Original Gangster of Love: 10 essential Johnny “Guitar” Watson tracks

Original Gangster of Love: 10 essential Johnny “Guitar” Watson tracks

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His soulful guitar work and flamboyant showmanship influenced artists as diverse as Etta James, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Thurston Moore and Snoop Dogg; and yet today Johnny “Guitar” Watson is mostly forgotten. We asked Vivien Goldman to rectify this via 10 essential songs.


Words: Vivien Goldman


He’s the real O.G.L. – the original Gangster of Love. As a skinny, pompadour’d bluesman with a blazing grin, he cut the charismatic track in the early 1950s in down-home gutbucket style. Blues-rock guitarist Steve Miller based a whole persona on his 1968 version of ‘Gangster of Love’ and riffed on it for two more albums. Steve’s version was a great populariser, but he could never match Johnny’s worldly swagger.

Through all the up and down decades in which he “kept working, kept touring” as he explained when I met him in 1976, Johnny “Guitar” Watson always projected naughty charisma; a slow-burn, quickfire, funny personality. Watson exemplified the authentic outsize funky individuality that today’s somewhat sanitized retread hits (like ‘Uptown Funk’) reach for. Seamlessly, he shifted through generations of grooves, shedding styles like the snakeskin of his pointy shoes, always with his colloquial singing and conversational guitaring steady at the sound’s heart.

In perhaps his finest (well, my personal favourite) era, on the Fantasy label, he evolved into a glamorous Mack Daddy, living up to jazz trumpeter Don Cherry’s recollections of the lanky Texan hitting Los Angeles with his musician crew; they called themselves the Magnificent Seven as they all had 7 Caddies and 7 girls. How Mack was this Daddy?

The Magnificent Johnny “Guitar” Watson, the player’s player, is too unsung right now. He played guitar like an acrobat before Jimi Hendrix. He was one of the greatest influencers in popular music – not just Steve Miller, or Frank Zappa who played with him as often as possible. George Clinton’s P-Funk and Snoop Dogg both ran with the ball of Watson’s tight asides and adopted his laconic, almost throwaway, “Bow wow wow Yippie-o-Yippie-yay”. That’s how cool Johnny “Guitar” Watson really was. Just riffing on his flip asides could boost another man’s persona and career.

Listen to the playlist and scroll down to check out the records individually:


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Johnny Guitar Watson
‘Ain’t That A Bitch’ from LP
(DJM, 1976)

Listen / Buy

The classic sleeve shows Big Pimpin’ Johnny, lounging beside a lustrous-maned borzoi with two equally glossy wenches relaxed at his feet. It might appear politically dodgy, but the grooves indicate why those women are glad to be prone — with Big Jokin’ Johnny, they’ll have been laughing all through the shoot. So Johnny subverts the Mack Daddy image: who’s really the bitch – the two vamping chicks, the borzoi – or Johnny?

The real bitch turns out to be Babylon, manifested in soaring payments and unfeeling bosses. Johnny was indeed prescient in 1976; he could already “programme computers and speak a little Japanese.” And he could certainly score the glorious horns, which tangle with his multi-tracked voice in a high-flying outro. Feels very relevant today when we all suspect, “Somebody’s doing somethin’ slick, Yes they are…”


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Johnny Guitar Watson
‘If I Had The Power’ from Listen
(Fantasy, 1973)

Listen / Buy

This pulsing slow jam, the seductive first track on the sensuous Listen LP, will clinch a seduction scenario, with the tender interplay between Johnny’s sultry delivery and his sparse, suggestive guitaring. To bring it home, Watson’s performance surges on a bed of strings, while he self-deprecatingly casts himself as vulnerable, beseeching your encouragement to make his fantasy – of YOU! – into reality. You got the power, Johnny!


