as that of Houston-born Johnny Guitar Watson, adding but another link to what is already a lengthy chain of virtuoso blues guitarists and frontmen that hail from the Lone Star State. Most know more of him through those early 90's boom-bap bangers that borrowed his distinctive tone and blues chops (Mary J. Blige's "What's The 411" Remix or Redman's "A Day Of Sooperman Lover") but few understand how in the cut he was as a musician and how revered he was for his wild onstage antics.

Watson's show was a spectacle from the get go. His aggressive pick-less guitar method and raucous feedback and reverb-laden tone, an attire that would put The Mack to shame combined with a cartoonish personality to make him a captivating and somewhat polarizing figure in music for decades. His earliest solo successes came in 1954 with the record Space Guitar, which was as groundbreaking a release from a guitarist in that time as Are You Experienced was just thirteen years later. In fact, one of the most menacing aspects of out-living a musician who emulates your style and so many others as well as Jimi did, was addressing the obvious comparisons without the other there to reciprocate the sentiment. In fact, Watson had this to say about Hendrix's stage performance:

"I used to play the guitar standing on my hands. I had a 150-foot cord and I could get on top of the auditorium – those things Jimi Hendrix was doing, I started that shit."

Never one to be all that humble (after all, we are talking about the man who penned "Superman Lover" and "Gangster of Love" and probably would have claimed to invent electricity itself), it may very well be the case that the reason the man enjoyed such minimal commercial success prior to the 70s was his marked lack of humility both as a person and a musician. Ego aside, musicians and singers like Sam Cooke, Herb Alpert, George Duke, Little Richard, Johnny Otis and David Axelrod still sought after Watson for their touring bands and studio sessions. All of which landed him on Frank Zappa's One Size Fits All just before the dawn of disco, ushering in the golden era of his career.

It was not until 1976's Ain't That A Bitch that Johnny's style as a guitar player, as a dresser and as a performer finally synced up with the textures of the time. It was as if the entirety of his (20 plus years) career had been conditioning him for a stint as one of the 70's most impressive showmen and most coveted tickets. Finally, in an era full of overzealous guitar players running everything through their phasers and way-wah pedals, it was Johnny's moment, as he had been playing with those effects for nearly a decade prior. Then in 1978, Watson released A Real Mother For Ya, adding yet another late 70's gem of a recording, for which owners should be ecstatic, as it possesses some of the earthiest, rawest funk that may very well have ever been; a true pole star of the funk continuum.

Though he kept recording a performing throughout the 80s, his age began to catch up with him and things slowed down a bit for the guitar wizard. He lost a dear friend in the alleged suicide of longtime cohort Larry Williams and didn't hit the charts again until his final recording Bow Wow dropped in 1994, earning him the first Grammy nomination of a 40-year legacy. Though that legacy clearly never really passed, he unfortunately did, just where that legacy began; onstage. During a 1996 performance of "Superman Lover" in Japan, Watson collapsed of a heart attack and passed away, even as he sputtered out a line from the Man of Steel's credo, "Stronger than a locomotive..."

The most curious aspect of the luminary's career was the fact that so few recordings existed of his fabled live show, leading this writer to believe that the only ones propagating that musical mythology must have been the people who actually got to see that grand spectacle and of course the mad man himself. Fortunately for you, we've tracked down an extremely rare live recording (thank you Funkit Blog and mysterious The French Gentleman) of a performance from 1976, bringing the funk to Paris (!) at the legendary La Bataclan. Get a taste of Johnny "Guitar" Watson's live antics below with the recording of "Ain't That A Bitch" and then download the show in its entirety for yourself after the drop.

>>>Download Johnny "Guitar" Watson Live in Paris 1976 (via Funkit)