If you ask one hundred blues fans who their favorite guitar player is, you will probably get about ninety five different responses. When you ask blues musicians which guitarist they most admire, one name will undoubtedly get repeated mentions. Michael “Junior” Watson has influenced countless guitar players with his swinging lines and spontaneous improvisations that put the fun back into guitar solos.
After lengthy stints as a member of Rod Piazza’s band, the Mighty Flyers, and with Canned Heat, Watson has been kept busy doing gigs under his own name as well as recording and touring with a whose-who list of harmonica players – George “Harmonica” Smith, William Clarke, Charlie Musselwhite, Kim Wilson, James Harman, Mitch Kashmar, Lynwood Slim, Snooky Pryor, and John Németh.
Watson explains, “Harmonica players have been part of my career from the start to the finish – and I am sick of it. I have heard everything that they play. And they can’t help you out at all because they can’t play a chord to back you up. So I am working all night and they just wear you out. Some of the solos go so long that I forget what song we are playing. I love the music but it is not that much fun to play that stuff for too long. Somebody like Kim Wilson, who was a high school football star, has that jock mentality of lets go, go , go! But I can only go so far playing that stuff over and over again.”
“The key for me is that I have to stay interested, so I try to learn something different every week to keep my mind going, whether I play it live or not. My Mom was a singer. She encouraged me to play. This week I am getting into some Latin stuff with all of these different rhythms. You never know when you can use that stuff. I’ve found that, no matter what instrument you play, as you get older you are either going to try to learn another type of music, or you are going to give up playing. It gets boring unless you are really diving into it to keep learning. And it it’s not just about playing. It is also about getting tones and textures from different guitars. That’s what I do”.
Watson is quick to deflect any praise direct his way. Like many of the greats, he has a humble understanding of where he fits into the overall scheme of things. “I think I am one of the easier guys to figure out, because I try to keep it simple. I was just in a guitar battle up in San Jose with Kid Andersen and Little Charlie Baty. I was sandwiched in between them – just tried to make it through. One of my problems is that I can’t see. I went blind in my good eye four and a half years ago. It’s what they call having a stroke in your eye. Usually it is a couple of tears in the retina. I had four tears. My doctor had never seen that before. It was one of those bad news – good news situations”.
“Now, when the lights on certain stages hit what is my good eye, I can’t see the fingerboard on my guitar. I am going to have to start wearing the guitar closer but, since I was a kid, I have been wearing it way low. I am missing notes by one fret because I have to have a bi-focal on my glasses. If the light hits it wrong, it splits the fret. It is a frustrating situation but you just have to persevere”.
“I remember when I was working with Gary Smith, another great harp player. Little Charlie wasn’t old enough to get in the clubs, but in 1972 he snuck in one to ask me to join his band. I asked him what instrument he played – he responded harp. I said why would I want to play with you – I never heard of you and I am playing in the best band in the Bay area. We were backing up everybody like Lowell Fulson, Big Mama Thornton, you name it. So Charlie shrugged, said all right, and walked off. He told that story at that jam. The next day, he sent me a real nice message saying that he loved my playing and that I had been a huge influence on his playing for decades. That was very special because he had never told me that. I am not a show-off player. I just try to play the song in the idiom”.
Watson grew up in Tulare, Ca, a rural farm area with ethnic mix whites, blacks, Mexicans, and Portuguese. He was captivated by a local band called the Gaylords.
“They were a great band. One of my friends had a cousin who played in the band. I grew up with my grandparents and they had an orchard. I could hear the band playing out beyond there. My grandfather said I could go listen as long as I didn’t bother anybody. They invited me in and that was it, it was all over. I had to get a guitar. So me and my friend Paul started going to it. The Gaylords played r&b and we didn’t know anything about that. Me and Paul loved surf music. I saw all the bands. We were close to Pismo Beach. There was a club there called the Rosegarden Ballroom. For a $1, you could see the Safaris, the Ventures, the Pyramids. I saw them all when we went there for vacation. And then at the T.D.E.S. Portuguese Hall we saw more shows – I saw James Brown there twice”.
“You are wide open when you are a kid, ready to learn. One record I could never get right was “Scratchy” with “Firefly” by Travis Wammack. That was the record that lured me into playing guitar. When I got with Charlie Musselwhite in 1980, Charlie asked me who I used to listen to. When I mentioned Travis, Charlie said he went to school with him, so when we get to Memphis, I will introduce you to him. So we go to a gas station in Memphis and there is Travis, working with his name on the work shirt. We started talking and I told him he was my idol when I was a kid, and still is. Turns out he wasn’t playing at that time. Travis said his guitar had been under his bed gathering dust for about seven years. He eventually got back to playing – and singing too. He never used to do that”.
At the age of fifteen and a half, Watson moved to San Jose and got introduced to the blues through Gary Smith. It was a heady experience for the young musician. “You had to be on your toes in that band. Steve Gomes was on bass. Gary came over to our house to steal me and the drummer from this little band that I had called, of all things, Double Trouble. We took it from the Otis Rush record, way before there was a Stevie Ray Vaughan. I had never heard of Little Walter. When Gary heard me playing at the house, he said that I was sliding on chords like Robert Lockwood Jr. I didn’t know who he was talking about. So I moved in with with those guys and they both had gigantic record collections – three thousand albums each on both sides of the house. I listened to everyone of those records. That’s how I boned up”.
