Junior Watson at Godfrey’s: married to the blues
He may not be a household name, but he is revered by blues guitarists.
He recently received his fourth Blues Award nomination for Guitar Instrumentalist.
He has recorded with a long list of blues greats, and was a member of the iconic group Canned Heat for 10 years.
And he is fun to watch and listen to.
He is Junior Watson, in concert, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 16, Godfrey Daniels, Bethlehem, where he appeared one year ago.
Watson plays effortlessly, without high volume or flash, with talent born from an encyclopedic knowledge of the blues.
He is not a purist, however, and might unexpectedly play something like the theme music from “The Munsters” TV show (1964-1966) in the middle of a set.
His laid-back personality contrasts with his intense fretwork as he effortlessly trades solos with guitarist Dean Shot and tightly connects with his rhythm section of bass and drums.
Throughout the evening he throws in stories reflecting his quirky sense of humor and outlook on life.
Speaking in a phone interview from his home in Stanton, Calif., the outspoken guitarist says he might tell a few less anecdotes for this visit to Godfrey’s, adding, “I want to keep myself out of trouble.”
Watson is known for playing West Coast blues, a style influenced by jazz and jump blues. He says:
“West Coast blues started back in the ‘40s. It was mellower with a sense of swing. It was sophisticated music for high society, for rich people. That’s how they got away with playing the blues.”
Last year, Watson released his sixth solo album, “Nothin’ to It But to Do It,” on the Little Village Foundation label. “It’s the best record I’ve ever done,” he says.
The album is high-energy throughout, with powerful vocals, jumping sax playing and upbeat instrumentals, including a reggae version of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan.”
As usual on his recordings, he leaves most of the singing to others, in this case, Alabama Mike and Lisa Leuschner Andersen.
Says Watson, “I’m not that great of a singer. I do it to front the band,” a self-criticism that would surprise most who have heard his relaxed vocals in concert.
Singing distracts him from playing. “I have to think of two different things at the same time, like doing a solo that is different and remembering the lyrics. I sometimes panic that I might forget the words.”
Michael “Junior” Watson grew up in Tulare, Calif. His mother was a singer who was on television every day for 15 years singing commercials. She once performed for two weeks with Nat “King” Cole. He recalls how he came to the blues after early exposure to Latin and surf music.
“I bought a record for a nickel, or maybe a dime. I don’t remember. It was ‘Bedbug Blues’ by Lightnin’ Slim, with ‘Too Close Together’ on the other side. I was always looking for things no one else had heard.”
When he was 15, Watson moved to San Jose. “I went to the Fillmore [West rock venue] and was seeing everything. You had to go through bands like Mott the Hoople to see Buddy Guy and Albert King.”
Blues harmonica player Gary Smith came to a rehearsal to steal the drummer from one of Watson’s early groups. After hearing Watson, Smith also took him for his band. Smith, who Watson calls his first boss, appears on Watson’s new album.
Watson moved in with him and gave himself an education in the blues. “Steve Gomes, who is now the guitarist for The Fabulous Thunderbirds, had 3,000 records and Gary had 3,500. I listened to every one of them.”
For much of his career, Watson has been a sideman. He was a founding member of the Mighty Flyers, now associated with harp player Rod Piazza, and toured with Canned Heat into the early ‘90s.
Junior Watson and Friends became a touring success, bringing in crowds because of his years of appreciation by other guitarists.
He has worked with many harmonica players, including William Clarke, Mark Hummel, Charlie Musselwhite, Snooky Prior and Kim Wilson. That puts him in demand with many other harp players, something he has called a curse. not entirely in jest.
It has been a long journey for Watson. After 48 years on the road, he says, “I get real tired of it. But what else can I do? I’ve had bad luck with women and live alone now. It’s the only thing I know how to do.”
What keeps him going is a love of the music. “I search for songs every day,” he says, scouring sites like YouTube. Although he has sold his record collection four times, he has about 3,000 records, vinyl, of course. If there is such a thing as a blues nerd, Watson is one.
Appearing with Watson and Shot at Godfrey’s is Nick Fishman, drums, and Steve Kirsty, bass.
The New Jersey-based Shot has two albums in the works, a solo release and a tribute to Howlin’ Wolf.
At the beginning of his career, Shot played for six years with Wolf’s guitarist Hubert Sumlin, who taught him Wolf’s music. He will be touring with Kim Wilson in March, and hopes to set a tour date for a stop at Godfrey Daniels.
Says Shot, “For years, Junior was the only one doing what he is doing. Now when you go to Europe, there are 300 or so clones.”
At Godfrey’s, you will have a chance to see the original.
Tickets: Godfrey Daniels box office, 7 E. Fourth St., Bethlehem; godfreydaniels.org; 610-867-2390