77 Year-Old Blues Guitar Pioneer Says Slowing Down Is Not an Option
[This feature was originally published in the 10th issue of She Shreds Magazine, November 2015 and has been edited for timely accuracy.]
Beverly “Guitar” Watkins unquestionably shreds. The internationally-known blues guitarist and Georgia native started her career in 1960 as a rhythm guitar player with local radio host turned platinum-selling blues musician Piano Red.
As the only woman in the band, Watkins was a 20th-century pioneer in blues guitar, touring the world and opening for acts like James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles. Piano Red and The Meter-Tones (later known as Dr. Feelgood & The Interns) dissolved around 1965, leaving Watkins to wash cars and clean houses to support herself and her music. Despite her striking talent and innovative style, Watkins wouldn’t be recognized autonomously until the ‘90s, when she teamed up with Music Maker Relief Foundation to launch her solo debut album, Back in Business.
She went on to receive multiple awards, including a European Grammy for her 2007 release, Don’t Mess With Miss Watkins. Watkins remains based in Atlanta, plotting the next stage of her career. She is a survivor of lung cancer, a heart attack, and a brain aneurysm, and emerges more determined from each setback. Watkins turns 77 this April, and she talked to us over the phone from the senior facility where she currently lives about what’s next and how slowing down is not an option.
She Shreds: Who introduced you to the blues?
Beverly Watkins: Well, it was born in me, from my ancestors. I had a granddaddy who was a banjo player. And then I had four aunties, called the Hayes Sisters—Aunt B., Aunt Ruth, Aunt Nell, and Aunt Margaret. They had a group back in them days and they would go to different churches down in Commerce and they would dress alike. Aunt B. played guitar, Aunt Ruth and Aunt Nell sang, and Aunt Margaret played piano. And my daddy, Lonnie Watkins, played the harmonica.
How old were you when you started playing guitar?
I was given a guitar when I was around eight years old. It was a little guitar called the Stella, just a little acoustic guitar. Aunt Margaret brought me that guitar one Christmas.
What were the early years of learning how to play like?
My granddaddy and his neighbor would help each other as sharecroppers. You know, they would be trying to get the crops together and they would have a big barn dance. And they all would get together and make a big fire. I would go with my granddaddy and sit right beside him with my little guitar. In high school my band teacher, his name was Mr. Clarke, ordered a guitar and that’s who taught me how to play correctly.
Who were your influences growing up?
Back in those days, I was inspired by Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight. Rosetta Tharpe made Precious Memories, and back in them days, back in the ‘40s, her record was very popular. She played electric guitar.
When did you start playing rhythm guitar for Piano Red?
I started playing rhythm for him right out of high school. I finished Archer High in 1960 and I went on the road with him.
You were the only girl in the band, right? What was that like?
Oh, it was nice. We was all young then. Piano Red was just like a daddy to us. If we go anywhere, like to a club, he would tell them, “Y’all watch out for Beverly there.” We played clubs surrounding Atlanta. We played at the Magnolia Ballroom and we played at the Casino on Auburn Avenue and over in Vine City—we was on the show with a lot of the artists that had come to Atlanta.
What was it like opening for acts like Ray Charles, James Brown, and Aretha Franklin? Did you get nervous?
No, no, I didn’t. Well, back in those days, that worried nervous meant stage fright, but we rehearsed. Piano Red had a house across town. We go there and rehearse three times a week. So, when we went to Columbia Records up in Nashville, we were ready. We went in the studio and cut that album. Sure did. We was like sisters and brothers. We were like a family. And I played with [Piano Red] until 1978.
You didn’t release a solo album until the ‘90s, right?
Oh yeah, it was 1990 … Well, let me get back. Underground Atlanta reopened up in 1988. I went down there, just me by myself, and auditioned. I was there every Friday and Saturday. I made some money at Underground—tips is what I’m talking about. I started playing by myself, and my son Stan came in and he asked me, “Why don’t you buy yourself a drum machine?” So, we went and bought me a drum machine and I learned how to operate it, and I still got it now. Then Mudcat [Atlanta-based blues/slide guitarist and friend] told me one day, “I want you to meet somebody.” And so Tim Duffy [of] Music Makers Foundation came down to Underground and he caught me with my drum machine. The way I play I sound like a whole band. Tim put $50 in the bucket and after I took intermission, he said, “So, Mudcat was telling me you used to play with Piano Red. I wanna help you.” I said, “Okay, I’m ready whenever, let me know.”
So, he called me one day and said, “I’m trying to set up a recording for a CD.” And we had Carl Sonny [Leyland, blues and jazz pianist]. I don’t know where he is now, he played just like Piano Red. And we had Mike Vernon from England, he was the producer [of Back in Business].
Can you talk a little bit about the challenges you face? And what’s been most difficult for you?
Back in 1970, my Aunt B. raised me, and then after she passed on I was out there on my own. She taught me how to take care of myself, and she did a great job because after she passed in ‘74 I [was] on my own. Me and the Lord. I worked at car washes, cleaned offices, and still I would play. I never did stop playing. I look at myself, yes, as an icon, or whatever ... I am in the Georgia Hall of Fame, but it was hard work. I hung in there. I never gave up.
Can we talk a little bit about your dreams?
At this moment, my dream is to get one more CD out there. I’m staying in a senior facility, and it’s not good at all. I can’t plug up my guitar and rehearse. My dream is to get another CD out there, travel one more time, and get me a house so I can be at peace. I don’t want a whole lot of money, nothing, but you gotta be patient because there’s a time and a purpose and a place. See, God, he ain’t gonna do it on your time, he do it on his time. You follow him, I don’t care how hard it get, don’t lose the faith. I’m playing at Blind Willie’s, Northside Tavern, and in nursing homes. There’s an organization that pays you to go in [nursing homes] and play. But I’m looking for something better.
What do you want people to know about you?
Music is a healer. When I get on stage, I enjoy myself. I have seen a lot of female guitar players out there, but it’s very odd to see a woman 76 years old play like I do. I’m just me. It’s just Beverly Watkins. I haven’t changed. You know, a lot of musicians go out there and God be blessing them and they change, but I never changed and never will. It wasn’t no easy thing from where I started onto now. When I was playing with Piano Red, we’d make $40 a night. And we was traveling in a station wagon and a van. You gotta lay your foundation.
Yeah, you’ve worked really hard.
Yeah, and I know it’s coming. God put me at the right place. But my thing is now I have an [interview] here, but I don’t have people, not like when I was coming up. Now they don’t care nothing about you. If those people I have played [with], if they knew I was still living, they would done booked me.
So, you think it’s hard because people don’t know whether or not you’re still alive and playing?
There you go! They don’t know if I’m alive or dead. That’s why I need a personal booking agent.
Right, you just gotta keep playing.
Oh yes, I’m gonna keep playing. I’m not gonna stop playing because I love what I do.
Has it been hard navigating the business side of music?
After I came off of the road, I started trying to book myself. It’s hard. It’s a lot of work. I’m planning this year, I’m trying to get back into doing festivals. But like I said, I don’t do the computer. I have to have somebody who can send the emails. That’s all I need, because my name is out there.
You once told me to keep the blues alive. What does it mean to do that?
The blues is the bad times and the good times—that’s my definition. After BB King died, that gave me so much strength to be here, to represent BB King—he’s Daddy of the blues. And blues is not sad, it’s what you make of it. Now, so many guitar players in the world, Lord have mercy, my God, Eric Clapton is one of the best guitar players. I’ve met lots of female guitar players, but I have my own style. I don’t try to copy nobody else. I play what I feel.