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Beverly Watkins, fiery Blues guitarist, is dead at 80
A photo provided by Music Maker Relief Foundation, shows blues guitarist Beverly Watkins perfoming at Cotton Club, Atlanta, Ga., in 1998. Watkins died on Oct. 1, 2019 in Atlanta. She was 80. (Mark Austin/Music Maker Relief Foundation via The New York Times)

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK, NY (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Beverly Watkins, a rare woman among blues guitarists, who cleaned homes when music did not pay her enough and did not record her first solo album until she was 60, died Oct. 1 in Atlanta. She was 80.

Her son and only immediate survivor, Stanley Watkins, said the cause was a heart attack that had been preceded by a stroke.

Watkins called her music lowdown, stomping blues and complemented it with crowd-pleasing antics into her 70s — playing her electric guitar on her back and behind her head, sliding across the stage. When she sang, it was often with a growl.

“She’d been doing all that since the late 1950s, but she wasn’t a star because she’d been a sideman most of her career, playing with bands that didn’t have hits,” Brett J. Bonner, editor of Living Blues magazine, said by phone. “She was a fabulous guitar player.”

Watkins, who was often billed as Beverly “Guitar” Watkins, followed in the footsteps of women like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a gospel singer whose brilliant electric guitar playing helped influence rock ’n’ roll; and the blues singer, guitarist and songwriter Memphis Minnie. But even in the 21st century, after having worked since the late 1950s with the R&B star Piano Red, and with bands like Leroy Redding and the Houserockers and Eddie Tigner’s Ink Spots, she was something of an anomaly.

In an interview with Living Blues in 2017, she recalled how some men reacted to her playing.

“I’d been on shows, back then, I was young and mens would come up and say, ‘Hmm, I ain’t never seen no woman play like you,’” she said. “And I had a lot of them say, ‘Where did you learn to play like that?’ and I’d say, ‘Jesus.’”

Men, she said, also told her: “Put that guitar down. You don’t need to be playing no guitar.”

She was undeterred, playing guitars that she named Red Mama, Sugar Baby and the like as if she were on a mission, even when the gigs paid little. In the 1980s, while performing at nights and on weekends, she cleaned houses and offices and worked at carwashes.

Late in the decade, she began playing in the retail and entertainment district Underground Atlanta. Sometimes she worked with other musicians, sometimes accompanied by a drum machine. She made as little as $30 a day, as much as $600 on Christmas Eve.

She often thought of playing the blues as a way of healing people.

“When I get onstage, it’s like electrifying, you know,” she told The Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina, in 2009. “I light up and just get into the crowd.”

She said people would come up to her after a performance and say, “You know, when I came to your show, hey, I was down and out, but now I feel so uplifted and good.”

Watkins was born on April 6, 1939, in Atlanta. When she was 3 months old, her mother died and she went to live with her maternal grandparents, Luke and Phyllis Terrell, sharecroppers in Commerce, Georgia, about 70 miles northeast of Atlanta.

She was surrounded by music: Luke Terrell played banjo and harmonica, and her aunts were performers. One of them, Margaret, gave her a small acoustic guitar when she was about 9.

“Sometimes, my granddaddy would go to a friend’s house and they would get together and play the harmonica and jam,” Watkins told Living Blues. “I’d be right with my granddaddy, with my little guitar, and I’d sit up beside him.”

Her grandfather’s death left her in the care of her Aunt Margaret and then her Aunt Bee, in Atlanta. In high school, she played guitar and trumpet.

After graduation she joined Billy West Stone and the Downbeat Combo, then moved on to Piano Red and the Meter-Tones, where she played rhythm guitar. That band (which later became Dr. Feelgood and the Interns) toured as the opening act for James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles.

“Piano Red was just like a daddy to us,” she told She Shreds magazine in 2016. “If we go anywhere, like to a club, he would tell them, “Y’all watch out for Beverly there.’”

Decades later, she was still largely unheralded. But in the mid-1990s, while playing at Underground Atlanta, she was introduced to Tim Duffy, a folklorist who with his wife, Denise, had started the Music Maker Relief Foundation to help Southern musicians in need.

“I went to see her play,” Tim Duffy said by phone. “She was by herself and just remarkable.”

With Duffy’s help, she got more bookings and went on tours with other musicians affiliated with Music Maker, among them Taj Mahal. The connection also provided Watkins with an outlet to record her first album, “Back in Business” (1999), which included several songs she wrote or co-wrote.

When the album was nominated for a W.C. Handy Blues Award in 2001, the category was “best new artist debut.” She was 62.

In an interview with The New Yorker in 2014, Taj Mahal called Watkins “a flat-out musician who can duke it out onstage with the best there is — man, woman or child prodigy.”

She subsequently released two other albums, “The Feelings of Beverly ‘Guitar’ Watkins” (2005) and “The Spiritual Expression of Beverly ‘Guitar’ Watkins” (2009).

Watkins was very different in private than she was onstage, Duffy said.

“She was like your sweet Southern grandma, unassuming and demure,” he said. “But onstage, where she takes down the house, she’s a born entertainer, who made people scream and shout.

“She was just an unsung hero of the blues.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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