A Celebration of the Life of Johnny Guitar Watson

(Los Angeles, CA) – On Tuesday May 17th, 2016, the 1st Annual Johnny Guitar Watson Heart for Music Foundation Celebration took place in downtown Los Angeles in the historic Los Angeles Theatre Center. The star-studded celebration was co-hosted by Glynn Turman (Love That Girl) and Kiki Shepard (Live at the Apollo).

Lenny Wiiliams from Tower of Power on the red carpet at the Heart for Music Foundation's Johnny "Guitar" Watson Tribute in downtown Los Angeles. Photos courtesy Dustin Brown at the Hollywood Press Corps
Lenny Williams from Tower of Power on the red carpet at the Heart for Music Foundation’s Johnny “Guitar” Watson Tribute in downtown Los Angeles. Photos courtesy Dustin Brown at the Hollywood Press Corps

On May 17, 1996, Johnny Guitar Watson collapsed on stage in Yokohama, Japan. He was playing his hit song, “Superman Lover.” He died of a heart attack while his friend, Frank Zappa, was by his side. Twenty years later, friends, family and fans gathered to celebrate his life.

This event was a long time passion of Johnny Guitar Watson’s daughter, Virginia Watson. It was an amazing night of blues, funk and legendary performers directed by Iona Morris and Musical Direction by guitarist Gemi Taylor. The show was written by David Ritz, the famous biographer who wrote about Ray Charles, Etta James, Smokey Robinson and Buddy Guy. David was the last person to interview Johnny Guitar Watson (known as Johnny G to his friends) and had many stories to tell about that interview.

Southern California Blues Societies Cadillac Zack with legendary drummer Emry Thomas. Photo courtesy the Hollywood Press Corps
The number one blues promoter in Southern California, Cadillac Zack(L), with legendary drummer Emry Thomas(R). Photo courtesy the Hollywood Press Corps

The red carpet for the event was held in the lobby of the historic Los Angeles Theatre Center. Located in the heart of downtown, this historic building is a great place for an event. Many of the evenings performers and presenters walked the red carpet including Barbara Morrison, Doyle Bramhall II, Lenny Williams, Larry B Scott and David Ritz. There was a full house with around 500 people in attendance.

Doyle Bramhall II at the Johnny Guitar Watson Tribute with the Master Phonk House Band. Photo by the Hollywood Press Corps
Doyle Bramhall II at the Johnny Guitar Watson Tribute with the Master Phonk House Band. Photo by the Hollywood Press Corps

The musical performance in the main theater began with a video of Johnny Guitar Watson. Due to some audio difficulties, the video portion of the show was screened with no audio. This didn’t dampen peoples spirits at all because seeing Johnny on the screen reminded everyone why we were all there. Dolye Bramhall II kicked off the music by playing, “Ganster Of Love”, a blues staple of Johnny Guitar Watson’s. Doyle and his band handled this blues classic with a rich, full sound. The sound all evening was quite remarkable. Virginia Watson brought together many musicians and they played an amazing selection of blues, funk and soul.

The first annual Johnny Guitar Watson Heart for Music Foundation Tribute
The first annual Johnny Guitar Watson Heart for Music Foundation Tribute

The house band was the Master Phonk Band and Gemi Taylor did an outstanding job as the Musical Director and guitarist. A lot of the House Band came from Johnny Guitar Watson’s band from his five decades in professional performing.

Barabara Morrison came out second and sang, “Ain’t Gonna Hush”, another Johnny G classic from his blues years. Johnny Guitar Watson originally recorded this song in 1956 on the “Three Hours Past Midnight” album. Barbara Morrison is a legend in the Los Angeles blues scene. She did such a great job singing this blues song and the Master Phonk band did an incredible job. The horn line for the night included Chazy Green on saxophone, Michael Harris on trumpet and Steve Baxter on trombone. This horn line added a brilliant element to the night’s music that can be heard in the recordings that Johnny Guitar Watson made over fifty years ago.

Leaving blues and heading into a 1960’s pop direction, Martin Kembers from the British band, “Color Me Bad” came out and sang , “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” with his son Ashley. This was a 1966 song written for Cannonball Adderly. The song went on to become a surprise hit on the soul charts. Martin and Ashley sounded great with a wide vocal range and youthful enthusiasm.

Some of the musical equipment from the Johnny Guitar Watson Estate were on display at the JGW Tribute
Some of the musical equipment from the Johnny Guitar Watson Estate was on display at the JGW Tribute

Doyle Bramhall returned to the stage with his band and sang, “Loving You”, a song from JGW’s funk years. Recorded in 1973, it featured a sort of rap intro and is considered a classic funk song. Doyle Bramhall II played an amazing solo on this one.

Lead singer of the legendary 1970’s soul band Tower of Power, Lenny Williams, came out and sang, “Dont Change Horses in the Middle of a Stream.” His singing style is rich and from the heart. Lenny Williams’ style has influenced modern R&B and Hip Hop artists.

