Is Johnny Guitar Watson’s “Telephone Bill” the First Houston Rap?

Categories: Catfish Reef

What’s the first rap song by a Houston artist? It’s debatable but most cite a few records that came about between 1985 and 1987.

But there’s another much older often forgotten candidate – Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “Telephone Bill.”

By 1980, when he made “Telephone Bill,” Johnny “Guitar” Watson had long been based in Los Angeles, but he was born and raised in Third Ward.

While lots of older blues and R&B artists are credited with coming out with rap songs – people like Andre Williams, Blowfly, the Last Poets, Bo Diddley, Louis Jordan, Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets – their work doesn’t sound as if it belongs to the exact same chain of influence as the hip-hop of today. Some belong more to the spoken-word poetry tradition, others just happen to have jive-talked over music. Most seem more like collateral cousins to today’s hip-hop rather than ancestors.

By contrast, “Telephone Bill” sounds like what would have happened if Kurtis Blow had come from Third Ward instead of The Bronx. Watson’s rhyme scheme, humorously woe-is-me subject matter, and musical flow shows a clear influence on Devin the Dude and was years ahead of its time, as was the live musical backing.

As with most of Watson’s work, the song drew as much from the past as it pointed the way forward. No less than his disco or funk tracks, “Telephone Bill” contemporizes but never leaves behind the good-n’greasy old Dowling Street blues. I especially dig Watson’s phrasing on the guitar solo on the outro. – John Nova Lomax


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