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Artist Spotlight  
Junior Watson
By “Downtown" Bob Stannard, correspondent to BarrelhouseBlues.com
bob@bobstannard.com
© 2012 BarrelhouseBlues.com - All Rights Reserved
Photograph by Larry Claus


Junior Watson
 

West coast guitarist extraordinaire, Junior Watson, was once one of the most sought after sidemen in the world of Blues. He was one of the founders of the Mighty Flyers with Rod Piazza. He’s been the guitarist for Canned Heat for many years and has played with just about everyone.

Today, however, he is out on his own and for that we should all be grateful. I saw him at Tupelo Music Hall in White River Jct Vermont. Believe me when I tell you that it was worth the trip.

I had been taking a little snooze in my car when I heard voices outside. I looked in my rearview mirror and saw a very long, black goatee beard. I knew immediately that it was Junior Watson; the man I had come to interview.

I followed him and Matt Stubbs into the Tupelo Music Hall and watched as they figured out the load-in. Junior finally turned to me and introduced himself. I told him who I was and handed him my card, which has a photo of me playing with BB King. As he looked at the card I told him I was a harmonica player.

“Harmonica players have ruined my career. I’ve heard every harmonica lick ever played and I’ll never have another harmonica player on stage with me ever again. If it was a real instrument maybe I’d feel differently."

Not all of my interviews start off on the right foot. But as you will see, once in a while they end up OK.

I would like you all to know one thing about Junior Watson – he IS the real deal:

DTB: The way this works is that I’m here for you; to help you get your message out to the world so what’s on your mind?

JW: I’d just like to begin by saying that it’s good to be here in ….Where am I right now?

DTB: You’re in White River Jct, Veeeerrrrrrmont.

JW: Right, Vermont. Isn’t this where they make Maple Syrup?

DTB: As a matter of fact they’re makin’ it right now as we speak.

JW: Is that right? It’s the season then?

DTB: Yup. The weather’s not cooperating as well as they’d like, but sugarers, as they're known, are sorta like farmers. They never have a good season; just various degrees of bad seasons. Jeez, I should’ve brought you some.

JW: That’s OK.

DTB: I brought you a cigar, instead. Our mutual friend, Mark Hummel, suggested that it would be a good idea to bring you one of these (I handed over a pretty nice Romeo & Juliet).

JW: I always liked Mark. <Laughs> He and his band have made immense progress. He has single handily created the Blues Harp Blowouts and exposed a lot of people to great Blues.

DTB: OK, so for most of your career you’ve been a sideman working for hideous harmonica players…(I stop and offer a grin)

JW: <Laughing> You said it; not me. <laughing>

DTB: <Laughing> Well, I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to be on that list of harp players who ruined your career. Now you’re fronting your own gig. How do you like that?

JW: Well, I’m still a sideman; I can’t get away from it. I still do some work for Kim Wilson’s Band and with Tony Lynn Washington. You know her?

DTB: Oh sure.

JW: I’m going to be doing some shows with her, and of my own, this summer in Europe. That’s pretty much what I do to make dough; either record or go to Europe. There’s not much going on here (in the states) for me.

DTB: Really, why’s that?

JW: Well, I haven’t had a record out in a few years; I’ve tried to do one with Bharath. I had my own recording gear with vintage mics that I had bought on-line. Turned out that after recording we learned we had sonic problems. We cut 72 songs and put three CDs out at once. None of it really turned out to the degree that everyone liked. It was too bad. That was a lot of work, time, paying guys…for nothing.

DTB: Let’s get Bharath’s name straight here.

JW: Bharath Rajakumar. He’s an Indian guy who’s an amazing guitar player and harmonica player. Many guys try to sound like Little Walter, but this guy goes the full gambit; getting the recordings; getting the sounds, making the band play quietly; the whole approach that Little Walter had.

Rod (Piazza) did that in the beginning but over time…it’s not the right word to say to become more commercial, but to get more gigs he became progressively louder; using two amps. I think it loses its whole flare when it goes up to that level. Playin’ it quiet was one of the reasons why I wanted to play this stuff in the first place.

DTB: It’s all about dynamics.

JW: Yeah, dynamics and making people listen.

DTB: When I gig I generally play through a ’63 Premier 120; 15 watt amp with one 12” speaker.

JW: That’s a great amp. Very cool.

DTB: Keeps it from getting’ out of hand.

