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But his most visible and enduring job came as a member of Doc Severinsen's Tonight Show band. Severinsen had picked Watts to be in the group when Carson and company began coming out from New York for their twice-yearly visits. When the show moved permanently to LA in 1972, Watts' sound and visage were being beamed nightly into millions of homes. In addition, he was playing for dozens of NBC and CBS shows, everything from Andy Williams to Tony Orlando and Dawn.
Only one thing kept him off the TV screen during those years—and that was other studio work. He had been discovered by the powers that be at Motown after the label moved from Detroit to LA and was included on dozens of recordings from the label. "There are so many dates I can't remember them all," he admits. "Lots of Diana Ross recordings, lots of Jackson 5 when they were still the Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, the Commodores, the Four Tops."
The hectic studio and touring pace continued in the '80s, best represented by his involvement with the Stones' 1981 tour and the subsequent Still Life live album and Let's Spend the Night Together tour film. But something was changing for Watts. About the time he started playing with Haden's Quartet West, he realized it was time to turn a page, to get involved in other things—and do even more playing.
While his association with Haden has kept him on the world stage, his own recordings of the past several years have earned him much praise as an individual performer, especially in Japan. While his early '80s releases from Quincy Jones' Qwest label have a certain crossover appeal, his JVC discs of the past decade—Reaching Up (with trumpeter Sandoval), The Long Road Home (with piano titan Kenny Barron), Unity (with the electric-acoustic double-bass team of Steve Swallow and Eddie Gomez) and the sultry Classic Moods—all document an impassioned style and a tenor tone that burrows into your brain. Add to this his 1991 collaboration with Brazilian Gilberto Gil, Afoxe, and a collaboration with fellow LA tenor players Pete Christlieb and Rickey Woodard titled The Tenor Trio, and it becomes clear that this man for all seasons has lately been intent on pursuing a more straight-ahead direction.
So what will the future bring from him? "I've been working so much with Charlie [Haden], whose music comes from such a melodically beautiful place, that I'm now interested in more melodic music," Watts says. "I've been working on some things like writing and studying, but I haven't decided what the project will be. It could be a duet to a larger ensemble. I'm thinking in terms of operatic arias for the saxophone."
Operatic arias? For Watts, it seems, the fat lady will never sing.Ernie Watts performs with the Jon Mayer Trio at Steamers Cafe, 138 W. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 871-8800. Fri., 8:30 p.m. $5. All ages.