The melodic and sometimes cacophonous experiences of North Mississippi musician Bobby Ray Watson may indeed be some of the greatest untold stories in the musical history of North Mississippi and Memphis during the late 1960s and 1970s. Not only did he seek out and study under the “blues masters,” Watson also established friendships with such blues guitarists as Joe Calicott and Fred McDowell. In addition, Watson often carried Holly Springs blues singer R.L. Burnside to perform and record at the Memphis studio of famed session guitarist Roland Jane, who recalled he also carried a duffel bag, more often than not, stuffed full of homegrown marijuana and a couple quarts of corn liquor. The resultant music of the adulterated duo produced a strange, hybrid sound, which, according to one observer, was the result of “crazy hillbillies and crazy black guys” with recreational drugs, musical creativity, security and freedom of expression. The different personalities and musical energies of the two North Mississippians in the studio of Roland Jane, indeed, proved a “crazy combination!”
In addition to his associations to blues artists, Watson served as an important early organizer and producer of blues festivals and other events. It all started at a hippie hangout in Memphis called the Bitter Lemon, which booked older blues musicians and attracted an audience of “vintage Southern beatniks,” including world class photographer Bill Eggleston, musician Jim Dickinson, poet, writer, and intellectual Randall Lyon, musician Dan Penn, writer Stanley Booth, and musicologist Bill Barth, who Watson considered one the “greatest delta blues players” of the blues revival. He found a home among all these kindred spirits and members of the Memphis County Blues Society, which organized a series of country blues/rock festivals at the Overton Park Shell from 1966 to 1970. By developing and maintaining friendships with several folk and blues musicians, such as Sam Chatmon and Big Joe Williams, he was the natural choice for talent manager, coordinator, and stage manager for the first Mississippi Delta Blues Festival at Freedom Village in 1978. He subsequently founded the Mississippi Country Blues Society, which put on several blues concerts around Jackson. In 1979, Governor Cliff Finch made him an honorary ambassador of goodwill for the state as well as appointed the versatile songwriter as one of the “colonels” on his staff, attaching to him a durable moniker that continues to precede his name to this very day, particularly in the South.
“The Colonel,” as we refer to him in Mississippi, was born on October 17, 1943, and he grew up in the rural home of his grandparents in Pleasant Hill, Mississippi. Though his grandfather played the mandolin and his grandmother played the piano, Watson credited his uncles with introducing him to the blues and rock ‘n roll, initially over the radio, and later through the records of such native Mississippians as Big Joe Williams and John Lee Hooker. Having developed into an emotionally powerful singer in his teens, Watson was the lead singer of a high school band called Bobby Ray and the Rapscallions. He also later fronted a second, six-piece group of Rapscallions in Memphis, which performed at venues in Desoto County and Memphis.
After graduating from Olive Branch High School in 1961, Watson attended Northwest Jr. College (in Senatobia) and Memphis State University until the summer of 1963, when he enrolled at the University of Mississippi. Having completed two years of coursework towards his Bachelors of Arts degree, Watson decided to try his luck as a “self-employed musician” in New Orleans, where he met Babe Stovall, who performed in the cafes and streets of the French Quarter, sometimes on the back of his neck while hollering so loud that all folks heard him in the immediate vicinity. Stovall and his friend Slim Harpo, in particular, spurred his interest in the old timers and their music. For thirteen straight weeks, Watson sang lead vocals for a band, the Pirates, in its own regular show, which featured the occasional guest, such as the Neville Brothers and Benny Spellman, or Ernie K. Doe.
In 1965, he moved to Moorpark, California to pursue a career in the music business. He auditioned for a host bands over the next couple of years, but none of them quite fit his own, personal style and musical vision. Watson was eventually forced to work construction to earn a living, which limited the amount of time and energy remaining each day to cultivate his musical talent. As he continued to struggle into 1968, Watson realized that the West Coast scene was not conducive to his general well-being, and he returned to Pleasant Hill, where he built a new house on his grandparent’s farm.
Back in Mississippi, he initiated a search for old blues records that so developed into a diligent search for older musicians, some of whom had performed on the radio and even recorded in the twenties and thirties. He realized that some of the old blues singers were still alive and got into the habit of asking older folks about folks who still lived in the hill country and played old music, particularly the blues. He soon procured several leads and started “tracking ‘em down…like a bloodhound.” It took little time, in fact, for Watson to make the fortuitous discovery of a harmonica player steeped in the hill country blues of North Mississippi. While driving one day in the pouring rain, he noticed a man and a woman walking down the side of the road near Pleasant Hill Cemetery. Watson stopped and picked up the couple, who lived right down the road from his grandmother, and when he asked if they knew any local musicians, the two smiling and drenched travelers, Johnny and Verlena Woods informed Watson of their own considerable musical abilities. Watson’s chance encounter with the Woods’ not only encouraged his expectant quest for other musicians, but it also brought together the musicians and allowed for the blossoming of a lasting friendship.