JW: I was giging with Lynwood Slim and we stopped by this place called the Chicago Store in Tucson, Arizona. The guy that owned the place was an old Jewish guy who owned pawn shops all over the country since the ‘50’s.

DTB: The Walmart of pawn shops.

JW: <Laughing> Yeah, that’s it. The Walmart of Pawn Shops! If people didn’t claim things they’d end up back at the Chicago Store. It was like two big Victorian houses combined. You’d walk in and he’d be standing there smokin’ a cigar and say, “What are you lookin’ for; amps, guitars, what?” We tell him we were looking for amps. He’d give you a flashlight and tell you go down into the basement.

Down in the basement I found one-half of a Premier 88. Then all the way at the other end of this building, up in a closet I found the other half. We pieced it together and it was a great amp. Every amp was $500 no matter what it was. He had a Gibson GA-400 that I should’ve bought, but didn’t. It had speakers with cloth pulls in the back. Biggest amp Gibson ever made.

DTB: You still have it?

JW: No, I never got it. What the hell did I know back then? This was probably ’91. That was pretty much the end of getting good vintage stuff cheap. People cleaned him out. Radio King drums you name it.

One time in ’84 I went in there and bought 27 Jensen speakers; all blown. I asked him if he had any Jensen speakers and he said, “Yeah, down in the basement,” and handed me the flashlight. I had them all stacked up and asked him how much? He said, “How many inches." I said, “What?” “How many inches?” I said “Ten." They were only $10 a piece. I put them in with my clothes and shipped them back home in my suitcase.

I had James Harman re-cone all of ‘em. I’ve owned 30 Bassman’s in my life.

DTB: What are you playing through now?

JW: At home I have a pro that I converted over to a Bassman.

DTB: You do your own work?

JW: No, I have a couple of guys that do that stuff for me.

DTB: I didn’t know Harman did that sort of thing.

JW: Oh sure, he worked at Orange County Speakers for years. He was sick when I first met him, but he was good at what he did. Still is. <laughing>

DTB: How’d you get your start?

JW: Up in the Bay Area with Gary Smith. Actually, at first I had my own band which amazingly enough was called “Double Trouble” if you can believe it.

DTB: Catchy name for a band…..

JW: Well, it was the old Otis Rush song, right? I was just startin’ out. I didn’t think I was much of a singer (still don’t <laughing>). I had all I could do to figure out the guitar.

One day, with that band, we were living across from a fire department, and a club that was right there in Campbell, California. Gary Smith came over looking to steal my drummer, was what he was lookin’ to do. He heard me playing and said, “Hey man, I want both you guys”. I stayed with him until ’76.

DTB: What year did he steal you away from your own band?

JW: ’72. It was a good time back then to be in a band. Traveled a lot. We had Alberto Gianquinto on piano; you know, James Cotton’s piano player. He was great. We traveled through the Midwest; lotta girls; lotta fun!

DTB: A lot of clubs back then?

JW: A lot of clubs with real pianos. Uprights, which you hardly see anymore. They were very cool. It was a real fresh time. Most of the places in the Midwest, and the east for that matter, were about five years behind the west coast. It was the Hippy days. A real cool time to be out on the road.

DTB: I’ve asked this of just about everyone I’ve interviewed about the clubs drying up and no more places to play….is Blues still alive here in America?

JW: What I’ve noticed from the very beginning is that it all goes in a circle. Let me back up. When we first started going to Europe with Rod in 1980, Finland was where we went first; Scandinavian countries; hardly anybody could play authentic Blues. It was all on the Rock style. Loud. Especially in England. Big ol’ Marshalls stacked up high….

They saw that we’d did it differently. It took about eight years or so, before they started backin’ off on the volume, doing their homework and playing it right. It made it so much better for a guy like me. I’d have my manager send over my CDs and get local players to learn my stuff and go over and play with them.

DTB: You use a local band when you travel?

JW: I try to.

DTB: Kind of like what you’re doing here, right?

JW: Well….I’ve played with these guys a bunch of times. Beadle (Gordon “Sax” Beadle) has been with me in all kinds of situations….

DTB: As opposed to bands? <laughing>

JW: Yeah, that too. <Laughing> You know him don’t you?

DTB: I’m going to finally meet him for the first time tonight. I saw him many years ago with James Cotton and David Maxwell here in Vermont. David’s on my new album. You know him?

JW: Oh, hell, sure I do. I played with him and Cotton actually.

DTB: Did you do the Vermont gig I wonder?

