This was posted Monday, July 10, 2017 by RODNEY HOemail@example.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog
Atlanta blues guitarist Beverly “Guitar” Watkins is getting her biggest exposure yet at age 78 on Steve Harvey‘s “Little Big Shots: Forever Young” on Wednesday, an NBC variety show featuring seniors who do extraordinary things.
Over a career that has spanned more than a half century, Watkins has opened for everyone from James Brown to Ray Charles. She was a mainstay as a street performer at Underground Atlanta during its brief heyday in the late 1980s and 1990s. She became a lead vocalist and guitarist in 1997 and has released multiple CDs of original music, winning a Grammy in Europe one year.
On the pre-taped NBC show, she performed one of her signature songs “Red Mama Blues.”
“I put in so much hard work in this business,” she said in a phone interview from her Atlanta residence Monday. “And I made everybody else shine. It’s my time now.”
Watkins overcame breast cancer in 2003 and nearly died of pneumonia this past December. She credits God and Jesus Christ for both her recoveries and giving her this opportunity to perform her blistering licks for a national audience.
“My faith is very strong,” she said. “God brought me back because I had more to do here on Earth.”
She enjoyed hobnobbing with Harvey. “He’s very down to earth, a lot of fun,” she said.
Watkins was born at Grady Hospital (“A Grady baby,” she said) but grew up in the small town of Commerce raised by her sharecropper grandparents. There, an aunt gave her a guitar when she was eight and she has never let go. She eventually moved back to Atlanta and said she attended S.H. Archer High School with future R&B legend Gladys Knight.
While Watkins toured on and off for decades with blues singer Piano Red, she also spent years cleaning houses and working at car washes to keep the lights on. Only when she nabbed a regular job at Underground Atlanta in 1988 as a street performer was she able to make enough money with her music via tips to focus just on her guitar.
During the 1996 Olympics, she said she received her biggest tips performing on a special main stage in Kenny’s Alley. She had also begun singing at the time, releasing her first solo CD in 1997.
Music Maker Relief Foundation founder Tim Duffy then began booking her on package tours. She has played worldwide, from Australia to Argentina. Locally, she performs regularly at Blind Willie’s, Northside Tavern and Fat Matt’s Rib Shack, to name a few. She also does gigs at nursing homes and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
She said she plays the blues as a reflection of her own experience in life but not all of it is sad or depressing. “Red Mama Blues” is an ode to her guitar. “Melody Midnight Cruise” is literally about her time on a cruise ship called Melody.
“To play the real blues,” she said, “you gotta be down to earth, very very very down soul down home.” In the 1940s growing up in Commerce, she said, “we didn’t have electric lights. We had lamps. My granddad had a horse and wagon. That’s how I got to church. I walked five miles back and forth to school.”
And though she never had the opportunity to play with late great blues artist B.B. King, she did play at many of his nightclubs. “I admired what he did,” she said. “When he died [in 2015], that made me stronger. Someone has to stay here and play the blues!”
Watkins hopes the NBC appearance will lead to better gigs. She would love to eventually get her own place in the country with her own music studio so she can easily practice with her band, which includes her son Stan on bass. (She currently lives at a senior facility near Grady.)
“I’m not trying to get rich,” Watkins said. “I’m rich in spirit.” Then she quoted a Bible verse: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
She is also her own promoter. She listed off a few of her upcoming performances in Atlanta: the Sweet Georgia’s Juke Joint July 26 at 7 p.m.; Northside Tavern July 28 at 9:30 p.m. and Blind Willie’s August 18 at 9:30 p.m. But she won’t be on when the band starts.
“I come on later,” she noted. “I’m the added attraction!”
“Little Big Shots: Forever Young,” 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 12, NBC