In 1972, record producer Jim Dickinson invited Watson and Johnny Woods to Ardent Studios in Memphis, where they recorded a song called “Shake Your Boogie.” It appears on a compilation album called It Came From Memphis Vol. 2, a digital audio companion to a book of the same name written by Robert Gordon. Watson, in addition, performed on two tracks included in Jim Dickinson’s Delta Experimental Projects Compilation; the first, “Holy Spirit,” features a host of excellent musicians, such Hammie Nixon, Sleepy John Estes, Lee Baker, and Ry Cooder. Watson played with Johnny and Verlena Woods on “Ol’ Man Mose,” which is shorter, yet a similar take on “Shake Your Boogie.”
Watson developed a particularly strong bond with Joe and Doll Calicott, both of whom he considered his “best friends.” His relationship with Calicott, perhaps more than any other musician, instilled within him the desire “to save his music” as well as the music of other, older artists. Yet, Watson also wanted to ensure that his older blues artist friends be “paid fairly and given credit for their works.” Despite his appreciation for the work of folklorists to preserve the music of black folk artists and blues musicians, he vehemently believed that black artists had not received ample compensation for their intellectual property. Most of Watson’s own field recordings and interviews, in fact, remain unpublished and locked away in the “Colonel Bobby Ray Watson Archives.” His unshakable convictions about redressing past wrongdoings, and his natural ability to develop bonds of kinship with not only the musicians, but also their families served the Pleasant Hill native well in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Following the death of Joe Callicott in 1969, Watson took up the duties of mentoring Kenny Brown, an aspiring young North Mississippi musician, who had lived across the street from late blues singer. He showed Brown how to play bottleneck guitar and introduced him to blues legend Fred McDowell at the one of the Memphis Country Blues Festivals. Watson even provided Brown a unique opportunity to play with harmonica player Johnny Woods.
After the passing of several of his older, musician friends, Watson not only carried on their musical traditions, but he also carried around the pain of losing his close friends. He continued to perform and record over the next few years. He also became friends with Brenda Patterson, a backup singer for Ry Cooder, who invited Watson to play harmonica on one song, “End of the Road” and sing background vocals on her 1973 album self-titled album Brenda Patterson (Playboy 109).
Watson experienced some personal problems in the early 1980s, but in 1986, he studied under Bill Ferris at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture (CSSC) at the University of Mississippi. Watson had been documenting musicians and musical traditions “long before Ole Miss developed its own curriculum on the subject,” and he drew upon his previous work in developing a brown bag lecture at the CSSC, which in a way served as a farewell to his home state—titled “Blues of a Different Color.”
It was at this point “the music stopped” for a while. Watson went back to school and became a registered radiologic technologist. After working in the medical field for only a few months in Opelousas, Louisiana, he moved to California where his newly-acquired professional skills offered a radically different sort of work environment. His instruments remained in their cases as he adjusted to life of the West Coast, but he did not let them collect too much dust. Before long, he started playing guitar and writing music again. At one jam session in the Vista Club, he met the musicians that eventually formed NXQS. The band worked hard and started to receive some recognition in the Bay Area, particularly due to its young female vocalist, Twanna Melby, the long lost daughter of musician Ike Turner, of Clarksdale.
Melby had only recently developed a relationship with her estranged father, who was serving an extended prison sentence nearby on drug charges. By getting clean and exhibiting good behavior, Turner was paroled after seventeen-months and released into the custody of Melby, who allowed her father to live at her home. His daughter’s band NXQS was doing quite well until Turner entered the scene, offering a rare opportunity to work with a legendary songwriter from the Delta, and in short order the band broke up.
Watson and Turner, however, made an immediate connection and soon became fast friends. In fact, the drug-free, yet still struggling former band leader of the Kings of Rhythm lived with Watson, at his house for over a year, jamming from sunup till sundown. “Ike was a workaholic,” Watson recalled, but “he worked me to my best ever.” Looking to reassemble his life and music career, Turner re-constituted his Kings of Rhythm Band and handed the singing duties over to Watson. It would have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most people, but it was only the most recent collaborative effort of the Pleasant Hill native with a recognized music legend from Mississippi. The group played their first gig at Jimmy’s in Oakland on New Year’s Eve. Watson and Turner also performed at Eli’s Mile High Club in Oakland, Larry Blake’s Blues Club in Berkeley, as well as several local pubs near his home in Vacaville, but the group split up not too long afterwards and Watson parted ways with the infamous Ike Turner.
The incessant practice sessions with Turner and his featured role in the revamped Kings of Rhythm served to reinvigorate his libidinal passion for more traditional music, which lived deep down inside of Watson, in a place where his early musical kinships remained as alive and vivid as they were on the day he played with Jack Owens in Yazoo City. In the summer of 1994, he played at clubs in Napa and Vacaville as well as fronted a band called the Rhythm Sticks at the Blues & Brew Festival in Fairfield. Watson told one local journalist he could play the “electric stuff,” but his favorite was “acoustic, bottleneck blues,” a style which, he believed, required real life experience to possess or convey any true meaning. He felt that he transmitted clear, mostly unambiguous, messages through his music. “Blues is communication,” he concluded, “It’s how I talk to people.”