Anyone familiar with Herbie Hancock’s ‘Secrets’ LP from 1976 on Columbia – and in particular the jazz-funk monster that is ‘Doin’ It’ – will be aware of Wah Wah Watson’s formidable prowess as a guitarist. With his wah-wah pedal, echoplex, early guitar synth and voice bag, he’s able to conjure an array of otherworldly sounds and spacey effects that bring a cosmic dimension to a funk groove. Detroit-born Watson – whose real name is Melvin Ragin – was also billed as an associate producer of that album and perhaps due to his crucial input on the LP and Hancock’s influence, he inked a deal with Columbia the same year. What transpired was this album, ‘Elementary’ – its title and cover a pun on Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick Dr. Watson. But despite good reviews the album didn’t sell particularly well and sadly, Watson’s solo career came to an abrupt end. Though briefly available on CD in Europe and Japan several years ago, ‘Elementary’ is now given its first domestic US reissue via Get On Down and proves to be an enthralling melange of funk, soul, and pop.
The opener, ‘Goo Goo Wah Wah,’ is a classic slice of Watson-infused funk: a mesh of syncopated wah-wah lines and soulful ‘talkbox’ licks riding on a heavy groove that’s a close cousin of Hancock’s ‘Doin’ It.’ The rest of the album isn’t nearly as funky but was aimed to demonstrate that Watson was more than a one-trick pony: ‘Love My Blues Away’ is a soaring ballad with vocals and sax fills; likewise, the tender and mellow ‘My Love For You Comes And Goes,’ is a gentle mid-tempo track featuring lead vocals from Watson, with James Jamerson on bass and sanctified harmonies from the Waters family. By contrast, ‘Cry Baby’ is a great piece of bluesy funk. Tenor sax man Ernie Watts appears on the driving, disco-fuelled ‘Together’ while ‘Sunset Boulevard’ is a quirky cabaret-style track. More stylistic variation manifests itself in the shape of ‘Love Ain’t Somethin’ (That You Get For Free),’ a soulful track where Watson’s vocals are supported by excellent background harmonies from the Waters family. Herbie Hancock fans will recognise ‘Bubbles,’ Watson’s short revamp of a track he co-penned with Hancock for the keyboardist’s 1975 album, ‘Man-Child’ (Hancock, in fact, makes a cameo appearance on the track).
This is an album that deserves more recognition and a wider audience and with any luck, Get On Down – who’ve done sterling work in resuscitating cult albums – will achieve that. Wah Wah Watson along with the likes of Eric Gale, Norman Harris, Bobby Eli and Dennis Coffey, is undoubtedly one of the most important guitarists in R&B history.