Beverly "Guitar" Watkins - Timothy Duffy
Beverly Watkins started young as the rhythm guitarist in Piano Red's popular early '60s outfit Piano Red & The Interns. The Atlanta native recorded with Piano Red on sessions from 1959-'66, including his popular singles Doctor Feelgood and Right String But the Wrong Yo Yo. Grounded in R&B, gospel, and jazz, as well as blues, Watkins is a regular performer at Underground Atlanta, and is known for her extensive bag of guitar tricks. She traveled to Switzerland in 1997 to perform at Blues to Bop in Lugano.
I had aunties in my family to play. They had a quartet named the Hayes Family... and I had a granddaddy, Luke Hayes, he played banjo. And durin' the Christmastime and Thanksgiving they used to get together and have somethin' like a dance. Back then they called it frolics... Rosetta Tharpe, my aunt and them, they used to go to her shows. They would buy her records and 'round at the age of eight years old I was very fond of her records then. My grandmother, they had this Graphaphone and she would put Rosetta's record on and I'd go get my little guitar. My Aunt Margaret, she used to send me guitars for Christmas... Back eight years old, I remember hearing songs of Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Memphis [Minnie], the bands back then, Louis Jordan, Count Basie... mostly I liked the guitar players. They had this jazz guitarist, [Charlie] Byrd, then Freddie Green was the rhythm guitar player for Count Basie's band. Back in those days they had the swing music.
I was born [in Atlanta], Grady Hospital. When I got around about the age of 12, my grandfather died and me and my grandmother, we moved to a little country town named Commerce, Georgia. Then my Aunt Margaret, she came from Atlanta, she brought me up here. And I was still interested in the guitar then... from the 8th grade into my sophomore year I went to Booker T. Washington [High School]. And I would do talent shows over there. And Booker T. Washington, it [had] gotten crowded over so they transfered me from Booker T. to Samuel H. Archer High. Then I got there and got in the school band. And I played like first trumpet there... The way my readin' [music] became is when I was in high school I played with my bandmaster. He was like a jazz musician. So he taught me a lot about the guitar, you know... after school he would get with me on the piano, and teach me about the name of the strings, the sharps, the flats, the minors, the majors, the ninths, the eighths...
And then me and some guys got together and we formed a band, and we named it Billy West Stone and the Down Beats. I was like tryin' to play bass, but what I would do, every song we would do I would tune the first bass string down and run the bass line like that. So we kept that group for around about two years, then I met this drummer, Bobby Tuggle. And he carried me and introduced me to Piano Red. And I went out and I talked with Red. Durin' that time he had his radio show there on Madison Place. He used to broadcast from, he had somethin' like a little house in the back of his house, and he'd come on WAOK every evenin', I'd say around about three o'clock. That was around '59. And I was like going into my junior year at Archer High School. Then we formed a band there called Piano Red and the Meter-tones. And we had two guitars, bass, and drums. Curtis Smith on lead, myself on rhythm, Bobby Tuggle was on drums, Piano Red doin' his show separately. And we traveled like little surrounding towns here, you know, like Monroe, Carrollton, Gainesville, Marietta. And then we started playin' here in Atlanta at a club on the Northwest side called the Magnolia Ballroom, which that was on Magnolia Street. And we did shows in the old casino, that's on Auburn Avenue, a club there called the Casino. Then we started goin' to Charleston, University of Georgia [in Athens], Tallahassee, Orlando, Florida. We did a lot of shows there for mostly colleges. And then after that we changed the group again to Piano Red and the Houserockers. And that went for about three years. And then we really started expandin' then, goin' to Chicago, Detroit, Washington, D.C... We changed the name again after that, after we recorded Dr. Feelgood. The group became Dr. Feelgood, The Interns, and The Nurse. I was the nurse. I didn't want to wear the little cap. The guys wore the doctor's suits... and mostly Red would do colleges. Those fraternity parties. Then we started doin' theaters.
When I was with Piano Red, I didn't sing. All I did was just stood up there and look pretty and played... I felt great. To know that I was beginnin' to get a little higher, run up a little higher. I had this guy, Tommy Legon [Piano Red's bass player], he always backed me and pushed me, you know. And the bands back in those days, they stuck together. That's the way Red had it. He was just like a daddy to us... But he was very up-to-date. Wherever we played, we was always on time. And dressed uniformly. He was a great guy to work with.
And so after that, 'round '65 the band broke up. Then I joined a group called Eddie Tigner and the Ink Spots. Eddie is the original Ink Spot of the black group. We traveled like Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Texas, state of Virginia, New York, Chicago, Detroit, state of Michigan... so I was with him around about seven months. He had to come off the road because he had a minor stroke. I came back into Atlanta and I stopped playing for a while and started doin' domestic work, like house cleaning and doin' office cleanin' work, workin' at car washes. I would work five days a week and Mr. Tigner, if he had gigs close to Atlanta [on the weekend], he would come into Atlanta and pick me up.
Then I started gettin' with little groups here in Atlanta. And so I played with a guy called Joseph Smith and the Fendales. We traveled around different country towns. I was playin' and workin' then. And after I left him I joined another band called Leroy Redding and the Houserockers. He had just put out a record durin' that time. And I stayed with that group up until about the last part of the '80s. And I been playin' here [Underground Atlanta] for seven years... mostly here on Fridays and Saturdays. I have a rhythm section. Myself on lead and I have my son on bass and I have a drummer... But now I'm workin' on some material of my own, some original stuff. Me and my son, we're puttin' some stuff together.
I would describe [my] style as versatile. Versatile musician. Like I can play all types of music. Now, I don't like reggae. This rap, I don't like that... but church, blues, bop, rhythm and blues, calypso, stuff like that... I like that real Lightnin' Hopkins lowdown blues... I would call that hard classic blues, hard stompin' blues, you know... railroad smokin' blues!
I'll be 59 on my birthday, and the older I get, the more seasoned I get into it. I used to didn't sing. But now I sing. I try to play a little harmonica. What makes a band popular is to have your show, have it packaged wise, have different things goin' on in it. Even on the streets performin', that's the way I am, I dress sharp on the street. 'Cause you never know who's out there. It could be President Clinton's dad or mom... people [are impressed] to see a black woman, what I'm sayin', handle a guitar. To see a black woman play like a man. But that came from, I had back-ups when I was young. I had older peoples to stay on my butt. My dad taught me you gotta learn how to meet the public. And you got to have patience. And the Lord fixes it like this: whatever He wants you to do and wherever He wants you to go, you gotta be humble and let him carry you where He wants you to be.