As well as being a blues pioneer, Johnny Guitar Watson was steeped in bebop and swing; one listen to his version of ‘Witchcraft’ or brilliant guitar solo on ‘Telephone Bill’ should prove that.
But there was a lot more to Watson, who died in 1996. Frank Zappa said that listening to ‘Three Hours Past Midnight’ made him pick up the guitar for the first time, and Johnny subsequently guested on several FZ albums.
Ain’t That A Bitch was probably his best album of the ’70s. Quite simply, this man was one of the coolest musicians ever to walk to the planet. He took blues song forms and combined them with Curtis/Stevie/Sly-influenced grooves, gospel moves and jazz chords, to create something completely new.
Horns, Hammond organ and wah-wah Fender Rhodes meet ice-pick, bebop-tinged Telecaster solos and insinuating vocals. He played all the keyboards, bass and guitars on Ain’t That A Bitch, adding only drums (Emry Thomas), horn section (weirdly featuring UK free jazz legend Paul Dunmall) and backing vocals (uncredited).
If the title track or ‘Superman Lover’ don’t raise a smile, there’s something seriously wrong. ‘We’re No Exception’ is a superb ballad which could have been a show-stopper for Sinatra. ‘I Need It’ veers perilously close to disco but is redeemed by a great vocal performance, gospel chorus and spicy horn arrangements.
‘Since I Met You’ is a breezy finger-snapper reminiscent of Bill Withers’ best work, with Watson throwing in some killer bebop synth lines for good measure. And on the marvellous ‘I Want To Ta-Ta Ya Baby’, Watson’s guitar sounds uncannily like George Duke’s Mini-Moog.
When I was getting into soul music as a teenager, this album was right alongside Sly’s Fresh, Stevie’s Innervisions and Isley Brothers’ 3+3. It certainly deserves to be considered in the same bracket as those three. It also shares some high-class production values with some other classics from the era: Steely Dan’s Aja, Weather Report’s Heavy Weather and Harvey Mason’s Funk In A Mason Jar.