Gangsters of Love
Playing and pimping, living and dying with Johnny “Guitar” Watson and Larry Williams
By RJ Smith
Reading time 29 Minutes
In the early 1950s, in Southern California, the cowboy was unavoidable
In the early 1950s, in Southern California, the cowboy was unavoidable. Not so much on the street, but in the mind: in movies, in TV shows, smoking cigarettes in magazine ads and selling mom Jello. The cowboy was your American friend. Powerful and white because Gene Autry and John Wayne were white: white as the circles around Donald Trump’s eyes.
But in 1950, the same year that Winchester 73 hit the screen with James Stewart tracking down his brother from Dodge City to the Texas foothills in order to get a stolen rifle back, a real-life cowboy arrived in Los Angeles. John Watson Jr. made his way west from Texas, landing in an area not far from where stockyards once lined the banks of the Los Angeles River. He was black, and nobody noticed him. He dressed like a pimp, and he shpritzed like a Friars Club dinner. And hell yeah, he was a cowboy, one for the rock and roll era.
The musician Charles Wright first encountered the new gun in town at a bar, and eyed him warily. Today Wright is a celebrated singer and hitmaker, the funkmaster who composed “Express Yourself” and other West Coast classics. But back in the early 1950s, Wright was a newbie on the Los Angeles rhythm and blues scene, used to winning big at a monthly amateur night contest in Watts organized by bandleader Johnny Otis.
“It was the first time I’d ever been on the stage, another guy and I were singing duets,” Wright recalls. “We were pretty good. After four consecutive months winning, here comes Johnny Watson. He was playing guitar—I mean, playing it, with his teeth and his toenails and everything in between. He took the prize from us. Snatched it away. And that’s how I met him.”
Watson was 15 when he arrived in LA in 1950. After winning the talent competition he started recording as Young John Watson for independent labels including Modern and Federal. Then, in 1954, he and Modern’s Joe Bihari took in a western—not just any flick, but director Nicholas Ray’s dark and plush Johnny Guitar, about a moody and irresistible guitar-toting gunman. By the time they walked out of the movie theater, the teenager had a new name: “Johnny Guitar Watson.”
It fit. Watson’s guitar playing became his calling card up and down the West Coast, and he was catnip for women wherever he played. His 1963 version of “Gangster of Love” (a song he wrote back in Houston) all but defined him: He name checks gunfighters Frank and Jesse James and Billy the Kid and then boasts “but If those cats could of dug me and my gangster ways/they would have hung up their guns and made it to the grave.” Who knew they had gangsters in the Wild West? But Watson transcended boundaries, and after him that word, gangster, would sure cut a deep niche in California pop history.
To Wright, after the death of the doo-wop singer Jesse Belvin, Watson became “the most talented guy in Los Angeles. I actually looked up to him because he was a really great entertainer.” To the late Arthur Lee, the leader of the rock band Love, he was a misunderstood virtuoso: “He played better organ than he played guitar, did you know that?” he once asked an interviewer incredulously.
“He was just such an insightful kind of guy,” says his daughter, Virginia Watson. “A super uber fan collector—he loved his fans. If somebody saw him walking down Crenshaw and said ‘Hey, are you Guitar Watson?’ he was gonna go down the block, get a bucket of KFC, bring it back and sit on the hood of your car and tell you all the stories. He had a lot of them.”
He blew into town, and he never blew out. When he arrived, LA’s Central Avenue even looked halfway like a Western movie set: a strip of two story shops and taverns drawn together as if to ward off a coming dust storm. He never really left it, either: a legend on the street in part because he never turned his back on it.
After Watson, generations of guitarists (Eric Clapton, Steve Miller, Stevie Ray Vaughan and more) studied his licks and built careers that Watson never had. Black cowboys didn’t get to be John Wayne. He lived the life and he shot up the street, and he made strangers remember his name. That would be his legacy.
And along with it came a long run of grinding, of hearing white guys quote you on the charts, of owning the kind of respect that flows when you enter a room, but doesn’t pay your rent. His life was full of bent notes and street hustles, ending just when he was primed for rediscovery. His story is that of a guy so living in the moment that he missed any number of chances to live larger. Whose taste in friends, and habits, also left him vulnerable.
The question becomes not where did the black cowboys come from, but where did they all go?