JW: No, I don’t think so. Do you know Pat Day, the booking agent? Back in ’95 there was a place called Smokin’ Johnny’s, which is no longer there, in LA. Pat Day called me up and asked me if I wanted to do some shows with Cotton; unplugged. I said, “You mean acoustic?”

He said, “Yeah, you have a big fat guitar, right?” “It’s just going to be you, Dave Maxwell and Cotton." I said, “Sure I’ll do it.". He got us a room at the Sheridan Hotel. I said I don’t need the room. I only live 40 minutes away. He said, “Take a room anyway. It’s free."

So I show up there, I don’t know if I should say this on tape, but Cotton could barely sing back then. He had a real frog (presumably in his throat). I was still in Canned Heat and had to leave the next day to go to Germany.

After the first set….let me stop here and say that I couldn’t understand anything he said…he’d go “*((#*^(^#($%)#*))*#$) garble garble…. David would interpret the keys we were playing in. David would say, “Key of ‘G’” and I’d say, “He said that was in the key of G???? You’re getting pretty good at understanding him." At the end of the set Cotton comes up to me and says <garble-garble). I looked at David and said, “What’d he say?” David said that he wants you to join him on the rest of the tour.

I said that I can’t because I’m flying out to Germany tomorrow morning with Canned Heat. He garbled something again and again I looked to David to ask what Cotton had said.

David said, “He said fuck you then,” and we had a good laugh.

Yeah, I know Dave Maxwell <laughing>

DTB: So, Canned Heat...

JW: Yeah, I got in that band in ’88 and was with them for 10 years.

DTB: That’s a pretty good run.

JW: It was good. Made some money. Bought a place.

DTB: It panned out?

JW: Yeah, it was what it was. It was fine but they just want to relive the past. That’s not my thing now.

DTB: There is a future….

JW: You’ve got to have something else going on than just reliving the past or you run the risk of turning into an oldies act. We did a lot of shows like the 20th reunion of Woodstock. We were the only one that was a real band. Most of the other bands were rehearsing the entire time just to play five songs.

We’d be sitting back watching these guys; you can’t even get warmed up on five songs. These other guys would be sweatin’ and practicing; the Mamas and the Papas and all these acts. It was crazy, but I had a good time.

DTB: Have you ever not had fun doing this?

JW: Ahhhhhhhhhh, I pretty much have fun in about every situation I find myself in.

DTB: It kinda comes across as though you might be the kind of guy who can make his own fun…<Laughing>

JW: Absolutely.

DTB: Ya know Junior when I thought about doing this interview with you, on April Fools Day, I had to struggle with how to approach you. I knew of your work but had never met you, so I reached out to a few of your old friends for a little help about what to ask you. Now, let me just say right here that most of your friends are a bunch of fucking deadbeats. <laughing>

JW: Oh yeah…

DTB: ….but I did hear from Fred Kaplan and Al Blake.

JW: Those are sweet guys right there…

DTB: They suggested that I ask you about playing behind harmonica players <grinning>; something very few guitarists have a clue about how to do right….Now I know how much you hate harmonica players….

JW: Let me start with Al. You know Billy Campbell. He’s a great guitar player. He’s kinda retired now; showed Jimmy Vaughan a lot of stuff when Jimmy was a kid. Billy was the guy in Austin back in the 70’s. Not too long ago he was playing with Delbert McClinton.

Anyway, he’s a character and a half. He’s got that accent going on… and he says what’s on his mind. One time he said to me, “I dun know how y’all play that stuff without bein’ shitface drunk." Regarding harmonica players he said, “You can take all those whistle players, put ‘em in a bag and throw ‘em off a cliff."

That was one of the first times I had ever heard a harmonica referred to as a whistle.

(Mark) Hummel came up with a good name for it, too; a field flute – like working out in the cotton fields.

DTB: Speaking of Mark Hummel, he was one of your friends I reached out to. When I asked him about a question he said, “What do you mean?” I explained what I was looking for and he said, “Ask him how his eye’s doing." What the hell does that mean?

JW: I had surgery and I’m waiting to have another operation. See that eye right there (he leans way forward; our noses are about touching). See that cataract there?

DTB: Yeah.

JW: That’s my good eye.

DTB: It looks cloudy.

JW: Yep, I can’t see a thing out of it. That’s my good eye. Two days before Christmas I thought I had a stroke. There was a prism in my good eye that was flaring all out. One side was all black and the other side was all white. I almost fell over. I didn’t have these glasses (holds them up for me to see). They’re bifocals. I never wore ‘em much, because I just looked out the one eye.

