The Funk Anthology – Johnny "Guitar" Watson
Shout Factory D2K 31771
Johnny "Guitar" Watson was a pimp…or at least he dressed like one. Take one look at the liner notes of The Funk Anthology and you’ll see a man decked out in wide lapel suits and a fly hat, wearing ridiculous bling, and sporting gold teeth. In his own words, he ‘gave indulgence new meaning.’ This statement held true for both his fashion sense and social habits, as well as his music, as he first reached commercial prominence with his own brand of funk in the late 1970s.
Starting as a unique hybrid of R&B and jazz, funk has metamorphosized many times over the years. James Brown put the emphasis on the one, tightening the danceable groove, while The Meters incorporated New Orleans’ signature second-line rhythms. George Clinton and his myriad of cohorts blended in a heavy dose of psychedelia and experimentation before striking gold with a very slick sound that coincided with the disco craze. Eventually, Clinton yielded way to the even slicker sounds of Prince and Rick James, but it’s here, in the transition between the funk of Clinton’s heyday to the commercial funk of the early 1980s, that we find the funk of Johnny "Guitar" Watson.
Watson was no young pup in the mid-‘70s, having previously toiled in relative obscurity for over 20 years. His music was well-known and admired amongst musicians, but he never found that elusive commercial hit. Beginning in the early 1950s as a fiery bluesman who was a major influence on Jimi Hendrix, he earned the nickname "Guitar" for his unique tone that was revered by the likes of Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Lightnin Hopkins. While radio airplay had ignited the careers of his peers, Watson saw single after single fail to make a dent in the charts. A late 1960s partnership with Larry Williams sent his music into another, more raw and soulful dimension, but he still hadn’t found his niche. It wasn’t until Parliament-Funkadelic’s mothership had landed and disco fever had broke out that Watson found his radio-friendly funk groove, tallying a list of hits that are featured on The Funk Anthology.
The double-album moves chronologically, and it’s clear that Watson’s earliest forays into the disco-funk genre were his most inspired work. "Ain’t That a Bitch" is a badass struttin’ anthem, while "Superman Lover" is a smooth account of a playa who is crippled by love. (Watson was actually playing the latter number when he died onstage in 1996.) "Booty Ooty" has a tight dance groove and "Telephone Bill" is a humorous and infectious rap about talkative women who can wreak havoc on a man’s bank account. This song is one of many on The Funk Anthology that feature Watson rapping his vocals, a style that likely influenced The Sugar Hill Gang and other early entrants into the then virginal world of hip-hop.
Of course, as the ’70s progressed, society over-indulged and spiraled out of control. Watson’s penchant for excess eventually got the best of his music as he relied too heavily upon synthesizers and (gulp!) drum machines. The funkiness subsided and gave way to unabashed disco. While Watson was a tremendous talent who frequently played all of the instruments on his recordings, this method of creation didn’t always yield the most inspired results. By the end of the ’70s, much of his music sounded overly-produced and too reliant on the inorganic sounds of synthesizers. Once the drum machine showed up, the songs devolved from cheesy disco to borderline smooth jazz. It was the way of the times, and thankfully, this slice of bland musical history hasn’t made a comeback.
Unfortunately, The Funk Anthology doesn’t create much of a case for Johnny Watson earning the nickname ‘Guitar.’ His namesake instrument often plays second fiddle to bombastic synthesizers, and even when the guitar is featured, it’s nothing to drop your pants over. Moreover, as Watson was a skilled multi-instrumentalist, he still wasn’t a virtuoso on everything he touched. Many of his funk numbers cry out for some phat bass but are nonetheless hampered by pedestrian lines or synthesized sounds.
In all likelihood, Watsons most intriguing work probably arrived in his more experimental partnership with Larry Williams. It would have been much more interesting to hear an anthology of such lost work, but record companies are in the business of making money, and a package of commercial hits stands a much better chance of making the registers ring. Nevertheless, those who like their funk laced with disco will find this throwback collection to be enjoyable.