Farewell, Beverly “Guitar” Watkins

The last time I saw Beverly “Guitar” Watkins was on her 79th birthday in early April 2018, as seen in the above photo. She was celebrating in the same manner she celebrated most of her birthdays: ripping it up onstage to the delight of anyone fortunate enough to be in attendance. Spanning the ages and races, the crowd that Friday night at the Northside Tavern – one of several local blues venues at which Watkins continued to regularly perform well into her late seventies – was dancing and grinning and whooping and cheering her on from every dusty nook of that steadfast West Side dive. Watkins was ablaze, as usual, launching sizzling licks out of her Squire Mini Strat, whipping it behind her head for a lead or two (a favorite showy trick of hers) and leaving the confines of the stage to play amidst the folks up front. Though not as flashy as she’s been known to be in her younger days, she still clearly had it; had you brought a blind man to the bar that night and told him a 79-year-old woman was on lead electric guitar, he would’ve been convinced you were pulling one over on him.

Watkins, 80, died the morning of October 1st. Exactly one month earlier, a benefit concert on her behalf was held at Blind Willie’s to raise funds to help cover costs for her health care following a severe stroke she suffered in July. Unlike 2006, when she bounced back into action following a heart attack and an early cancer diagnosis, this time her condition declined, and a second stroke followed.

The Atlanta native’s musical path began early in her life. She was given an acoustic guitar from her aunt one Christmas as a child, and her band teacher in high school was trumpeter Clark Terry, who’d played with Count Basie and Duke Ellington. She began playing electric guitar by her late teens, and around 1959 joined Atlanta pianist Piano Red’s band, who eventually changed their name to Dr. Feelgood and the Interns, recording numerous sides and touring nationwide. After that outfit petered out in the mid 1970s, Watkins took gigs with Atlanta bluesman Eddie Tigner (who died in April of this year) and local funk/soul man Leroy Redding, and was a fixture at Underground Atlanta while working assorted day jobs.

Boosted by younger local players such as Danny Dudeck (Mudcat), Watkins became a regular at the local Atlanta blues clubs during the ‘90s and ’00s, and was taken under the wing of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, which offers support to aging (and often overlooked) blues, gospel and roots musicians, mostly in the southeastern U.S. They helped start her recording career (released when she was 60, her debut album Back in Business was nominated for a W.C. Handy award in 1999, and she recorded three other CDs during the 2000s) and put her on tour with the likes of Taj Mahal, Koko Taylor and Rory Block in the late ‘90s. In 2017 she appeared on Steve Harvey’s NBC variety show Little Big Shots: Forever Young, performing her song “Red Mama Blues,” most certainly the largest audience of her life, most of which had never heard of or seen the likes of her before. She was 78 years old at the time.

Photo by Jeff Clark.