How We Helped:Beverly “Guitar” Watkins, who joined the Music Maker family in 1995, has received help obtaining a passport, grants for sustenance, and several guitars. Music Maker has helped her record her first CD and another three albums since then, including her latest, Don’t Mess with Miss Watkins (DixieFrog release). She is also featured on several Music Maker compilation CDs, and in the book Music Makers: Portraits and Songs from the Roots of America (2004). Watkins toured throughout the United States with Taj Mahal, played the legendary Blues Cruise, and performed throughout Europe and Australia with the Music Maker Revue.
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As the years add up, musicians can get a bit softer, toning down the show and settling into a deep steady sound. For Beverly ‘Guitar’ Watkins that’s a back door she is not taking. Watkins set fire to the stage with Piano Red in the 1950’s and 1960’s, worked with James Brown, B.B. King and Ray Charles, kept the heat going in Atlanta blues clubs for decades, and she is not about to give up her striding, acrobatic style just because she’s marched past 70.
It’s not exactly clear when the ‘Guitar’ got added to her name, but Watkins knows exactly how that instrument got into her hands. Way back when she was eight years old, she left the world of frills behind for music. “My granddaddy played banjo.” Watkins recalls, “and at the age of eight an aunt gave me a guitar. The very first song I learned to play was ‘John Henry’. My granddaddy would go to the frolics and take his banjo, and I would go with him. I would always have my little guitar. I would sit beside him and be plucking my little guitar.”
The taste of music became a hunger for playing. Watkins hooked onto the masculine world of hard-playing and began to build up a fancy style. She found out that the coal man who came around to her house played guitar and he started showing her licks. In high school, a drummer named Bobby Tuggle hooked her up with bluesman Piano Red. “I was a senior in high school when I started playin’ with Piano Red,” Watkins remembers. “I started travelin’ before I graduated. Piano Red would go to the principal and get permission so I could take my lessons on the road.”
The group hit it big with “Red’s Boogie”, a song that stands up as a precursor of the rock and roll of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. The next, the 1960’s original version of “Dr. Feelgood”, was such a big hit Piano Red renamed the band Dr. Feelgood and The Interns and The Nurse. Watkins honed her taste for flashy playing and a personal style. Behind the hits and the shows, Piano Red insisted on some serious practice. “Sometimes we would practice a whole week for shows,” Watkins remembers. “And he was very particular as far as dress is concerned. Piano Red didn’t have nobody in his bandstand with no jeans on! That’s why I’m like that today, being dressed and stage presence. I was the nurse but I did not wear them shoes! I told them Nooo-uh, uh!”
Watkins had a hard time in the ‘80’s when the blues scene looked like it was fading out. She worked domestic jobs, hit the remaining small clubs, and played in the Atlanta Underground. “I paid my dues in the Underground,” Watkins declares. “Sometimes I would go down there and I would make $30 or $40, but I didn’t stop.”
Tim Duffy hooked up with ‘Guitar’ Watkins when bluesman Danny ‘Mudcat’ Dudeck told tales of this woman playing the Underground who could toss a guitar behind her back and keep right on playing. MusicMakers invited Watkins upstairs for the blues revival and sent her out where she set the festival circuit on fire. A small club or a big stage, Watkins reaches right out to her audience, raising folks to their feet with everything from fast guitar licks to sweet, sweet song. There is no venue too wild or too tame for this 70-plus unrelenting and joyful performer.
May be that’s because of what ‘Guitar’ Watkins calls the Force of the Lord. No matter how wild the weeks blues singing, she returns to her church on Sunday to sing gospel. Recording a solo blues album was step number one but, for Watkins, the latest gospel album is a deep part of this unusual musical package. “There is a reason and a purpose for everything,” Watkins says looking back on her roller coaster of a life. “I thank the Lord today, I thank Him every day. It’s just amazin’.”
– Written by Susan Simone
Photo ©Jimmy Williams