HAMMER IN HER HAND:
Beverly “Guitar” Watkins is seventy-six years old. She is wearing house slippers, a hair net, and an Atlanta Hawks t-shirt on backwards. She is probably the greatest living blues guitarist that no one has ever heard of.
Beverly “Guitar” Watkins is seventy-six years old. She is wearing house slippers, a hair net, and an Atlanta Hawks t-shirt on backwards. She is probably the greatest living blues guitarist that no one has ever heard of. Today, she is trying to sell her couch. “This couch is nice,” she says. Watkins stoops and smacks the button that makes part of it lean and a footrest pop out. “It does that on both sides. It cost four hundred dollars. My son picked it out for me. I’m selling it for two hundred.”
She is trying to sell her couch because she wants to move out of this apartment on the third floor of a seniors-only complex in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward neighborhood. Down in the lobby, a gaggle of women her age sit propped up in wheelchairs, their faces lit by daytime TV. Hidden speakers pipe an endless playlist of schmaltzy pop standards into every hallway and common room. It’s a nice enough place, but it’s not her scene.
“I want to be where I can be free,” she says. “I live that rock & roll lifestyle.”
Watkins learned to play guitar as a child and began playing professionally while still in high school. In the 1960s, she played on recordings that inspired a generation of white rock & rollers, toured with bands across North America and Europe, opened for Ray Charles and James Brown and B.B. King. She caught the early wave of soul music, crashed on the sandbar of disco, brushed herself off, and kept on going. She reinvented herself as a solo artist at fifty, recorded her first album at sixty, survived multiple brushes with death, and did it all almost completely without celebration, peer, or precedent.
And she’s still doing it. Last Thursday she played her regular gig at Blind Willie’s over in Virginia-Highland. Yesterday she spent all day at one of the two churches where she worships and performs every month. Tuesday she’s playing a memorial birthday party for her cousin Freddie, who died last year. Saturday, the Fourth of July, she’s playing a kids’ soccer game. Sunday afternoon, she and the Meter-Tones, one of her several backing bands, will play to travelers in the atrium of the Atlanta airport. On her days off, she rehearses. Watkins credits her talents to God.
But if God made her good, she made herself great.
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