The Gangster of Love from the Third Ward

Far more influential than famous, Johnny "Guitar" Watson effortlessly and flamboyantly excelled in every era from blues to rap.

By John Lomax May 16, 2014

Of all the Third Ward bluesmen, none had a career as diverse, influential and far-reaching as Johnny "Guitar" Watson. As far as we're concerned, he was...The Most Interesting Musician in Houston History. And here are a few reasons why.

His song "Three Hours Past Midnight" inspired Frank Zappa to become a musician.

Etta James claimed to have adopted his singing style—so no Johnny G., no "At Last." His "Space Guitar" pioneered the use of reverb. One critic has written that "Watson took the possibilities of the blues guitar to the edge and this edge was Jimi Hendrix's starting point."

Watson never stagnated in any one genre. Instead of sticking with the same ol' blues, Watson dragged the blues into funk and released two gold albums in the 1970s propelled by singles like this:

And this:

"Funk is funny," he once said. "Funk is looking at the world and saying, 'It ain't what it should be. It ain't what I expected. It's funky.' "

He was the first Houstonian to release a rap single, way back in 1980, when he was 45 years old. Check out "Telephone Bill."

Nine years ago Houston hip-hop legend Devin the Dude told me that "Telephone Bill" was "one of the coldest raps I've heard still to this day" and that Watson's Lone Ranger was his favorite album ever.

"I liked the way he played that guitar and made it sound like a voice, man," he told me. "Even before the Vocoder-type thing, he had a way to play it and talk through the mike and it all blends in together, so his guitar was really, really like another voice. And his vocals…he had a Southern drawl that makes you feel like you're at home, and it really blends in with his style of music -- the blues. And his lyrics…man, they are as meaningful now as they were then."

And did we mention, he was the original "Gangster of Love"? (And if you don't watch any other video here, make sure you watch this one.) He first recorded the song in 1957 and remade it after Steve Miller cut his classic rock staple of a remake.

His "Superman Lover" was sampled by Ghostface Killah.

And his "I Wanna Ta-Ta You Baby" was sampled by Redman.

His only biography is entitled The Gangster of Love: Johnny "Guitar" Watson: Performer, Preacher, Pimp, and at various times, Watson was all three of those things. Reads the jacket copy:

Besides hundreds of others, the love bandit had three First Ladies he lived with for years. They tell their untold love stories and explain how they stimulated his music as Muse, and how they financed his music business as Maecenas, helping to produce gold albums by working as prostitute, thief or booster.

As befits the Most Interesting Musican From Houston, Watson died doing what he loved: he suffered a fatal heart attack on stage in Yokohama, Japan on May 17, 1996, while singing "Superman Lover."

Here are a few quotes about the man:

"When my brother Stevie and I were growing up in Dallas, we idolized very few guitarists. We were highly selective and highly critical. Johnny 'Guitar' Watson was at the top of the list, along with Freddie, Albert, and B.B. King. He made magic." —Jimmie Vaughan

"Music-wise, he was the most dangerous gunslinger out there. Even when others made a lot of noise in the charts – I'm thinking of Sly Stone or George Clinton – you know they'd studied Johnny's stage style and listened very carefully to Johnny's grooves." —Bobby Womack

"They call Elvis the King; but the sho' 'nuff King was Johnny 'Guitar' Watson." —Etta James

And finally, here is the song Watson was singing when he died in Japan. 

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