Reviews Zone

Johnny “Guitar” Watson at Onkel Pö’s Carnegie Hall, Hamburg 1976 (Jazzline) 17th March 2017


3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)



Picture the scene. Me, Little Richard and the two promoters of a historic arena tour that starred three rock and roll legends; Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, all stood in a small dressing room, lights around the mirror, backstage at the NEC area, Birmingham, UK, circa 1995.

I was hired as the official photographer to shoot exclusive images of all three superstars being presented with Gold Discs to commemorate record-breaking ticket sales for this tour. I think it may have been the only time Richard, Chuck and Fats had been on the same bill.

Fats was taken ill, so he was not there. Richard played an extended set and did a load of Fats Domino’s songs, as well as his own. My pre-conceived idea of all three stars in a line and the two promoters in the middle, with all three discs in the shot, went out of the window when first; Fats was absent. Then when I was taken backstage after shooting Chuck Berry’s set, and before Little Richard came on, I discovered that the two had dressing rooms a good distance away from each other and did not mix. So, getting them in the same room was rejected.

First, we go in to see Richard first, and he is a very nice guy. He had kept the audience waiting and made the show run really late, because he had refused to leave the hotel before it was dark, as this was a Saturday and that is the Sabbath in his Jewish religion. Plastered in makeup, he posed for the photos for me and then he and the two promoters chatted about this and that. I offered to leave the room, but Richard said I was welcome to stay put. So I did. I was staggered to hear him ask the two promoters if they could arrange work in England, for “two of my closest friends, Miss Etta James and Mr Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson”. Wow! I’d go see that show…

The two promoters told him they did not think either artist was hot enough at that time to pull big audiences!!! I had to verbally disagree! I reminded them that, in recent times back then, Etta James had scored a number one album with a stack of big star guests on it. But she and JGW were legends anyway, and would sell tickets anytime, and they should book them both for several shows in London and maybe a few other cities around the UK. I was sure it would sell out. But they rejected the idea out of hand.

Richard looked disappointed, and thanked ME for trying! Clearly he was a humble guy trying to do his mates a favour. He said he promised them both he would ask, and he did. I thought back then, could I get some cash together to do it myself, but at that time I asked a few wealthy friends and contacts, but not a chance. But whenever I see Johnny Guitar Watson’s name anywhere or hear his great music, I always recall that little chat with rock and roll legend Little Richard. (I went in to shoot pix of Chuck Berry next that night and he was not so accommodating!)

I did get to see Etta James in concert, at the famed Ryman Theatre in Nashville, a few years later. She was awesome. Never Saw JGW, sadly. He died a year or so after that conversation. He passed away on 17th May 1996 in Yokohama, Japan, from a heart attack on stage during a concert. I still love his music and have a lot of it in my own collection. Now another one to add with this pleasing live album.

The illustrious-ironic name of this German venue was a reference to the most spacious concert hall in New York: “Carnegie Hall”. The original version of Carnegie Hall had opened its doors to the world of jazz in 1938, with Benny Goodman’s legendary concert. Several careers were made at its dimly lit North German miniature copy, which was initially based in classy Pöseldorf and later moved to and re-opened on Lehmweg 44 in Hamburg-Eppendorf. Only shortly before Johnny “Guitar” Watson, the Texan blues and funk musician, stopped by in December 1976, the most famous of all legends associated with “Onkel Pö” had come into existence, then the virtually unknown singer Al Jarreau

It was already some sort of tradition, that the NDR broadcasting-truck occupied the tiny parking spot next to “Onkel Pö”, when the “Watsonian Institute” (that is how the guitarist and singer called the band) was in town. Michael Naura from the broadcaster’s jazz-department had basically moved in permanently at the Eppendorf music-hall, since the first edition of the “New Jazz Festival” the previous year. Klaus Wellershaus from the NDR rock-fraction followed suite. This is the reason why the NDR-archive is blessed with a large number of recordings made at this rather tiny concert hall, which was already crammed with an audience of 150 people. However, often there were more than twice that many concertgoers squeezed in.

The history of “Onkel Pö’s Carnegie Hall” began on 1st of October 1970 until 1st of January 1986. The building authority had detected that the continuous sound exposure had severely damaged the structural stability of the corner building on Lehmweg; this could not go they closed it down.This 1976 concert captured here on this album, took place just after the release of Watson’s hit funk album “Ain’t That A Bitch”, and he included tracks from it in his Hamburg set.

The album gives us eight full songs and plays us out with his 34 second signature tune. It opens with “Mr Magic”, and then “I Don’t Want To Be A Lone Ranger”, before he goes back to his blues and big band era, with the 1947 blues standard, “Stormy Monday”, penned by Aaron Walker a.k.a. T-Bone Walker, and this version weighs in at almost 11 minutes. He is a phenomenal guitarist as well as a soulful singer, and his playing shines on this cut.

Three more funk tunes next; “Superman Lover”, the brilliant “Gangster Of Love” and the title track of his then current album, “Ain’t That A Bitch”. The song “Cuttin’ In”, precedes his killer cut “I Need It”. It is a seven-piece band, with Emry Thomas deep in the pocket on drums, Bobby Howard pinning down the bottom end on bass, Gil Noble on piano and synth’, and a two-piece horn section (that sound like a four-piece!) of trumpeter Peter Martin and Paul Dunmall on saxophone. It is a mighty sound and reminder of how cool and classy this cat was. I always thought Prince nodded heavily to Johnny.


By Simon Redley 


1 out of 5 stars (1 / 5) ‘Dull Zone’
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Johnny “Guitar” Watson at Onkel Pö’s Carnegie Hall Hamburg 1976 (Jazzline) 17th March 2016


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