I rushed myself to the VA….

DTB: What do you mean you “rushed yourself”….you drove???

JW: Yeah, I drove. I went off the road twice. It was 3:30 in the morning. I thought I had to get to the hospital as quick as I can. Four hours of testing later they determined it was my eye. Two hours of more tests later they discovered that, out of the blue, I had torn my retina right near the nerves.

The doctor said to me, “Well Mr. Watson, your bad eye is now your good eye."

I said you’re telling me this and you’re not going to do anything?

“No, we’re going to do a procedure, but when it’s close to the nerve like that you probably won’t be able to see anything."

They kept postponing the operation, because they wanted to put a nitrogen bubble in there. I was supposed to go on tour with Al Blake so I asked, “Can I fly with that bubble in my eye?”

“No” the doctor said.

They could’ve done a shorter procedure but instead the one they did took over two hours and they put oil in your eye. Make a long story short three weeks later it torn three more times. They did laser surgery which created the cataract. I’ve been waiting now for a month and a half to get it fixed.

DTB: Can you see?

JW: I can see a little out of this eye.

DTB: I must look great to you, then? <laughing>

JW: <breaks out in a hearty laugh> Yeah, looking at you is like looking at me.

DRB: Hummel also said, “He can be a real crank so buy him a good cigar.”

JW: <LAUGHING> Crank? What does he know about crank??? He’s the crank <laughing>. He’ll show up at a gig and say, “Where’s the food at?” Not even say hello. “Where’s the food…I got it in the contract..” <laughing>

DTB: Mark was also gracious enough to appear on my album.

JW: Oh, he’s not so bad. <laughing>

DTB: You ever hear of a guy named Randy Chortkoff?

JW: (Eyeing me warily with his good/bad eye). Yeah.

DTB: He said, “You can remind Junior about his surfer day in 1984 when I saw him in Sunset beach as he transformed into a Southern California surfer... for a minute."

"You can let Watson know that I've always felt that he was the best white blues guitarist that the West coast has ever known. It's an honor to have been his friend for almost 30 years.”

JW: There you go. Randy is a great man.

DTB: I reached out to Rick Estrin…you know him?

JW: Oh yeah…

DTB: I can’t believe you know all these harmonica players <grins> What a sad life you’ve led.

JW: It’s true….<Grins>

DTB: Rick said, “I don't have a question, but I have a statement:

"Junior's the most widely imitated, cult-figure guitarist in the world."

"There are a couple thousand guys scattered all over the globe who wouldn't know what to do with their lives if they didn't have Junior to copy!"

And...

"Watching Junior play guitar gives me a high you couldn't even imagine.

That's the straight up truth...no April fools about it!”

How does that make you feel?

JW: That’s pretty amazing….that’s pretty good. But you know what? I’m starting to believe some of this stuff, because I’m hearing it from so many people.

DTB: Every single person I reached out to, Mark, Rich, Al, Fred, didn’t hear back from Charlie (Musselwhite) or Kim (Wilson) yet, but every one of them said the same thing; that you are The Guy. When I was listening to you talk about Billy Campbell and referring to him as “The Guy”, I knew that others feel the same way about you.

JW: Ah, man, that’s very kind. That’s amazing. That makes me feel real good.

DTB: When I started thinking about this interview, Junior, I was thinking in terms of it being on April Fools Day, but as I read the comments from people that I hold in very high esteem, as I’m sure you do as well, I could feel that this was going to go in a much different direction. And to quote our friend, Rick Estrin, “There ain’t no April Fools about it." Junior, you’re the real deal; the man to beat. That must make you feel pretty good.

JW: Man, this is very cool. Absolutely. Thanks very much.

DTB: Junior Thanks very much for sitting down with me and maybe one day we might even play together.

JW: Maybe <winks>. Stay tuned for a new album with this band; Matt Stubbs and “Sax” Gordon Beadle.


© 2012 BarrelhouseBlues.com - All Rights Reserved

You may contact Junior Watson at:
Website: http://www.juniorwatson.com/

Bob Stannard is an endorsed player of SEYDEL Harmonicas:
http://www.seydelusa.com
He also plays other harmonicas custom fitted by Steve Malerbi.
He uses customs mics made by Dennis Oellig:
http://www.mrmicrophone.com
Bob is a "Juried Artist" with the Vermont Arts Council
website: http://www.bobstannard.com
Email: bob@bobstannard.com

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