Johnny 'Guitar' Watson
By Darlene Donloe
Johnny Guitar Watson is one of those legendary and influential artists whose music is so universally respected that it spans generations.
Although he died in 1996 at the age of 61, while performing in Japan, whether it's blues, R&B or funk, his music continues to influence artists. The popularity of Watson’s sound hasn’t waned.
Fans continue to rock, swing and sway to hits like
A Real Mother For Ya, Superman Lover, Ain’t That A Bitch, Telephone Bill and more.
To honor his legacy, literally 20 years to the date of his death in 1996, the 1st Annual Johnny Guitar Watson Celebration, a tribute spearheaded by his daughter, Virginia, through the JGW Heart for Music Foundation, is set to take place at 8 p.m., Tues., May 17, at the Los Angeles Theater Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles.
Proceeds from the celebration will benefit after-school programs.
The foundation’s mission is as follows:
The mission of the Johnny Guitar Watson Heart for Music Foundation (501c3) is to raise money to acquire musical instruments to put into the hands of our inner city youth, who show promise and focus in real music and then pair them with industry professionals who will mentor them to their musical destination. Our goal is to raise $50,000 to help facilitate music studies through after school programs like ARC, LAUSD and Non-Profit after school programs such as YoYo’s School Of Hip Hop.
Celebrity guests and performers set to attend the celebration include Glynn Turman, Michael Colyar, Meshell Ndegeocello, KiKi Shephard, Dawnn Lewis, Kim Yarbrough, YoYo, Kym Whitley, Marla Gibbs, Barbara Morrison, Penny Wilson, Lela Rochon Fuqua, Lenny Williams, Joe Torry, Doyle Bramhall II, Lamont Dozier Jr., Tammi Mac, Farrah Abraham, Parnell Damone Marcano, Ro Brooks, Lady of Rage, Crystal Wilson, Martin Kimbers and more.
I recently caught up with Virginia Watson, an actress, writer and producer, to talk about her father and the upcoming tribute.
DD: When did you first decide to do a tribute to your father and what did it look like in your imagination?
VW: I first decided to do a tribute for my father when I had a conversation with my girlfriend Dr. Michelle Turner, director of the Black Alumni Association (BAA) at USC. The BAA had started to partner with the Drama and Jazz Departments to participate in a campus multi-cultural entertainment series called, “Vision and Voices.” We were planning on doing something to celebrate the life and music of my father, but he lost out to the 40th Anniversary Celebration of the BAA. But once the fire was lit and I knew that it was the 20th anniversary of his passing, I had to do something! And a concert wasn’t enough. I decided to launch a foundation in his honor too and thus the Johnny Guitar Watson Heart For Music Foundation was conceived!
DD: Why did you decide to start the foundation and why did you decide the proceeds would benefit LAUSD by donating instruments?
VW: I live near Los Angeles High School and I started volunteering and started a cheerleading program for them. They hadn’t had cheerleaders in almost four years before I arrived. And just like me, LA High got a new band director and we struck up a great friendship. The director before him wasn’t a very nice person and when she left the school to direct at a different high school, she took instruments that the kids so desperately needed and then it occurred to me that in the name of my father, I could try and help get these instruments back into their hands and that became my mission.
DD: Tell us what we can expect when we come to the show.
VW: This night is going to be so special. It’s a journey into the life on one of the most underrated true icons of multiple generations. We take you on a journey of five decades of music and his life with a wonderful supporting loving cast and crew.
Mr. David Ritz wrote the show along with the support of director writer, Iona Morris. The show is hosted by none other than Glynn Turman, KiKi Shepard and Tammi Mac from KJLH. Musical guests include Lenny Williams, Meshell Ndegeocello, Yo-Yo, Barbara Morrison and many, more great voices, along with Joe Torry, Michael Colyar, Kym Whitley, Dawnn Lewis and Lela Rochon Fuqua, just to name a few.
DD: Talk about what it was like putting this tribute together.
VW: Having so much love in my heart for my father drove me to give a gala of this size. And let me just say….you gotta have balls for this kind of trek. The days and nights are running into each other at this point, but Iona (Morris) and I just won’t rest until it’s over. And until it’s over, we’re giving it our all. My father deserves this night of celebration and joy. I just hope he’s proud of me.
Johnny 'Guitar' Watson
DD: Why is it important to you to give back?
VW: Giving back is a must…your life can’t possibly be fulfilled without that act. It builds character and what you get in return is priceless!
DD: What is the overall mission of the foundation?
VW: The overall mission of the foundation is to raise money to get musical instruments and put them into the hands of our inner city youth and pair them with music industry professionals who will mentor them through their musical discovery.
DD: Your hope for the foundation?
VW: My hope for this foundation is that it fosters youth who really want to be involved with real music and allow them to experience the support of true music professionals. I would love to start a young folks music summit like the old Black Radio Exclusive (BRE) conferences put on back in the 80’s & 90’s by uncle Sidney Miller. I think that it would be marvelous for young people to gather and network in the name of music. And the best part is that my father’s name will be attached, so you know it’s got to be funky!
DD: What was the criteria for a celeb’s participation?
VW: Getting my celeb pals to join me in this celebration was no easy feat. I got a lot of NOs! But the ones that stepped up and joined in for the cause, I will forever be in their debt.
DD: Talk about the celebs you are participating in the tribute.
VW: I feel blessed to be able to pick up my cell and call people like Dawnn Lewis, Kym Whitley, Joe Torry, Michael Colyar, Lela Rochon Fuqua, Angela Gibbs, Doyle Bramhall II, Martin Kember and his handsome young son Ash… Not to mention my dad’s buddies like Charles Wright and Stanley Clarke. With support like that, you probably don’t even care who said, no!
DD: What are some of the artifacts that will be on exhibit?
VW: This night is laced with all kinds of fun surprises. We are doing an exhibit of my aather’s artifacts. When you arrive to the theatre, you will be greeted by my aather’s old 1977 Zimmer blastin’ out all his jams. And at the reception, we’ll be displaying some of his costumes and recording equipment, guitars and awards. I feel so blessed to be able to share these precious items that I ended up with after he passed.
DD: Describe your father.
VW: My dad was one of the most creative people I have ever met in my life. He was a jokester, a healer, a deep thinker, an incredibly gifted musician, but most of all he was my daddy!
DD: Do you have a favorite song by your father? If so, why is it your favorite?
VW: Gosh, I have so many songs that I love and I know the words to every song…But What The Hell Is This is for sure one of my all time favorites and I bet there are some fans out there who aren’t even aware of that song. But I just remember how much fun we had in the studio that day when he recorded that song. The whole family was there and the energy was off the chain! I mean it was on Fleek status! (lol)
DD: What happens when you hear your father’s music?
VW: When my dad had first passed, every time I would hear him on the radio or at a club or party…I would break out crying and start feeling sorry for myself that I didn’t have my best friend to share the rest of my journey with. But 20 years later, oh I get my groove on!!! And I’m as proud as I can be to have been born to John Jacob Watson Jr.
Johnny 'Guitar' Watson Celebration, 8 p.m., Tues., May 17, Los Angeles Theater Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles. For information: www.jgwheartformusic.com