Comeback Queen: Beverly “Guitar” Watkins Isn’t Slowing Down

“When we were in our mothers’ wombs, God had decided what he wanted us to be,” says Beverly “Guitar” Watkins, “and he wanted me to be a musician.” Upon seeing the 74-year-old Watkins play fiery guitar solos—often with her guitar slung behind her head—over her hard-edged mix of blues and early rock and roll, it is hard to disagree with the Lord’s designation. Even after over 50 years in the music business, Watkins still sees music as a vocation rather than a job. “Blues is a feeling,” says Watkins, “and I’m grateful I’ve had a lot of opportunities to go out and share the blues.”

Beverly "Guitar" Watkins, photo, OffBeat Magazine, October 2013

Watkins’ musical life began in ’40s rural Georgia, where she did not have much growing up. “We didn’t have electric lights in the country back in those days. We used kerosene lamps for light,” reflects Watkins. “The only thing we had to play was regular acoustic guitars and upright pianos, and we had to use a horse and wagon to get around.” Despite her underprivileged upbringing, Watkins’ aunt—also a musician—gave then eight-year-old Beverly a guitar to bring her into the family’s close relationship with music. “My granddaddy was a crop sharer, and there would be a big party called the bon dance whenever they finished getting the crops together,” says Watkins. “They’d have a banjo, washboards, and a fiddle. My granddaddy played banjo, and I’d go and sit beside him while he played.”

Watkins soon used music to begin establishing a career. “In my high-school days, I went on the road with Piano Red Perryman as a rhythm guitarist,” says Watkins. “His first band was Piano Red and the Meter Tones. We played around towns surrounding Atlanta.” Piano Red and his band soon found international fame behind the raucous hit “Dr. Feelgood,” its boisterous piano and driving rhythms an influence on Watkins’ music to this day. After the dissolution of the Meter Tones, Watkins continued to tour with various artists such as Eddie Tigner and opened for the likes of Ray Charles and James Brown.

Unfortunately, as Watkins entered the 1980s, she found herself playing to a continually shrinking community of devoted fans. However, Watkins experienced a renaissance in the late ’90s when she joined the Music Maker Relief Foundation’s stable of artists. Music Maker specializes in supporting struggling artists who perform roots music of the American South and, through the foundation, Watkins has been featured in several package tours, including the Winston’s Blues Revival tour and the Women of the Blues “Hot Mamas” tour. Joining Music Maker led to a dramatic career resurrection for Watkins, enabling her to tour around the world and—at age 60—release her debut solo album, Back in Business, in 1999. “With Music Maker, I’ve been to Paris, Italy, Australia, Argentina, and London,” says Watkins. “It just goes on and on.”

Watkins made her greatest comeback of all in 2005: fighting and beating lung cancer. “I am going on eight years as a lung-cancer survivor,” beams Watkins. While her battle for health sidelined her for a few years, she is thankful for a second chance. “This is a gift from God,” says Watkins, “and I thank him today.” She even views the experience as helping deepen her spirituality. “I give it all to the Lord,” says Watkins. “This has brought me closer to him.”

Upon remission, Watkins began to use music to give back to her community, playing in nursing homes and churches along with clubs and festivals in the Atlanta area. The revitalized Watkins soon enlisted the help of a new backing band, which she named the Meter Tones in honor of her past group. The band features like-minded members such as bassist Michael Petty, drummer Betsy Ann Dukes, a retired schoolteacher keyboardist simply named “Mojo,” and trumpeter John Perkinson, who played with Count Basie and also accompanies Watkins to teach music to schoolchildren through the Jazz Foundation. Using music to enrich others’ lives has also reconnected Watkins to her own roots. “My aunt had a group called the Haze Sisters, and they would play gospel in different churches in Georgia,” says Watkins. “I still play at Jonas Chapel in Commerce, Georgia every first and third Sunday.” Through beating the odds against cancer and a career revival, Watkins has learned that music means more than packing clubs; it is about serving something greater than oneself.

Since her comeback, Watkins has been the recipient of nine music awards, including a Grammy from Europe for her 2007 release, Don’t Mess With Miss Watkins. Despite being 74 with over 50 years of experience in the music industry, Watkins shows no signs of slowing down. “I’m going to play until the Lord says I’m through,” says Watkins. “Right now, I’m planning to get some stuff together and do another CD.” Even after decades in the business, Watkins is still excited about music and grateful for the opportunities it keeps presenting her. “I enjoy traveling and meeting different people,” says Watkins. “Playing keeps me going, keeps me motivated.”

 

Beverly “Guitar” Watkins at the 2013 Crescent City Blues and BBQ Festival
Sunday, October 20
3:15pm – 4:30pm
Camp Street Stage
Lafayette Square Park
540 St. Charles Ave.
Neighborhood: CBD
FREE  |  All Ages
More Info: www.jazzandheritage.org/blues-fest