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One of the West Coast's most influential guitarists, OC's senior sage Junior Watson's dexterous delivery of slick, cerebral blues has always set him apart, even as a sideman playing for icons such as George Smith and Jimmy Rogers. His timeless, hybrid style—showcased at the Great Park as part of the Flight and Sounds Summer Festival—makes him an intermediary between modern-day hotshots and long-dead legends.
Yet the weight of that role doesn't occur to him often, especially not when he's hungry. Between chomps of a toasted, glistening medianoche—a Cuban sandwich of ham and roasted pork—at a back table at Felix Continental Cafe in Old Town Orange, he explains why being a good student of the blues means ignoring the rules of the old masters.
"My style is taking a lot of stuff that I learned and going, 'I'm not doing that,'" says the bald Watson through the thick wool of his salted, brown goatee. He grins slyly. "I see how they did that, and this is what I'm gonna do instead. That way, I came up with my own thing. And people don't know where you get it." To date, you can find the expressive chops of the 62-year-old virtuoso on more than 230 recordings including Boogie'n With George, one of the last records of the late, legendary George "Harmonica" Smith.
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Before jamming with giants, Watson's first exposure to the Bay Area music scene was going to the Fillmore to see such blue-eyed blues artists as Peter Green (Fleetwood Mack founder and original guitarist) in the '70s, back when hippies were hired off the street to work the venue's stage lights for nothing more than $1, a show poster or a hit of acid. In 1971, he lived in the storied Bay Area blues sanctuary the "10101 house," just west of San Jose. He remembers it being home to an immense blues-record collection numbering in the thousands. While gazing through it, Watson says, he was inspired to become an authentic bluesman.
"I'd never seen so many records of any genre, period," Watson says. "Little Walter, Muddy Waters, all the real stuff."
Watson's first career break came as a guitarist in the Gary Smith Blues Band in the mid-'70s, backing up every major artist who came through the Bay, including Big Mama Thornton and Charlie Musselwhite. He moved on to forge a distinct musical path as a founder of the clean-cut, sharp-suited troupe the Mighty Flyers in 1977, with harmonica-blowing showman Rod Piazza. He bowed out in 1988 to tour with LA blues heroes Canned Heat (of "Going Up the Country" fame), which lasted for 10 years.
But the longtime Stanton resident jumped tracks years ago to become a solo artist. The latest offering of his nimble, cartoonish style echoes on Jumpin' Wit Junior, recorded on reel-to-reel tape and released last May. While recording, Watson shunned modern amenities such as Pro-Tools; not even a mixing board was allowed in the studio. Instead, he'd adjust the tone on his amps live during the recording sessions, just as his blues forefathers did.
But even for someone who claims the quality of musicianship began declining in 1940, he's still interested in the innovation and the persistence of younger acts such as the Derek Trucks, the Black Keys and Gary Clark Jr., whose new-school bravado continue the evolution of the blues. Though his cult status forces him to accept the gradual slowing down that accompanies seniority, he still has eyes on what future players will bring to his art form.
"Ya know, 'cause an old fart like me ain't gonna do nothin," Watson says. "We might influence some kids or something, but we ain't gonna make no major record. It's gotta be the next generation making the record."
This article appeared in print as "Bluesman In the Middle: By playing with old legends and inspiring future ones, Junior Watson has become one himself."