My father thought I only liked the song because it had the word “bitch” in it. You can’t avoid it. The word is in the title. The song is “Ain’t That a Bitch” by Johnny Guitar Watson. I guess it was a sneaky way to get away with cursing while singing along, but that’s not why I listened. It was a logical conclusion for him to make given that I was a young white boy living in the comfortable suburbs of Charlotte, NC and the song was about a black man struggling to get by. He’s working forty hours, six long days. They are working poor folks to death and when he pays his rent and his car, he doesn’t have a damn thing left. How could I possible relate to that? But I did.
It wasn’t the curse words that attracted me to Johnny “Guitar” Watson. If I wanted to hear those, I could have played the Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor CDs I had hidden under my bed. No, Johnny Guitar meant something to me. He was funny; he was slick. His music was never serious and yet it always delivered a strong message. I don’t know if there is an artist out there that made the type of music he did. Just like you can’t place Frank Zappa’s (who was influenced heavily by Johnny) into one specific category, Johnny Guitar’s catalogue fuses so many different styles it can only be placed in the “other” section.
I spent many hours with Johnny Guitar. He was like my cool Funk uncle who would come over and tell me stories for hours. I would listen, play and sing along with a stupid air guitar and bad voice, “I got a girl and she’s so fine yeah/ Make me want to swing from a grape vine (ain’t that strange)/ And she doesn’t know what a thing she’s causin’/ got me runnin’ round want to holla like Tarzan.” I’m sorry if you can’t get into that. But you have to picture a dumb 12-year-old kid singing those lines to really get it.
When something is familiar in your world as a child, you think it applies to everyone. I assumed that everyone knew Johnny Guitar just like they knew Elvis and Santa Clause. This might make more sense if I was some sort of musician talking about my influences, but I can barely play the wood block. Dad couldn’t have been too confused as to why I was listening to Johnny since I got the taste and the album from him. Part of the greatness of Johnny Guitar is that a sorry ass white kid from the Suburbs can relate to his music. He was a pimp (for real). I was not (for real). But when he sings about trying hard to do something over and over and never getting anywhere, that’s life.
Most people don’t know Johnny Guitar and it’s a damn shame (one of his songs). He’s not in the Rock and Roll hall of fame. He’s never mentioned as a Blues great or a guitar great or a monster influence to monster musicians like Stevie Ray Vaughn, Marvin Gaye, Frank Zappa, Etta James, Steve Miller and many more. Steve Miller not only covered Johnny’s “Gangster of Love,” but also made his legacy with that song. Etta James said that Johnny taught her how to really sing the Blues. Zappa said Johnny’s “Space Guitar” is what made him pick up a guitar. But you don’t know him and I can’t really explain why.
Johnny Guitar remade his image in the 70’s by adopting a pimp-like persona. He even had
his own stable of women and lived the lifestyle as well as wearing the clothes and driving the cars. I think this killed his legacy because he reverted back to pimping and heavy drug use in the 80’s. Sadly, he burned the bridges that connected you to his life’s work during these dark days.
It is rumored that DJM Records wanted to release Johnny’s first album after his pimp restoration, “Ain’t That a Bitch,” as a tax write-off to offset the profits of their biggest act, Elton John. That record instead became a hit and sold over 500,000 copies. His career had already spanned two decades and it would continue for another two more. The funky pimp part of his career, that ruined his life in reality, is when he wrote most of his popular hits such as “A Real Mother For Ya,” “Funk Beyond the Call of Duty,” “Superman Lover,” “Tarzan” and “Telephone Bill” which is one of the first rap songs ever recorded. Somehow, though, you still don’t know him.
If you were from Denmark, you would regard Johnny Guitar Watson in the same light as Elvis. He is a superstar in Europe. During the dark days, Johnny’s European fans are what kept him going; he played concerts and sold lots of records there when US fans had all but forgotten. One of the few live performances that you can still see on DVD is when he appeared on the German live TV show “Ohne Filter” and gave a 45-minute concert.
The 90’s looked promising for Johnny. He had gotten sober and planned to revitalize his career once again. He released the album “Bow Wow” in 1995 to much critical and commercial success. It was nominated for a Grammy and would be sampled by many prominent rap artists like Snoop Dogg and Redman. He embarked on a world tour following “Bow Wow’s” success in 1996. In Yokohama, Japan on May 17th he opened on stage with the song “Superman Lover” and then died of a heart attack at the age of 61. In 1996, I was 10 and unaware that Johnny Guitar was still alive and had died. I’m not sure if I had even discovered him yet. He died as he lived, on stage. For some reason, his catalogue and legacy seemed to die with him. Luckily somewhere, somehow, I picked up “Ain’t That a Bitch” and have been listening ever since.