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Tim: Billy Watson

San Diego's Mr. Natural….
Billy Watson

By T.E. Mattox

Billy Watson performing
Watson blowin' like hell

magine that 1940's bandleader Spike Jones and Alfalfa of the Little Rascals had a child together. Then envision that child being raised and nurtured by Rod Serling and Curly Howard. Well, that kid would be considered normal compared to Billy Watson. Widely known as a harp player with masterful technique, Watson's performances can be simultaneously fun-filled AND manic. He's well-versed in the tradition of blues (Your Funeral My Trial), yet he still takes great pleasure in the unexpected (Elevator Music in a UFO). Seeing this guy play live is like watching an episode of the 'Twilight Zone' starring Howlin' Wolf and 'Spanky' McFarland. The response is always immediate and undisputed, 'Whoa… didn't see that coming.' The man even pays homage to Stymie and the 'Our Gang' alum by calling his own group, 'The International Silver String Submarine Band.'

As we sat down to talk, in the back of my head, Monty Python keeps repeating, '…and now for something completely different….'

Let's go back to the beginning. Did your blues originate on the East Coast? "No, I didn't start playing blues till I moved to the West Coast. My cousin turned me on to blues when I lived on the East Coast, when I was a kid. And that was the end of that, you know?"

Who were some of your earliest harp influences?

"The first real harmonica I ever saw, my memory… it was twenty years ago now, it was like, either Rick Estrin or James Harman. And after that it might have even been a fellow that I thought was equally hip named, Hook Herrera, (Greg Allman, Richie Sambora) who I really enjoyed and he was cool. It was all at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach."

Talk a little about when you came west. Your original plan was just to visit some friends who lived in LaJolla? "He was a civil engineer for the Navy and he lived a block away from Windansea. His mom was a realtor and she had a really killer pad and I wound up staying there for like… two months, and I NEVER went home. I got a pad in Pacific Beach and that was it, I never went home. I stayed on the West Coast."


A streamlined version of the International Silver String Submarine Band.
Photo: Yachiyo Mattox

Today San Diego has a huge core group of blues players, who were some of the musicians you got to know when you first got to town?

"The first guys that I really enjoyed playing with were 'The Blues Pharoahs.' They turned me on to blues, I have to say… and the Mississippi MudSharks. These guys were all influencing each other and hanging out. Another guy named Chris James and the Blue Four, they were all pals. So, hanging out with them I got to meet Nathan James, but several guys that were really great friends to me… Eric Lieberman, (Blue Largo, Rhumboogies) Brad Karow who's a dear friend and a great blues drummer and Tom Mahon, on the piano. We had a million laughs together with Flaco Medina (Johnny Dyer, William Clarke) on the bass and Nathan James (James Harman, the Rhythm Scratchers) on guitar. And that's what kind of launched my career as far as playing blues. They were the guys that got me on the right path, listening to the right kind of blues."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

"I would have never guessed that I would be a harmonica player.
…its one of the only instruments you play where you breathe through it.
And there's a lot of demons involved with it."

— Billy Watson   
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

You mentioned Estrin and Harman, I saw you recently on the bill at the Golden Sails Harp Blowdown with Estrin and before that, in the vineyards with James Harman. "Yeah, they're good buddies. Rick I don't know that great, he's so busy, but he influenced me 'cause it was like watching Groucho Marx on the harmonica. And that's what Candye Kane always says. But when I saw a guy clowning around on stage and having FUN with it and not just trying to act like some serious blues guy, I was hooked.

And another guy who did the same thing, believe it or not, was William Clarke in his earlier years when he first started. I saw him at the Belly Up with Charlie Musselwhite and William Clarke was this jovial, fun-loving guy and I don't think very many people remember that or focused on that. They remembered he was a dark character. William Clarke was dark, we used to kid around, 'Clarke is dark.'" (Clarke was only 45 when he passed away in 1996 from a bleeding ulcer) Billy shakes his head, "Poor guy."

William Clarke and Blind Joe Hill performing in L.A., 1988
William Clarke and Blind Joe Hill 'blowing it out' in L.A. circa:1988. Photo:T.E.Mattox

What is it about harp players and short life spans? So much talent…lost too soon.

"I don't know, maybe the instrument, it's one of the only instruments you play where you breathe through it. And there's a lot of demons involved with it. It can be sad. I love the Rod Piazza story where he calls the harmonica repair guy, a big name guy at Hohner. And he goes, 'Hi, my name's Rod Piazza, I'm a harmonica player.' And the guy says, 'My sympathies.' (laughing)

"I always thought that was the greatest story. Rod told me that, 'you're a harmonica player? My sympathies.''' (laughing)

How would you describe your style of blues?

