TIR 71: Partner in Funk Emry Thomas Tells Johnny “Guitar” Watson Story


Brought to you by FUNKNSTUFF.NET and hosted by Scott Goldfine — musicologist and author of “Everything Is on THE ONE: The First Guide of Funk” ― “TRUTH IN RHYTHM” is the interview show that gets DEEP into the pocket with contemporary music’s foremost masters of the groove.

Featured in TIR Episode 71 (3 Parts): Drummer Emry Thomas, who served as Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s right-hand man during the bluesman’s mid-1970s renaissance as a leading R&B and funk act. Thomas, who cut his teeth as a professional musician playing early gigs in his home state of Texas with the likes of Etta James and Patti LaBelle, was a core member of the early 1970s progressive soul band Maxayn when he first connected with Watson. That group, which released three of its own excellent albums from 1972-1974 that were re-released as a CD set earlier this year, backed Watson when he ended a six-year recording hiatus in 1973 with the traditional R&B album Listen and its slightly funkier follow-up I Don’t Want to Be Alone, Stranger.

A change in label found Watson adopting a pimped-out image and fully embracing funk, with Thomas being the only Maxayn member to tag along. Watson and Thomas became essentially a two-man operation in the studio and churned out some of the era’s finest funk records. That run began in 1976 and included the albums Ain’t That a Bitch, A Real Mutha for Ya, Funk Beyond the Call of Duty, Giant, What the Hell Is This? and Love Jones. But perhaps the funkiest albums of them all were the two Watson, Thomas and some cohorts released under the backing band’s name, The Watsonian Institute. Two records were released under that moniker, the amazing Master Funk in 1978 and a year later the still potent Extra Disco Perception. Those scarce records are a must for any funk or Watson fan.

Among the seven top 40 R&B hits and other notable tracks Watson notched between 1975 and 1980 were “I Don’t Want to Be a Lone Ranger,” “I Need It,” “Ain’t That a Bitch,” “Superman Lover,” his biggest hit and my personal favorite “A Real Mutha for Ya,” “Lover Jones,” the remake of his blues classic “Gangster of Love,” “Love Jones” and “Telephone Bill.” Watson, who began his recording career all the way back in the mid-1950s, was a gifted multi-instrumentalist who landed another four top 10 R&B hits between 1955 and 1968.

Ego, drugs and bad record deals got the best of Watson in the early 1980s and he and Thomas went their separate ways. He would go on to release a handful of additional albums and send a few songs to the upper reaches of the R&B charts but never again regained the tunefulness or success he had with Thomas. Watson died on stage of a heart attack during a show in Japan in 1996 at age 61. Thomas went on to perform in a funk group called Extreme and with other musicians, and continues to do so today.

In this in-depth interview, the irrepressible Thomas shines the light on both the tragically little-known Maxayn and the fierce and enigmatic Johnny “Guitar” Watson. From the tale of how he first connected with Watson to how he disconnected with him to how he reconnected with him shortly before his death, Thomas pulls no punches in talking about drum attacks, killer tracks and serious setbacks. So sit back and dig as E.T. phones home to TRUTH IN RHYTHM to set the record straight.