The original space cowboy was born in in Houston’s Third Ward in 1935, the son of a stern preacher dad. Despite parental disapproval, Watson made a close study of Texas blues guitar players like T-Bone Walker and Gatemouth Brown as a kid. And guitar wasn’t even his main instrument: He began as a keyboardist and could also play saxophone, bass, and sing.
"I always say generally that it was my grandfather who was the cause of my playing guitar, because when he died, my grandmother gave me his,” Watson once told journalist Vivien Goldman. The idea was he would use it for the work of the lord, not for making the kind of music he was hearing on the radio and on Houston’s street corners.
"Everyone thought I was gonna be a preacher," he explained, "just because I used to speak a lot in church—I guess I was just a natural performer. I thought I'd be a preacher too for a minute, 'cos I was pretty active in church, but actually I think it was just that I liked performing, being in front of people...it made me feel good to make them feel good.”
Watson grew up around musicians like Floyd Dixon, Amos Milburn and Horace Tapscott, and along with these and many more Houstonians, he moved to Los Angeles and built a rhythm and blues factory that reached from one end of Central Avenue to the other.
After making a bit of a name for himself in Los Angeles, Watson hit the road for three years with Guitar Slim, who offered a graduate course in how to enter a roomful of strangers and ensure they would never forget your name. Slim had flaming red, or blue, or green hair, dyed to match his suit, and entered the typical chitlin-circuit barroom carried on the broad shoulders of a trusted assistant. Slim climbed the walls, ascending to the pinnacle of the barn or gymnasium he was booked into, and from that peak he cranked it. Watson learned much from Slim.
For many, prayer is a channel for giving feedback to the Lord. Watson had his own lines of communication. “I used to play the guitar standing on my hands. I had a 150-foot cord and I could get on top of the auditorium—those things Jimi Hendrix was doing, I started that shit,” he boasted.
Watson was preaching, in his fashion: channeling the lord or the voices in his head, but really feeling something deep and ridiculous. His 1954 Federal single “Space Guitar” could hardly have invaded the listener’s inner space any more than it did: this instrumental shouts, stomps, laughs and shits itself. It’s a teenager making funny voices and dreaming of taking over the world in front of the mirror, making radical use of reverb and feedback before anybody (not Link Wray, not Hendrix, not nobody) knew what these effects could do.
“Everything I write is humorous, even the more serious things,” he said. And the delight he took in the everything is evident in the sounds he made on his guitar.
Driving around Los Angeles with a ship-to-shore radio in his car, making home movies with one of the first Beta decks and a surveillance camera, Watson was a technical innovator his whole life.
At home he was unguarded: A friend who knew the man with the job of collecting Watson’s rent recalls Watson answering the door in nothing but Speedos and cowboy boots. The cash was extracted from a boot. Publicly, however, Watson was ever-prepared to be watched. “The way he dressed, man, from the rooty to the tooty, you know what I’m saying?” remembers guitarist Jemi Taylor. “That’s Johnny Guitar Watson.”
Drummer Emry Thomas put it succinctly: “He was clean as fish pussy.”
Thomas played with Watson in the 1970s and 1980s. The way Thomas views it, Watson’s flash—his clothes, his way of talking, his occasional menace—was meant to get him what he wanted and what he needed. It was a manipulation, and a way to survive. “Listen Johnny was a player. He was a master mack. Mister Watson was Mister Debonair. Cleaner than clean, cooler than cool. From the tips of toes to the tops of his hat, world wide immaculate. He was Mister Charming, and there was nothing that he couldn’t get from you,” says Thomas.
“Johnny Watson took advantage of my youth, my love, my loyalty and most of all, my respect for a blues master and a funk genius. He took advantage of that. But I can’t blame him, because he was who he was. I can’t be mad at him for getting paid. He was a player.” That was his genius: When he was done with you, you felt bad, but also very glad to have known him.
To understand who Johnny Guitar Watson was
To understand who Johnny Guitar Watson was, it helps to understand one of his best friends: the singer and songwriter Larry Williams. Born in New Orleans, also in 1935, Williams got his start serving as both singer Lloyd Price’s pianist and Little Richard’s valet. Williams gathered his own education in the dirty details of how musicians survived on the road. He knew where the rooty and the tooty were stashed, and he could hook you up with either.