"It's based on blues, but I honestly don't think I'm very much of a bluesman. I just play a variety of music based on a progression that is solid and then the rest of it is improvised similar to jazz. Not that we play jazz, but it's similar to freeform, improvised music which is kind of like jazz. I'm not really a guy trying to act or cover blues numbers from ancient times. I like that music and I listen to it but my show is designed to entertain a person who might not know anything about blues and that's my niche." (laughing)

The International Silver String Submarine Band performing
The International Silver String Submarine Band and a 'disturbed' Mr. Watson.
Photo: Yachiyo Mattox

Your music does seem to incorporate differing styles? "Yeah that's what I like to do. Honestly, I'm not very much of a historian, I know about a little of it. It's easy enough to go to a book and look at it. I mean, you punch a guys name in Google and you can get all the information you need, but I just like playing it."

You uphold the age old tradition of 'journeyman.' Playing with multiple musicians sometimes as a band leader, other times appearing as a sideman. "Yeah, it's easygoing. I enjoy that. I always kind of dreamed of traveling and seeing different places and hanging out with people. I've always liked the idea of being in a band and entertaining people. I think that's something I've wanted to do since I was a little kid, but never really had the focus. My idea of entertaining people is just to get them to smile and get up and react and have fun and everyone wants to be loved, that's all."

We talked before about your admiration of Howlin' Wolf.

"Yeah, when I saw him I realized that he was like from outer space compared to all the other blues giants everyone else tries to emulate. And Howlin' Wolf… lot's of people try to imitate him, even myself and you wind up hurting your voice and you'll never be like him. And no one will ever be like that guy. When you say Howlin' Wolf… Oh yeah, Howlin' Wolf. THAT'S IT! There is no comparison with this guy or that guy."

Billy Watson with Marty Dodson and Pete Fazzini at the San Diego Blues Fest
Watson with Marty Dodson and Pete Fazzini stopped people in their tracks at the S.D. Blues Fest. Photo:T.E.Mattox

You have any favorite venues, places you really like to play? "I like all the places I play now, but my favorite ones are like Miramonte winery. Wineries are fun because people are drinking and having a good time. And Iva Lee's in San Clemente and anywhere the music makes sense. Where there isn't a TV over your head…blaring. An area that resembles a stage and the people are there to see music, those are my favorite gigs. The Coyote (Carlsbad) is capable of that. Anyplace that has an arena like environment, that's what I want."

Looking ahead, what's the future hold for Billy Watson?

cover of Billy Watson's latest CD
Billy Watson's latest CD

"It is unknown at this point; I kind of like to keep it open like that. You can't really control it. I would have never guessed that I would be a harmonica player. I went to school to be an artist and graphic designer and that kind of tanked. The only thing that I use that for is designing my record covers and silly little posters I make on Facebook. That's about all I ever got out of that. So you can't really control your destiny, I really believe in that. You just gotta' go with it."

Having seen Billy play dozens of times in all types of venues and band configurations, I've can honestly say no one leaves his show without a smile. It just won't happen. You can catch Billy Watson and his co-conspirators at numerous locations up and down the West Coast. Check out his website for dates and times on your planet. If you can't make it to a live show, just check out any of his nine releases. The latest project is entitled, '9 Lives, Madcap Blues Harmonica.' It's an excellent addition and 'something completely different' to enhance your blues collection.

Related Articles:
Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers; Charlie Musselwhite; Rod Piazza' Birthday; Frank Frost; Mark Hummel and the Blues Survivors; Life on the Road With Charlie Musselwhite


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Let Tim know what you think about his traveling adventure.

I was there at the Shrine to see Bob come in riding on a baby elephant. He says in the interview it was either '68 or 69: it was both – it was New Year's Eve (See "The Bear," an article on Bob Hite),

Debbie Hollier, Nevada City, CA

* * * *

Who else played with Canned Heat and Deep Purple at the Shrine in '68?

Bill, LA

I think the Shrine show on New Years in '68, where Bob Hite rode out on the elephant, also featured Poco, Lee Michaels, Black Pearl, Love Army and Sweetwater. Don't know that Deep Purple was booked on that evening.

Bill, maybe you're thinking about the International Pop Fest in San Francisco a few months earlier that featured these fine folks... Procol Harum, Iron Butterfly, Jose Feliciano, Johnny Rivers, Eric Burdon And The Animals, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Grass Roots, The Chambers Brothers, Deep Purple, Fraternity of Man & Canned Heat or possibly the following year in Jan of 1970 when Deep Purple appeared with Canned Heat and Renaissance on a triple-bill in London at the Royal Albert Hall.

One final note: The current Johnny Otis piece didn't mention it, but it was Mr. Otis that took Canned Heat into the studio the very first time to record in 1966. Small world, ain't it?

Tim

* * * *

Thank u for posting it! Bob is still boogin' around!! (See "The Bear," an article on Bob Hite),

Stefano Di Leonardo, Fisciano (Salerno, Italy)

* * * *

Great Read! (See "The Bear," an article on Bob Hite) I will post it on Bob "THE BEAR" Hite Official Facebook Page,

Dave Tohill, Brandon, UK

* * * *

Hello Tim, thank you so much for letting a huge Canned Heat fan check out this
interview with the Bear. I really enjoyed it.

Best regards,

Rick Caldwell, Fairfield, Ohio

* * * *

I knew Bob Hite in the 60's. Canned Heat played at our high school prom 1966 Rexford High. The Family Dog, Chet Helms, Skip Taylor.

