John Watson, Jr. was born in Houston, Texas His father John Sr. was a pianist, and taught his son the instrument. But young Watson was immediately attracted to the sound of the guitar, in particular the electric guitar as practiced by the "axe men" of Texas: T-Bone Walker and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown.
His grandfather, a preacher, was also musical. "My grandfather used to sing while he'd play guitar in church, man," Watson reflected many years later. When Johnny was 11, his grandfather offered to give him a guitar if, and only if, the boy didn't play any of the "devil's music"—blues. Watson agreed, but "that was the first thing I did." A musical prodigy, Watson played with Texas bluesmen Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland.
His parents separated in 1950, when he was 15. His mother moved to Los Angeles, and took Johnny with her. In his new city, Watson won several local talent shows. This led to his employment, while still a teenager, with Jump blues style bands such as Chuck Higgins's Mellotones and Amos Milburn. He worked as a vocalist, pianist, and guitarist.
He quickly made a name for himself in the African-American juke joints of the West Coast, where he was billed as "Young John Watson" until 1954. That year, he saw the Joan Crawford film "Johnny Guitar," and a new stage name was born.
He affected a swaggering, yet humorous personality, indulging a taste for flashy clothes and wild showmanship on stage. His "attacking" style of playing, without a plectrum, resulted in him often needing to change the strings on his guitar once or twice a show, because he "stressified on them" so much, as he put it.
His seminal blues album Gangster of Love was recorded in 1953 or '54, and first released on Keen Records (his labelmates included Sam Cooke) in 1957. It was not especially heralded at the time—the title song in particular was deemed too fast, too raw, and too witty, especially compared to the likes of the then-kingpins of blues Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. Watson's ferocious "Space Guitar" of 1954 pioneered guitar feedback and reverb. Watson would later influence a subsequent generation of guitarists. Frank Zappa, for example, would cite Watson as one of his all-time favorite guitarists.
As the popularity of blues declined and the era of soul music ascended in the 1960s, Watson transformed himself from the southern blues singer with pompadour into the urban soul singer with pimp hat. He went all out - the gold teeth, broad-brimmed hats, fly suits, designer sunglasses, and ostentatious jewelery made him one of the most colorful figures in the West Coast funk circle.
He modified his music accordingly. His LPs Ain't That a Bitch (from which the successful singles Superman Lover and I Need It were taken) and Real Mother For Ya were landmark recordings of '70s funk. "Telephone Bill" (on Love Jones - 1980) featured complex, rapid-fire lyrics that foreshadowed rap music. His subsequent LPs employed and popularized the modern "computer sound"
Watson died on stage May 17, 1996, while on tour in Yokohama, Japan. According to eyewitness reports, he collapsed mid guitar solo. His last words were "ain't that a bitch", probably in reference to the song "Ain't that a Bitch". His remains were brought home for interment at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.