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Johnny Guitar Watson
‘It’s Too Late’ / ‘Tripping’ from 7″
(Fantasy, 1975)

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This 45 is a dynamite double-sider. The A-side, ‘It’s Too Late’, sways on a subtle samba sub-text as Johnny breaks it down for some careless lover: “Now you want love, and all you get is hurt. You took love for granted and didn’t take care of your homework.” Johnny sings like a feather down your spine, tickling till it hurts; his advice sounds hard-earned. On ‘Tripping’, Johnny takes us for an elating, escapist ride round the edge of the cliffs in a convertible with a wind-in-your-hair pounding groove.


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Johnny Guitar Watson
‘You Can Stay But The Noise Must Go’ from I Don’t Want To Be Alone, Stranger
(Fantasy, 1975)

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When Johnny had a good song, he wasn’t shy to re-work it, and such a one is ‘You Can Stay But The Noise Must Go’. My favourite is the version on the superlative 1975 LP, I Don’t Want To Be Alone, Stranger – but I can’t seem to find it on YouTube! Maybe a vinyl lover out there can help? My copy was stolen long ago… anyway, let Johnny clue you in about the hazards of moving into a posh neighbourhood and getting the mid-20th century American equivalent of an ASBO. Whichever way he tells it, it’s a riot – and oh so real.


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Johnny Guitar Watson
‘You’ve Got A Hard Head’ from Listen
(Fantasy, 1973)

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I love it when Johnny gets all masterful and worldly-wise, as he does in this track from the outstanding Listen LP. Johnny’s canny litany of deliciously banal bad moves segues into wry advice from one who knows on life negotiation skills. And it’s all embedded in a raunchy, grinding yet subtly dramatic rhythm.


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Johnny Guitar Watson
‘Gangster of Love’ from 7″
(Keen, 1957 / DJM, 1978)

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Arguably Johnny’s definitive song. What might have been a conventional churning juke joint blues in the ’57 cut is elevated by the wickedly funny narrative, alive with cocky attitude. So irresistible is Johnny that he lures beauty queens away for steak dinners; and when he has to confront the wicked Sheriff, he doesn’t have to shoot him to bring him down – he just has to deadpan, “Yes, Brother Sheriff, and that’s your wife on the back of my horse.” The ‘70s version has all the character too – plus it’s as funkeeeeeeeee as a G-man can be.


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Johnny Guitar Watson
‘Space Guitar’ from 7″
(Federal, 1954)

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Just to play with our minds, Johnny flips his guitar sound into the galaxy. His hilarious and hallucinatory virtuoso twisted guitar-work inspired Joe Meek, Hank Marvin, Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, Thurston Moore and on and on. The fountainhead of guitar distortion feedback fun.


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Johnny Guitar Watson
“A Real Mother For Ya” from LP
(DJM, 1977)

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Watson’s Brit-friendly affection for hideous puns shapes the sleeve for A Real Mother For You; he defuses the implied bad language by being wheeled in a zany oversize Caddy-pram contraption by his actual real mother, Wilma. Johnny’s immaculately concise and evocative guitar injects Texas into the disco strobes. This period marks Johnny’s transition to the disco/digi vibe, with its low-bubbling synthesiser and closing vocoder. Like Johnny says, “It’s Too Cold!”


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Johnny Guitar Watson
‘I Want To Ta-Ta You Baby’ from Ain’t That A Bitch
(DJM, 1976)

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Its liquid guitar licks tease like foreplay, a point thrust home with the intertwining combo of horns and that deep bass thrum. Ta-Ta You Baby… what? It’s a nonsense, but a delightful one as he tickles ambiguity into the title. And of course his urgent orgasmic groans intensifies with an unexpected bursts of horns in new modulations – like the song switching to a new position.


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Johnny Guitar Watson
‘Bow Wow’ from LP
(Wilma, 1994)

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Nominated for a Grammy, Bow Wow offers Johnny laid-back and digital, programming his drums to sound as smeary and swamp-y as possible. The sound may be less luscious, but the attitude remains salty and sweet. For more of Johnny in the vanguard of the new, you can also check 1980’s “Telephone Bill” from the Love Jones LP – he raps!