Max Kalik, Los Angeles, CA

Dear Tim,

I just discovered you from an email I received from Preston Smith disclosing his next event. I wanted to tap into his website Prestonsmithmusic but it would not link from your site for some reason. I have to say Preston really is a genius and I met him in Glendale at a jazz club about three years ago, after a fatal accident. By chance, I was invited to spend time hanging out with Preston and some friends after his gig. He is everything you say and I will never forget his amazing creativity and his positive influence in my life.

Janelle, Palm Springs, CA

Love the article! (on Lowell George) Lowell was my father.

Forrest George, Warren, Vermont

This Bob Hite interview is the most interesting thing I have read concerning Canned Heat. I have Fito's book, but I always was interested in learning more about Bob Hite. You did it here my friend...great interview!!!!!

Tony Musto - Pittston, PA

Hey Tim, Great article on Preston! I really enjoyed it and you did your homework. I'll probably catch PS this weekend.

Best,

Dave - Northridge, CA

* * * *

Hello, what a great article on Preston Smith! I actually met Preston one evening after an Acoustic set of my own at the Prestigeous Carlton Hotel here in Atascadero, Ca. We were loading up and he happened to be walking down the sidewalk and stop to say hello. I must say that he is a truly interesting and talented man that NEVER forgets to let me know when he is playing around the Central Coast where I live. It was so fun to read about who he truly is...(as if you don't know him the first time you meet him)! My adventures have only just begun as I recently returned from Nashville recording my self titled debut EP. I can only hope that my adventures down the road are as enlightening as Preston's and that I have the honor of a great writer such as yourself to share them with the world. Thank you for doing just that, sharing "Preston Smith" with the world.

Sincerely,

Amy Estrada - Atascadero, CA

Hi Tim,

My name is Bert, I'm from Italy and I'm a blues harmonica player...I read your article and it reminded me of the two trips I made in the Delta, in 2008 and 2009. I love Frank's music and I think it's a shame people don't really know his work. It's important that people like you write about him. Thank you! In the Delta I was only a "stupid" tourist, but it was a great, unique experience I consider one of the most important in my life: driving on the highways, Listening to the blues everywhere, jamming in places like Red's and ground Zero in Clarksdale or the Blues Bar in Greenville... are priceless things, something I will keep in my heart for the rest of my life. I met a beautiful, lovely woman there too (named Hope), but I behaved like a stupid kid and I lost her... Alas! I will never forget that days and the chance I had to find happiness...Well, I also wrote something about Frank on a website, but it's in Italian... I give you the link of the first part (the second will be published in the next weeks) anyway if you know some Italian or somebody who can understand it... Even if I'm thinking of making a translation ...www.bluessummit.com

Cheers,

Bert - Pavia, Italy

I wanna be Tim!

Brent, Seattle, WA

* * *

Those pictures give you an idea of what the Rockin' Pneumonia actually looks like and it looks BAD! But the man can still play! Enjoyed the article - give us more TRAVELING BLUES BOY!

Steve Thomas - NA, INDIANA

* * *

Good Stuff, Tim. Having been a Johnny Winter fan since the first time I heard Rock n Roll Hoochie Koo, it was great hearing his take on some his highlight moments that defined his blues career. His affiliation with Muddy Waters was particularly interesting. Kudos for bringing that out. Thanks to your dedication to covering the blues scene, this "one of a kind" music still lives for servicemen & women around the world. Keep it Up!

Brandon Williams, Moreno Valley, CA

* * *

Impressive! What a legend and how cool that you got so much time with him, Tim.

Don, Louisville, KY

Tim - Great article, enjoyed Little Feat/Lowell George story, really brought me back in time. Did not know he was a fishin' man! Wonder what surfaces out of the abyss of your memory next?

Steve Thomas, New Albany, IN

* * * *

Tim,

I really liked your travel back in time with Lowell and Little Feat. As a long time Feat fan (mostly the stuff with Lowell) it was cool to read. I learned several of their songs back in the day and they still stand up today when played live. Another singer I really liked from back then is TimBuckley. Thanks for the article.

Chet Hogoboom, Arroyo Grande, CA

Loved your last issue of TB, especially the Mayall piece. I want that guy's job!

Brent, Seattle, WA

Tim,

This is a great write up. Has it been printed in any magazines? It's better than a lot of things I read in my guitar magazines, so props for that.

Caejar, Moreno Valley, CA

Tim,

I can tell that you have this passion for jazz. I wonder if you yourself play any instrument. Or are you just a groupie like most of us?

I talked with a mid-aged flute jazz artist a few weeks ago and he lamented that despite his talents (and he is extremely talented) he says that the industry hasn't been kind to him. He said jobs are few and far between. He said the music industry is combating piracy and competition due to technology being readily available to private homes and that they are not as profitable as before. So they are replacing live talent for synthesized or digital instruments.

Do you see the same trend in your relationships with your music network?

Bob, Pasadena, CA



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