Diego's Mr. Natural
By T.E. Mattox
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,
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
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
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
"The first guys that I really enjoyed playing
with were 'The Blues Pharoahs.' They turned me on to blues, I have to
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
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
And there's a lot of demons involved with it."
* * * * * * *
* * * * * * * *
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,
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.'
"I always thought that was the greatest story.
Rod told me that, 'you're a harmonica player? My sympathies.'''
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 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
Oh yeah, Howlin' Wolf. THAT'S IT! There is no comparison
with this guy or that guy."
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
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
Looking ahead, what's the future hold for Billy Watson?
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.
Piazza and the Mighty Flyers; Charlie
Piazza' Birthday; Frank
Hummel and the Blues Survivors; Life
on the Road With Charlie Musselwhite