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JOHNNY GUITAR WATSON OCTOBER 1975 INTERVIEW
"Let me talk to the Lone Ranger — and pronto!"

Ever since the genial Johnny Watson hit the charts with his effervescent hit, "I Don't Want To Be A Lone Ranger", I've been longing to get him on the other end of a phone so that I could see that incredible (!) headline! But the guitar star beat me to it because during an overnight stay in Detroit, he decides to pick up the phone at 5 o'clock in the morning and dial my number. Even so, the headline still stands, Johnny.

Anyway, let's study the facts — Johnny's "Lone Ranger" has been comfortably placed on the soul charts for several weeks now and in selling close on half a million copies has surpassed all of his previous releases.

Born in the Third Ward area of Houston on February 3, 1935, Johnny's background is steeped in music. During the first fifteen years of his life, he was taught to play piano by his grandfather, who was a prominent preacher in the Houston area. Though Johnny's roots, therefore, lie in the gospel field, he listened to a bunch of Texan Blues giants — such as T-Bone Walker, Clarence 'Gate-mouth' Brown, B. B. King and Lowell Fulsom, all of whom were the superstars of the era.

On moving to Los Angeles in 1950, Johnny finished his schooling at the Jefferson High School and it was during this time that he began to appear in local talent shows and ran into Johnny Otis for the first time. Our hero had a nasty habit of winning the contests that he entered and that's what lead to his recording contract with King Records. Under the guise of Young John Watson, he sang and played piano on his own debut, "Highway 60" and "Half Pint Of Whiskey". Produced by Maxwell Davis, it was recorded in Los Angeles and released by King during the mid-50's. The next few years saw Johnny switched from King to the sister label, Federal, and then to the Los Angeles-based Modern label.

Perhaps the biggest step for Johnny came when Johnny Otis, his life-long friend, took over as head of A & R for King and he immediately signed Johnny back to the label. By this time, Johnny had inserted the 'Guitar' between his christian and surnames and had dropped playing piano in favour of guitar.

The King period lasted most of the early and mid-60's and included one nation-wide hit, "Cuttin' In". In late 1966, Larry got together with another long-time pal, Larry Williams and cut some things as a duet for Epic's Okeh label. This was, until his recent successes, Johnny's really golden era and included such hits as "Mercy Mercy Mercy" and "Nobody" plus the erstwhile in-demand northern items, "Two For The Price Of One" and "A Quitter Never Wins". "We did some dates together," Larry recalls when cross-examined on the Larry-Johnny partnership, "and we seemed to just hit it off together. So we got some finance and cut some things together because neither of us was affiliated with a label at the time. And then Larry produced Little Richard for Okeh and he played them the things we had done together and they liked them — enough to have us record two albums and a string of 45's. But Larry is now into a semi-retirement — you know, he's earned enough money from his old hits to be able to live comfortably for a long time to come."

After the termination of the Okeh deal (when the label went into retirement!) the twosome continued together for a while on Bell but shortly after, they went their own ways again. Johnny surfaced again in 1972 on the Lizard label but before he really had a chance to get going again, the label folded.

Then, last year, Johnny joined John Levy's company for management — he handles Nancy Wilson for example — and it coincided with the time when Levy was putting together a production deal package with Fantasy Records. "I guess I really only got into the deal as a kind of makeweight", Johnny says with a chuckle in his voice. "But they have left me to produce myself and that's what I basically wanted. And this is now my second hit and second album so things have gone pretty well for all of us, I guess. "Lone Ranger" is really the nearest I have ever got to a pop record and though I'm a little disappointed that it hasn't crossed over into the real pop charts, I'm happy that it has re-established me as an R & B performer."

So, to the future. "Well, my future has never been brighter, you know!" he boldly asserts. "My deal with Fantasy has just expired so I'm in a position to negotiate with whoever I like. And I've got a Top 20 record still on the charts to give me a position of strength to come from. But I'm also concentrating on writing. I've just written some songs for possible inclusion on the next Nancy Wilson album and I wrote "Try It, You'll Like It", which is on the new Betty Everett album. I've been writing for Tower of Power, too, over the years. I wrote one song on their "Urban Renewal" album and, of course, Larry and I co-wrote "Don't Change Horses", which was a hit for the Tower. And just a few weeks back I finished producing an album on my cousin, Frankie Lee. It looks like being picked up by Atlantic but it's basically an orthodox Blues thing. Yep, all in all, things are coming together pretty good right now."

What Johnny failed to mention was that he also wrote all nine songs on his new chart riding album, "I Don't Want To Be Alone, Stranger". It may have been a long time coming for Johnny "Guitar" Watson but now that he has arrived, the omens are that he'll stick around for quite a while.


  
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