The Guitar Slingin’ Grandma: Beverly “Guitar” Watkins

inThe Artistson July 25, 2019

Sadly, Beverly “Guitar” Watkins passed away the morning of October 1st, 2019 due to complications from a stroke. 

Though she has captured the rapt attention of audiences across the U.S. since the 1950s, the story of Beverly “Guitar” Watkins, the 80-year-old guitar-slinging grandma, actually begins in the early 1920s when a nationwide “blues craze” swept across the African American community.  When we talk about the blues, usually we talk about bluesmen: electric guitar slingers, acoustic pickers, harp-blowers and the list goes on. But blues women have numbered among the ranks of blues greats since the very first proper blues song, “Crazy Blues” by Ma Rainey.

“Crazy Blues” was the first popular “race record,” a turn-of-the-20th-century designation for any music recorded for African American audiences. For a long time, however, the blues weren’t just segregated, they were also divided by gender. There were urban blues, which were sung by women in a kind of jazzier style in the tradition of Vaudeville, and there were downhome blues, acoustic blues performed by men, accompanying themselves on acoustic guitar.

In the 1950s, these racial and gendered fissures in the blues music scene began to crack. Artists like Big Mama Thornton and Sister Rosetta Sharpe broke down these barriers, performing more masculine styles for whiter and whiter audiences. These women, like Ma Rainey before them, paved the way for Beverly “Guitar” Watkins and a whole new generation of women in blues.

Music was in Beverly’s blood, in her bones: her grandfather, Luke Hayes, was a proficient banjo picker, while her aunts sang in the Hayes Family quartet. During times with her extended family around the holidays, all of the family’s musicians would gather to play and share music.

As a sophomore at Samuel Howard Archer High School in Atlanta, Beverly studied with Count Basie’s trumpeter, Clarke Terry, who purchased her first real guitar and taught her the fundamentals of playing. However, Beverly’s musical education truly began at home with her uncle, Piano Red, with whom she later toured as a part of Piano Red and the Interns (also known as Dr. Feelgood and the Interns, Dr. Feelgood, and The Interns and the Nurse) during the 1950s and ‘60s. It was as a guitar player with Doctor Feelgood and the Interns that Beverly cut her teeth, honing her guitar skills by playing powerful solos with the instrument hoisted behind her head or suspended like a machine gun between her knees.

Beverly plays a mean electric guitar, but the raw physicality of her playing style borrows more from Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix than the blues women of the ‘50s. In fact, Mr. Hendrix may have been the one to borrow from Beverly, with whom he shared the stage in the late 1960s during a stop in Atlanta, GA. In addition to Jimi, Beverly also performed alongside James Brown, Ray Charles and other such musical luminaries.

The band carried on in various forms through the mid-1970s. After it broke up, Beverly was forced to take on various odd jobs to supplement her income: “I worked at car washes, I worked at office buildings, I cleaned people’s houses,” Watkins said. But, “I never did let my music go. I always found somewhere that I could go out and play.”

After working multiple jobs for years, Watkins joined the Atlanta-based group Leroy Redding & the Houserockers until the 1980s. After that, Beverly got connected with Eddie Tigner, an original member of the Ink Spots and a mainstay of the Atlanta music scene. But by the 80s, Watkins was faced with an increasingly more difficult time making it on the Atlanta blues scene. During the day, she worked domestic jobs, and at night she played the clubs, especially at the Atlanta Underground. “I paid my dues in the Underground,” Watkins declares. “Sometimes I would go down there and I would make $30 or $40, but I didn’t stop.”

In spite of all of her crowd-pleasing antics, Beverly had a hard time breaking into the mainstream until she was re-discovered by the folks at the Music Maker Relief Foundation. From 1997 to 1999, Music Maker Relief Foundation founder and photographer Timothy Duffy booked Beverly out on the 42-city Winston Blues Revival Tour alongside blues heroes like Taj Mahal, as well as other unseen and under-appreciated blues acts like the blind bluesman Cootie Stark and the one-armed harmonica player Neal Pattman. Through Beverly, Music Maker was introduced to an entire community of blues legends from Atlanta, of which many partnerships still exist today.

“I met Beverly playing on the streets of the Atlanta underground and have seen her receive standing ovations at Lincoln Center and festivals throughout Europe and Australia. She’s the greatest guitar pickin’ grandma alive and exemplifies a critical and all-too-hidden part of our musical history – the fact that women shaped the sound of the blues just as much as men did,” says Duffy.

Beverly “Guitar” Watkins performing at Lincoln Center Outdoors, 2014.

In addition to Winston Blues Revival, Music Maker has booked hundreds of performances for Beverly in Europe and Australia to share her unique style with an international audience. The Foundation also released her four albums, capturing the breadth of her style, from gospel to hard blues. Her W.C. Handy Award-winning debut album, Back in Business, was released in 1999, featuring a sound Watkins refers to as “hard classic blues, hard stompin’ blues, you know… railroad smokin’ blues.” Since then, she has also released The Feelings of Beverly “Guitar” Watkins (2005), Don’t Mess with Miss Watkins(2007) and The Spiritual Expressions of Beverly “Guitar” Watkins (2009).

Recently the spotlight on this American musical gem has shined even more brightly through a CNN Great Big Story piece that ran in 2017 and a recent viral video of Beverly shredding at a school in Atlanta – both videos have several million views!

Today, at 80 years old, Beverly enjoys a revitalized career, playing with her band and teaching young women around the world how to rock better than any man.

— Jed Finley

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