Saturday, August 13, 2016

Space Guitar (1953-1963)

I don't have anything against Johnny "Guitar" Watson's disco period, it's just that I love his rhythm and blues stuff from earlier points in his career more. He adopted his nickname after seeing the 1954 Nicholas Ray movie with Joan Crawford, Johnny Guitar, so maybe there's some kind of natural progression there. He brings a certain level of manic flamboyance and showmanship that's hard to resist. At any rate, he was still going as Young John Watson for the original release of most of the songs on this nice 2004 collection on Varese. Watson loved him some T-Bone Walker, and sure enough, the electric guitar is often the most salient point song to song, as on "What's Goin' On," where he makes it sound like a buggy. On the title song, "Space Guitar," he takes a rock star turn, growing his guitar licks big, ripping away the reverb, making it squeal, moan, playing the Dragnet theme, etc., and with unruly feedback too. And there's an alternate version here that's even wilder. Pretty cool. That electric guitar is always a strong supporting element, but I think it's actually his songwriting here that wins me over so big. He goes back to jump blues for the nimble structures of many of these little delights, and he operates within the world that Louis Jordan outlined so well: drinking, gambling, house parties, and woman troubles are frequent themes. He's often exasperated by life's setbacks, but he's jubilant too when the victories come. There are horn charts and some real nice honkytonk piano too. "No I Can't," which comes early in the sequencing, is a good one to sing with—it's possible you get a feel for what it's like to be Johnny "Guitar" Watson there, which sets the mood and tone well. "Half Pint of Whiskey" and "Gettin' Drunk" are pretty much as described—he's counting on the alcohol, but it's not always delivering. The latest song here and the one that feels most like a hit is "Gangster of Love," from 1963. The title is more prescient than the sound, which is the chattering rhythm and blues style he establishes so well. But he's not that far off from what we associate with "gangster" now, with scenarios that would work for the Notorious B.I.G. himself: "I robbed the local beauty contest / For their first place winner / They found her with me out in Hollywood / Eating a big steak dinner / They tried to get her to go back / To pick up her prize / She stood up and told them / You just don't realize that he's a gangster of love." It might be a bit Rat Pack, but I like that picture of her saying "You just don't realize that he's a gangster of love" standing over a steak dinner, in 1963.

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