Saturday, February 1, 2014

A 60th birthday of rock guitar (possibly)

Fans of any kind of music just love a good discussion on pioneers, on who was the first to do something, and none more so than electric guitar fans. The heroic, macho player, not too different from characters in James Bond or Western movies (guitar slingers, guitar heroes...), lends itself to this kind of speculation.

One such discussion about the first guitar hero recently involved sailing upstream your typical "great man" narrative. Take, say, Eddie Van Halen. Hendrix. That kind of revered, popular guitarist. Jeff Beck. Clapton. Electric wizards with very heavy blues leanings. Creators of new sonic worlds on a fairly new equipment and its complements, of new techniques, new resources, uniquely able to stand in front of tens of thousands mesmerized people. Mike Bloomfield, co-conspirator of Bob Dylan's electrified and electrifying appearance in Newport. And then, circa 1960, the tracks seem to disappear. However, if I had to point to an early example of really outrageous guitar, combining a very early date of recording and release to the public, and ground-breaking playing, my vote would go for a tune recorded 60 years ago today. This one:

(Play as LOUD as possible)

Yep. That is "Space Guitar", a tune Johnny 'Guitar' Watson recorded, two days short of his 19th birthday, on February 1, 1954. It was released the following month as by "Young John Watson" on the Federal label as single #12175 (b/w "Half Pint A-Whiskey").

Young John Watson
Now, this kind of story makes a good headline and can provoke discussions and arguments, which can be fun but are ultimately pointless. However, I find it interesting that "Space Guitar" is not better known. Ponder the context: it was recorded a good half-year before Elvis waxed "That's All Right, Mama", a couple of months before Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock", and years before the "surf guitar" boom. Of the early rock'n'rollers, Eddie Cochran had been recording since the previous year, but as proficient as he was on the guitar, his style was completely clean, closer to country players like Merle Travis. Even Jimmy Bryant, with his stratospheric Telecaster, wasn't a match for Watson's exuberance.

Across the tracks, I can only think of Texans-in-California like T-Bone Walker, Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown, or Pee Wee Crayton. All of them recorded instrumental numbers before Watson (like "Strollin' with Bones", "Okie Dokie Stomp", or "Dizzy"/"Texas Hop", respectively), but their sound and attack are cleaner than Watson's. Both Crayton and Brown were Walker's followers (there was no other way around it) and played clean like the master. The only difference may be in Brown's using his fingers instead of a plectrum, which gives a "fatter" attack. Watson seems to have used his fingers too, not a plectrum. That said, Watson's triplets on "Space..." come straight from T-Bone too.

Watson is also far from other players around that era, like the young BB King or the even younger Earl Hooker. Regarding sound and attack, there's Guitar Slim (who Watson knew and respected — "Now, Slim was deadly. You didn't wanna fuck with Slim."*), slide master Elmore James, and Howlin' Wolf's sideman Willie Johnson, but as far as I know none of these recorded anything even close to what Watson does on "Space Guitar". Freddie King and, especially, Albert Collins were still a few years away, and even Chuck Berry was keeping things pretty civil with "Maybellene".

Despite this evidence for his status as a pioneer, Watson is hardly visible in the pantheon of electric blues guitarists. The fact that his "classic" years are quite a mess (hard data on his recordings are poorly preserved and there's no reissue comprising all his early stuff), his eclecticism (venturing into other styles of music, including funk in the 1970s), and that he was more than just a guitar player, may account for his falling into oblivion. He spent his life on the road, and he admitted in an interview that he "made some mistakes, but who the hell hasn't? Went a little over the top, but music is always over the top. [At] least the kind I like."* He actually died on the stage, on May 17, 1996 at the Blues Café in Yokohama, Japan. He was 61.

Like Walker, Crayton, and Brown, Watson was a Texan in L. A. He started out as a pianist well-rooted in boogie-woogie. His earliest recordings, at age 17, were for West Coast tenor man Chuck Higgins, for whom he played piano and also sang on a few sides. As a leader, he played both piano and guitar for a while (he could also play sax) but soon he stuck to the six strings. A quick study by all accounts, he watched and learnt from his rich musical environment, got some producing tips from West Coast legend Maxwell Davis, and off he went. He may have not been the slickest of the bunch, but his early R&B stuff is as compelling as anyone's at the time.

"Space Guitar" was an oddity, not only in the scene at the time, but in his own discography (although his recordings of standards with strings from 1961-1962, or his samba on "I'll Remember April" are up there too), with his outlandish and very early use of reverb, his whole-neck glissandi, his talking guitar and other noises, and his stop-time quote of "Dragnet" (popular then because of the radio and TV shows, and the recent hit by Ray Anthony).

As I said, there's not one reissue of Watson's records comprising all his early music, so I've put together this playlist of his recordings from 1952 to 1963, including all he did with Chuck Higgins. Etta James, who toured with Watson, insisted that he was a huge influence on her singing, especially on ballads, and I think you'll find more than a passing resemblance to what Mick Jagger would later do with the Stones.

Whether or not "Space Guitar" is the first instance of rock guitar, here it is, with most of Johnny 'Guitar' Watson's early recordings, 1952-1963.

* Quotes come from David Ritz's liner notes to Blues Masters: The Best of Johnny "Guitar" Watson (Rhino R2 75702)

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