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Fiery, Versatile Guitarist Returns to the Blues Fest PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Johanna Welzenbach-Hilliard   
Tuesday, 28 June 2005 18:00
Beverly “Guitar” Watkins learned to play and sing the blues in a small town in Georgia. “Commerce” was its name. It was here at the age of eight (more than 50 years ago) that she received her first guitar as a Christmas present. She took that guitar and her granddad took his banjo to the “frolics” on Friday nights, where sharecroppers would have a fish fry and play their instruments after a hard week’s work.

She still plays the guitar (although not that same one), but instead of playing for sharecroppers in a small Southern town, Watkins plays at blues clubs and festivals around the world. And she’ll be here in Davenport on Friday, July 1, playing at 6:30 p.m. on the tent stage. She’ll be accompanied by her back-up band, which consists of a drummer, bass player, and second lead guitar.

Watkins is a kind-hearted and amiable woman in her mid-60s. Because of her vagueness on details (like the full names of fellow performers and dates of important events in her life), I got the impression that she feels more comfortable giving an oral history – the art of telling stories about one’s past – rather than a factual account of her life.

Having just returned from Australia and Italy, Watkins told me in a telephone interview how much she likes going abroad to perform. “It’s a learning process when you travel abroad and see things you’ve never seen before, eat food you’ve never eaten before,” she said. “I’m always excited about traveling.”

Music reviewers have compared Watkins to Jimi Hendrix, and her style has been described as an “unadulterated brand of blues” and “low-down, hard-stompin’, railroad-smokin’ blues.” She learned this style by listening to blues legends such as Freddie Green (who played with Count Basie), Kenny Burrell, and B.B. King. But mostly she got hands-on experience performing and recording with Atlanta’s own Piano Red for most of her young career (from 1959 to the mid-1960s).

After moving to Atlanta with her grandma as a teenager, Watkins began playing in bands and performing at amateur hours, and she played trumpet in the Archer High School band. While at Archer she became good friends with another talented young woman (in the grade below Beverly) who would also become famous in the music scene – none other than Gladys Knight. Throughout the years, Beverly has kept in touch with Gladys Knight & the Pips. “I know all those guys,” she said. “They’re good friends.”

Watkins’ first band was Billy West Stone & the Down Beats, for which she played bass. It was while playing with the Down Beats for two years that a drummer named Bobby Lee Tuggle introduced her to Piano Red. Red was famous for his late-night/early-morning radio show on WAOK, which was broadcast from the back of his house.

The band, called Piano Red & the Meter-Tones, consisted of Curtis Smith on lead guitar, Beverly on rhythm guitar and backing vocals, Bobby Tuggle on drums, and, of course, Piano Red on piano. “During my time with Piano Red, we were very young and he was like our dad,” Watkins recalled. “He wanted the band to dress accordingly – in some type of a uniform. It really knocks the audience.” It wasn’t just the uniform that made the Meter-Tones such a popular band. They were also really tight. “Back then we had to rehearse every day,” Watkins said.

The Piano Red band went through a few metamorphoses. After several years of playing mostly colleges, they changed their name to Piano Red & the Houserockers, and for the next three years they played blues clubs in Chicago, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. Then they recorded the album Dr. Feelgood, at which point the band’s name also changed. They became Dr. Feelgood, the Interns, & the Nurse. Beverly was the nurse. They dressed accordingly, but Beverly didn’t want to wear the little nurse’s cap.

When the Piano Red band broke up, Watkins toured briefly with Eddie Tigner & the Ink Spots until Eddie had a minor stroke. At this point in her career Watkins took a hiatus, playing with the Ink Spots on the occasional weekend. It was during this period that she began practicing lead guitar in earnest. When she started playing with Leroy Redding (Otis Redding’s cousin) in the late ’70s, she had already developed her knock-out soul singing and strong lead-guitar style. She stayed with Leroy until the late 1980s.

After leaving Leroy Redding & the Houserockers, Watkins formed her own band with herself as lead guitarist and vocalist, her son on bass, and a drummer. In her biography, she describes her style as “versatile”: “I can play all types of music … church, blues, bop, rhythm and blues, calypso, and classic blues.”

These days, although she still tours, Watkins spends most of her time in her hometown performing at Underground Atlanta, an Atlanta nightclub, on Friday and Saturday nights. She also gives to her community in a very special way: “I play the first, second, and third Sunday of every month in St. Luke’s Church in Atlanta.”

When asked about plans for the future, Watkins said she is making a gospel CD entitled The Lord Took in Charge: “Last year when I was in Washington, D.C., I had a minor heart attack,” said, “but I’m okay now because the Lord took me in charge.”
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