Williams had a brief, brilliant career as a proto rock & roll exciter, with piano-pumping hits like “Bony Maronie” and “Short Fat Fannie.” He was handsome and had a great voice for shouting, and the British Invasion loved him: His “Bad Boy,” “Slow Down,” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” got covered by the Beatles, while Williams’ “She Said Yeah” launched the Stones’ 1965 album December’s Children.
Billed as The Atomic Rock Buster, Williams was big in his own time and is little remembered today, never recovering from several years spent in prison on a 1959 narcotics charge. By the time he got out, his piano-based sound was passé, and a whole generation of black rockers had been sidelined as younger white kids reaped their action and audience.
Lloyd Price remembered Williams this way: "Larry couldn't decide whether he wanted to be a musician or a pimp." Lucky for Williams, by the time the hits were drying up, he came down on the side of being a pimp. A drug-dealing pimp, in fact—someone who, it is rumored, in later years supplied for some big Hollywood names.
When he got out of prison in 1963 Williams wasn’t giving up on being a pop star. Williams hit it off with Watson and the two teamed up to record and tour together, cutting a pair of live albums in Britain in 1965. The two signed with Okeh—a long-dormant division of Columbia Records—for which they made some terrific hard soul music.
Their Two For the Price of One LP from 1967 features one of the coolest album covers ever: the two decked out in tight sharkskin suits that nicely compliment the purple and aqua side-by-side Cadillacs they find themselves straddling. The pose the buddies strike maybe is a “driving them dogies” pose or possibly waterskiing the hood the hood of two fine all-American gas hogs.
This was a hard-charging Sam & Dave style session with a show band big beat that could work in any Vegas lounge that would have had them. The whole of 1967 popped like that for the buddies. Around this time, Watson and Williams appeared on a single by the Laurel Canyon folk rock band Kaleidoscope. If nothing else, the song seems to have brought black and white listeners together: Both groups found it “too far out,” Kaleidoscope’s Chris Darrow said. Truth is the psychedelic song “Nobody,” wasn’t half bad, and the way they carried themselves in the studio was probably more remarkable than even the music they cut that day.
Darrow recalled it later to writer Richie Unterberger, describing how the duo drove up on the studio in twin Coupe de Villes. When the car doors opened Williams and Watson emerged wearing “matching suits, and matching hats, with chicks on their arm, I don't know who the chicks were, wives and girlfriends or what. One of the cars was chocolate brown, and the other one was like deep burgundy. And the suits were deep burgundy, and the suits were chocolate brown. It was like the coolest. They walked in simultaneously together, they looked like two cool guys coming out. It was a really beautiful session.”
That same year, Watson recorded an album of songs by 1930s jazz songwriter Fats Waller -- probably because that made as much sense as singing soul music over Kaleidoscope’s Turkish lute did. Williams, meanwhile, turned to making movies, and for the next few years he had a few small parts, including the 1968 teensploitation film Just for the Hell of It; O.J. Simpson’s 1974 film debut The Klansman (Lee Marvin and Richard Burton also appeared); the 1976 sequel to Mandingo, Williams appearing as “Slave #3” alongside stars Pam Grier, Warren Oates, and Yaphet Kotto. He never got any traction on the silver screen, but he may well have made a lot of professional contacts.
And all the while the rumors floated that Watson had followed in his friend’s footsteps and was running his own stable of female talent. Different people have said different things, but his daughter, Virginia, probably saw it closer than most.
“Absolutely true!” she declares of Watson’s career as a pimp. “In fact he had two stables, a stable that turned tricks and a stable that boosted. And his bottom bitch is still alive! And she is a professor at a university and she would tell you the stories about when they used to boost, what that was like.” She chuckles a little. “I never wore regular clothes to school—I knew they were cute but back then I didn’t really know where they were from.” She jokes that she was into designer clothes before she knew what designers were.
In a disorganized 2009 biography— The Gangster of Love: Johnny "Guitar" Watson: Performer, Preacher, Pimp—Vincent Bakker presents further evidence that Watson was indeed a procurer. So, why would anybody who could create music like he and Williams did want to be a pimp?