Next, Lamont Dozier sang “The Lone Ranger” with the Master Phonk House Band. Lamont is the songwriter and producer known for creating the Motown Sound. He wrote songs for and produced The Four Tops, The Supremes and The Isley Brothers. This was an amazing rendition and The Master Phonk Band along with Lamont provided a world class performance.

Hip Hop icon YO-Yo performed "Telephone Bill" by Johnny Guitar Watson. Photo by D Brown of the Hollywood Press Corps
Hip Hop icon Yo-Yo performed “Telephone Bill” by Johnny Guitar Watson. Photo by D Brown of the Hollywood Press Corps

Crystal Penni sang,”I Wanna Ta-Ta Ya Baby” This was a great performance. Gemi Taylor, as Musical Director and guitar player did such a great job of laying back to let the singers perform and then playing amazing guitar solos that had a Johnny Guitar Watson feel.
Neo-soul songwriter, Mishell Ndegeocello, sang JGW’s, “Ain’t That a Bitch”, which was the highlight tune of Act 1. Her performance with the Master Phonk Band seemed to capture the humor, the expertise and soul of Johnny Guitar Watson. Hip Hop legend Yo Yo came out next to perform JGW’s song, “Telephone Bill”. Hip Hop and rap owe so much to Johnny Guitar Watson’s sound and beats. “Telephone Bill” is a spoken-word tune that is considered the beginning of rap. David Ritz says that JGW said that he had “Invented rap.” Drummer Emry Thomas is really not paid anything for the samples that modern rappers like Jay-Z and Kanye West use in 2016. Emery was Johnny Guitar Watson’s drummer in the 1970s for hits like “Superman Lover”, “Ain’t That A Bitch” and many other hits. When“Ain’t That a Bitch” went Gold, the second stage of Johnny Guitar Watson’s career began.

The Master Phonk House Band at the JGW Tribute in downtown Los Angeles on May 17, 2016. Photo courtesy D Brown at the Hollywood Press Corps
The Master Phonk House Band at the JGW Tribute in downtown Los Angeles on May 17, 2016. Photo courtesy D Brown at the Hollywood Press Corps

The Intermission provided a chance for musicians, celebrities and fans to mingle and discuss JGW’s music. While munching on fried chicken and pickled okra, I struck up a conversation with “Sticks”, the drummer for T-Bone Walker. It was such an honor to meet a Blues superstar like Sticks at the Johnny Guitar Watson event. There was an exhibit of artifacts from Johnny Guitar Watson’s collection including guitars, jumpsuits from the 1970s, his passports and many other items. It gave a glimpse into the life of John Watson.

Act Two of the Heart for Music Foundation Celebration was pure Jonny G funk. Lenny William’s from “Tower of Power” came out with singer Kim Yarbrough and sang “Love Jones.” The Master Phonk Band was well suited to play Johnny G’s funk tunes and the horn line was top notch. Rudy Copeland, who is the second voice on many Johnny Guitar Watson recordings, sang “Superman Lover.” Rudy told me later that this is his favorite Johnny Guitar Watson song.

Virginia Watson sang “A Real Mother For Ya.” Virginia did such an amazing job putting the night together. She took a moment to introduce Johnny’s grandchildren and spoke about Johnny and his life. Virginia said that Johnny G once said, “I’m not going to die and if I do, I’ll be on stage and it won’t matter.” Johnny G touched so many people’s lives. The Master Phonk Band and Virginia have such a treasure trove of stories and songs to share with the world.

Emry Thomas, known as ET, performed “Virginia’s Pretty Funky” and “Dejon’s Delight” with poet Azmera Hammouri. The Ben Allen Dance Crew danced and added a youthful element to the music. Writer David Ritz came out and spoke about his last interview with Johnny Guitar Watson in 1996. David has a unique view of blues musicians and his writing ability is just amazing. Larry B Scott, known for his acting in movies like “Revenge of The Nerds” and “Karate Kid” talked about Johhny G recording in his studio in the Valley. Johnny G had a connection with so many people.

At the end of Act Two, Angela Gibbs presented her mother, Marla Gibbs, with the first Johnny Guitar Watson Heart 4 Music Humanitarian Award. Marla has been an actress, comedian, entertainer and producer for over 50 years. She’s received seven NAACP Awards. Both Johnny G and Marla Gibbs have careers that span five decades. Marla was gracious as she received her award and many people wanted to speak to Marla after the show.


The First Annual Johnny Guitar Watson Heart 4 Music event produced by Virgina Watson, was an incredible night of music, stories and emotions from the people that knew and worked with Johnny Guitar Watson. This show would make a great Broadway musical or touring show. I’m looking forward to the Second Annual event.

Dustin Brown

Dustin Brown

I am the Senior Editor at HollywoodPressCorps.com.

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