At one point, Watson was in a band with bass player Bill Stuve fronted by Nate Branch of the Harlem Globetrotters, playing Reno and Las Vegas in uniforms, covering Carpenters songs with a female vocalist who sounded like Whitney Houston injecting some gospel flavor into even the corniest songs. Watson had to learn thirty-six songs in two weeks, studying in three books to learn all of the chords he had never played before.
It was Gomes that got Watson connected with Rod Piazza. “I was on a record called Blue Bay with Gary, guitarist Luther Tucker, Hi-Tide Harris, Musselwhite, Ron Thompson, a real cast of characters. So Steve was working with Rod, who was scouting around for a guitar player. So Gomes put my name in and sent Rod a cassette of that record. Once Rod heard this Little Walter-style instrumental that I didn’t even solo on, he said that’s all I need to hear. So Rod calls me late 1976 and tells me to pack my bags, we are going to Eugene Oregon. So this van pulls up at my Mom’s house, honking the horn. In the van is Shakey Jake Harris, George “Harmonica” Smith, Smokey Wilson, and Pee Wee Crayton with Rod driving. It was a blast! Those guys had me laughing like crazy. That’s how I got started”.
“My Mom was a singer, on TV everyday for fifteen years doing commercials. Before that, in Fresno, she did a two week engagement at the Tropicana with Nat King Cole. I was there but was too young to know what I was seeing. I was probably thirteen at the time. She had a guitar player, Warren Nunes, who was one of the fastest players around. He didn’t play that way with her, only when he was doing his own thing. He wrote a bunch of books and is probably one of the best guitar players ever. For my sixteenth birthday, my Mom gave five free lessons with Warren. They were expensive, like $50 back then”.
“So I went to the first lesson. He was a stocky mean guy that didn’t take any shit. Asked me who I was – told him who my Mom was. He said to play something, so I did. He quickly told me to stop, said I would never improve, he wasn’t going to waste his time and would give my Mom her money back. When I told my Mom what happened, she was pissed at Warren. But I was glad because he used this technique where they mold the pick to your hand. He never bent his wrist, always kept his arm locked. I didn’t want to play real fast. It has nothing to do with anything that I really like. But I was a bit freaked out that I might not get any better. But he was wrong – I’ve gotten a lot better”’
“Anybody that plays jazz in the Bay area probably took lessons from him. I got his book but I can’t make heads or tails out of it. I’m just not a technical guy. There is too much thinking involved. I don’t want to think when I play. I want to know what I am going to do and be able to go anywhere, to go for it. I started early on picking out five things that I can start with. For example, on this song I will start here, then I don’t know what will come after that, and then I will do this to get out of it. That way I don’t overlap ideas on other songs. A lot of players, if they play long enough, he will show his whole card by the end of it. They end up going back to their roots. If he doesn’t know his instrument, they will end up playing some stupid stuff as it goes on. That is what I try not to do, just play my own stuff. There are some things I have done on the guitar that people didn’t know about, certain voicings that just aren’t done”.
“I don’t like to sit in with other bands. I never know what to do. In the early 1980s, I would sit in with Charlie. He was so intimidated by me for the mere fact that I played before him. I thought about for years. Charlie could cut me to shreds. But he didn’t do it. He would just look over and listen to me. He thought it was more than it really was. At that jam, he played three of my things on one tune, and I’m standing there going, he just did my shit. We all do that stuff”.
Watson has done four releases under his own name – Long Overdue, If I Had A Genie, Live From Outer Space, and Jumpin’ Wit Junior. “Jumpin’ is my favorite. one. It was done live to tape. There were some cracking sounds on the tape, and I had other takes, but decided to use those because they were the best stuff. The band was tremendous with Richard Innes on drums, Fred Kaplan on piano, Kedar Roy on bass. We cut 86 songs in three days – for my disc, Fred’s album. I even have an out take of me playing slide for the first time. Fred wanted to do a J.T. Brown tune because we had Gordon “Sax” Beadle there. It was a big old studio and I spotted a steel guitar slide, so I put my guitar in my lap and gave it a try”.
“I am getting ready to do my next one. Been talking with Kid Andersen about recording at his Greaseland studio. Kid says he has been waiting for that. I don’t put records out for no reason. I want to have some idea of what I am going to do, like my version of the “Bo-Nanza” theme song or the Beverley Hillbillies theme done ska style. Six years ago I discovered Dutch Indonesian rock through YouTube videos. They do surf music without the ocean. And did you know that Ritchie Blackmore was one of the best surf guitar players. Check it out on YouTube – the band was the Lancasters and the song is “Satan’s Holiday”. Another of my favorites is Nero & the Gladiators. Colin Green was a killer guitar player. Another favorite is a Swedish band, the Spotniks. I do “Amapola,” one of their songs. They wore space suits. Bands back in the 1960s really rehearsed. They learned the stuff because they wanted to get it right. They took pride in their stuff.”.
“Now people will know where I am stealing my stuff from. But I am just taking bits and pieces. I don’t want to learn the whole thing note for note. That’s how you get in trouble. If you mess it up, you are screwed. But if you just get pieces, you can do your own thing around that stuff. You are free to keep on expanding. This is the only thing I know how to do – and I love it. I am passionate about music and the whole sound of things. I am constantly searching, even today”.
Check out Junior’s website at: www.juniorwatson.com
Interviewer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying life without snow. He is the President of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and the past president of the Crossroads Blues Society of Northern Illinois. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!