Watson’s bandmate Emry Thomas sees the choice in part as a product of the showbiz circuit Watson came out of. “It was part of the mystique of being an entertainer,” he says. Thomas holds up the example of Miles Davis, who pimped at one point in his career. Said Miles: “Man, the girls liked me and they would come by and give me money. Hundreds of dollars—because they liked me.”
Thomas: “Ladies of the night liked him and gave him money—that was Miles damn Davis so I’m sure those women who admired and even loved him, groupies shall we say, gave [Watson] money like he was a pimp, too.
“Look, you’re in a nightclub in the ‘50s. Who hangs out there? Those ladies and, yeah, a few teachers and lawyers who want to be entertained by the jazz. But the main people out are players, prostitutes, the police, drug addicts, drug dealers. And the deal was, when you are at the center of attention and you are attracting the women, the perception was now you are a pimp.” Especially if you were wearing a full-length fur coat that had “JOHNNY GUITAR” sewn into the pocket. From there, Thomas believes, events simply move forward. He became the Cake Boss.
The singers wanted to be pimps and the pimps wanted to cut records. “It was a mutual thing between both those guys, the performer and the pimp,” explains Thomas. “On both sides of it women are gonna be your biggest fans. And all the guys on the side are watching and wanting that, too.” And then a women comes up to you and slides some money into your pocket.
Watson looked the part: dressing in a way that sparkled and flashed and bent light around himself, in a way that Bootsy Collins and Parliament-Funkadelic would expand upon. Eventually Watson was driving a turquoise Stutz Blackhawk, gold plated interior, one of only six the company made and an unimpeachable ride for a gentleman of leisure.
He dug the role, but Watson also really needed the money. “Gangster of Love” may have been his calling card, but he claimed plausibly that the song made more money for Steve Miller when he covered it than it did for its author, who had neglected to secure the publishing rights. (In an incredible 1977 show on German TV available on the internet, Watson introduces it to the audience lightly as if it’s a tune written by Miller that he is covering!)
"I didn't know anything about publishing, and at that time nobody was telling anybody anything about anything. It took me years just to find out how to get paid,” Watson admitted to Vivien Goldman. “It was just a situation that was very cold-blooded, blues artists at that time just weren't getting paid.”
Thomas says that when the band pressed Watson for the money he owed them, he chewed them out, essentially asking them what kind of pimps they were trying to be?
“This was a way he would put us in check when we asked about our money. ‘Where’s our money? When I needed money I didn’t say ‘Where’s my money.’ I went out and pimped!
“And if you asked him today he would say ‘What was I doing? I was pimping!’”
For a while Watson, Larry Williams and kindred spirit Ike Turner
For a while Watson, Larry Williams and kindred spirit Ike Turner all lived in the same Baldwin Hills neighborhood. A healthy competition developed among them: If Ike got a new Cadillac, in no time three new Caddys were parked on the street. Virginia Watson remembers the rivalry went to ridiculous extremes: “Somebody gave dad a coffee table with strings on it,” she recalls. Like on a musical instrument. “And you could play it like a guitar. Pretty soon they all had one of them coffee tables, and they was playing them all.”
Meanwhile Watson had reinvented his sound, on a series of albums throughout the 1970s, first on the Fantasy label and then on DJM, a British imprint. They are inflected with the steady beat of disco which Watson made his own, drawing on the cool-breeze funk filtering out of California and retooling his own sly wit for a parade of grown-up takes on love gone sideways, tossed off asides that zing like a stand-up’s one-liners. Rat on with the rat on.
The DJM records (especially 1976’s Ain’t That a Bitch and A Real Mother For Ya, from 1977) deserve special attention: They sound today like templates for how a generation of older blues musicians would keep their light alive with a mix of disco, funk, and crushed velvet intimacy. Watson wasn’t “going disco,” he was going for it—making good albums and traveling endlessly with bands that could keep up with him. “I saw that a lot of the funk things that I’d started way back in the ‘50s had caught fire all over the world,” Watson explained to a journalist. “Sometimes I felt like I’d invented Frankenstein but could never get control of the monster. Well, it was high time for me to become the monster.”
Meanwhile Watson wasn’t really hiding the cocaine habit he had picked up. “Larry [Williams] was a big time cocaine dealer,” says Charles Wright, “and Johnny became a user.” Of her dad, Virginia Watson declares, “He could be a crazy, freaking freebaser in the studio.”
His actions were erratic, though not as erratic by the late ‘70s as those of Williams, who was clearly dipping into his own supply. In 1977 Williams was selling drugs to his longtime friend Little Richard, and when Richard neglected to pay—too high to get up, by one report—an enraged Williams sought him out and put a gun to his head, threatening to take his payment any way he could. Eventually Williams forgave his friend, and Richard returned to his born-again Christian ministry.
By now Williams was living in a $500,000 Laurel Canyon home, with a fleet of luxury cars and numerous women. It was something of a fortress, and Watson had to ring a bell behind a barrier and wait for Williams to come out, extending a pole with a key on the end to his old friend.
It was Fort Apache with palm trees, the good life injected with rising doses of paranoia. Luxury and fear could not remain in balance forever, and Williams was found in his garage, on January 7, 1980, hands cuffed behind his back and with a bullet in his skull. He was 44. There are plenty of theories regarding his death: that it was cops, that it was part of the Laurel Canyon crime wave known a year later as the Wonderland Murders. But the LAPD settled on the theory that Williams’s death was a suicide. At his funeral, Little Richard sang an a capella version of “Precious Lord.”
Emry Thomas thinks he was probably murdered, though he notes that Watson wondered openly if Williams had killed himself. Williams felt the law was closing in, and told his friend that he’d rather be dead than go back to prison.
According to Charles Wright, Williams had accumulated more than his share of enemies, and talked nervously about someone tailing him. “I think he got hit,” says Wright. A guy in Florida, he heard, put a contract on him years before, and it caught up with him in 1980. “It was someone he was close to, I won’t say who. What I heard was, you couldn’t get into his house because there was a moat in front of it. And the guy that understood [how to get past the moat] had him hit.”
After Williams’ passing, Watson drifted for some time, and then managed to clean up and return to the road. His daughter describes his later years as almost a miracle, something unbelievable. “His whole career was a real struggle. There was one short window [of creative and financial success] and then he got introduced to stupid drugs and he started believing he couldn’t record unless he was high.” She tried an intervention, and even got him checked into a treatment center for several days before he ran away.
“But then he woke up one day and he said ‘That’s it, I’m done.’ And he had ten glorious years of clarity.” Once a vampire who lived at night, Watson was now calling her at eight in the morning, eager to get the day started.
By the early ‘90s, a cultural transformation was underway, and the sleek disco-funk hybrid that Watson had helped make popular among African-American audiences had joined the pop mainstream. It was at the core of West Coast rap, G-funk, and he was the OG, getting fresh respect. Watson played on Dre’s 1993 hit “Let Me Ride,” and a year later released the fine and timely solo comeback Bow Wow. That title came from a tossed off Watson aside that he’d watched land deep in the heart of knowingness: “bow-wow-wow yippie-o, yippie-ay.” It had been picked up by Snoop and George Clinton; now he was reclaiming it, smiling at what he had inspired while putting a finger to his brim.
On Bow Wow’s “Time Change,” he lays out the Life in a few proud strokes: “Smoking that bush, sipping that juice, living that life, and looking like truth,” before the chorus rolls in like the tolling of a bell—“it’s a cold thing, damn shame, time change.” Watson can feel credit coming his way and age catching up with him in equal measure, and he wasn’t ducking any of it. The music was a satchel packed with tasty licks and low-maintenance electronics that made the most of not breaking a sweat.
Two years later, in 1996, he was playing “Superman Lover” onstage at a Blues Café in Yokahama, Japan, when he shoved the microphone stand away, fell to the floor, and died of a massive heart attack. Band members later recalled hearing him say he always hoped to die onstage. They flew his body back to Southern California.
When Frank Zappa died, he was buried holding the strings of the guitar he loved most in the world in his hands. But when Watson -- the man Bobby Womack called “the most dangerous gunslinger” -- was put in the ground, nobody recalls if he was holding anything in his hands. However he looked, though, he went clean as fish pussy.
RJ Smith is a journalist based in the Midwest. His books include American Witness: The Art and Life of Robert Frank (Da Capo, 2017) and The One: The Life and Music of James Brown (Gotham, 2012). His work has appeared in GQ, SPIN, The New York Times Magazine, Vibe, and Yeti. He is currently working on a biography of Chuck Berry.