Guitarist Steve Watson carves niche in jazz world
by Tina T. Underwood
Leg warmers, parachute pants, big hair and eyeglasses, Texas-sized shoulder pads, Bedazzled denim jackets paired with acid wash jeans, and pity the fool who failed to sport a Members Only© jacket. The 80s – while not known for impeccable fashion smarts, the era earned a respectable place in television history for long-running action and crime dramas like “The A-Team” (Mr. T), “Hill Street Blues” (Dennis Franz), “Magnum, P.I.” (Tom Selleck), “The Greatest American Hero” (William Katt), “Murder, She Wrote” (Angela Lansbury) and the list goes on.
Amid the parade of dramas that streamed into our living rooms on fat-screen televisions, a little known fact is that Furman’s own Steve Watson, jazz guitarist in the music department, performed theme music for these and other network mainstays. Indeed, YouTube “Magnum, P.I.,” and the first thing you hear is Watson’s guitar in full jam mode. Working as a session guitarist in Los Angeles, Watson can also be heard in popular flicks “Sixteen Candles” (featuring members of the “Brat Pack”), “Young Guns” (Emilio Estevez and Kiefer Sutherland), “Big Business” (Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin), “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” (Steve Martin and John Candy), and the big screen version of “Dragnet” starring Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks.
Watson’s odyssey started in the late 70s at the University of Miami where he and now famed pianist/songwriter Bruce Hornsby studied together in the jazz program. Having graduated from Miami, Hornsby moved back to his hometown, Williamsburg, Virginia where he assembled a band. While finishing up his graduate studies at Miami, Watson received a call from Hornsby inviting him to be a part of his band – an invitation he gladly accepted.
In its formative years, Bruce Hornsby’s original music band performed gigs wherever possible including one performance in particular at a Steak-n-Ale in Hampton, Virginia. As it happened, Michael McDonald (Doobie Brothers) was among the audience members for an apparently impressive show. So inspired by the performance, McDonald approached the band afterward and cajoled the members to come out to Los Angeles to seek a record deal.
Hornsby’s band traveled to L.A. where McDonald introduced them to Grammy-winning music producer Mike Post. The group demoed with Post for about a month before the band headed back east. Six months later, on a wing and a prayer, and a promise from Post to help the members get work, the band packed up and moved to tinsel town.
L.A. life for the band consisted of a blend of demos and ad hoc gigs while waiting for the elusive recording contract. In the meantime, Post was waist deep in television music production for a deluge of crime, action and comedy dramas … and Watson was eager to lend his skills in post-production recording (and equally eager to pay the bills).
So immediately, Watson was plugged into session recording for scores of shows, the bulk of which were created by prolific television producers Donald Bellisario and Stephen Cannell. Besides the ones mentioned, other television soundtracks Watson recorded include “Hunter,” “Hardcastle and McCormick,” “Quantum Leap,” “Young Riders,” “Riptide,” “L.A. Law,” and “Simon & Simon,” among many others. On top of television and movie credits, Watson also recorded commercials for Coors, Budweiser, 7-11, Acura, Honda and Toyota.
While juggling mountains of studio work, Watson somehow found time to serve as adjunct music faculty member at the University of Southern California from 81-90, and worked on stage with Dolly Parton for the single-season installment of her mid-80s variety show.
With no record deal on the immediate horizon, and immersed in the business of recording music and teaching, Watson respectfully declined Hornsby’s offer in 1984 to again be a full-time member of his band. At the time it seemed like the right thing to do, but, says Watson, “That’s when I shot myself in the foot.” Because just two years later, Bruce Hornsby and the Range’s debut album “The Way It Is” went multi-platinum and the title track helped the group snag a Grammy for Best New Artist in 1986.
Having recovered from the self-inflicted gunshot wound, Watson continued to record session music, teach at USC and give private guitar lessons until 1990. Meanwhile, the 80s saw a huge shift in network television with the gathering storm of cable programming, lower-budget productions, and a groundswell of synthesized music. With those changes, a favorable seller’s housing market, and a desire to raise a family outside of Southern California, the time was right to make a move. So Watson and his high school sweetheart Susan, both of whom grew up in Greenville, and young daughter made the move back home, where shortly thereafter, they added another daughter to the family.
Since the relocation in 1990, Watson has notched accomplishments he certainly wouldn’t have had he accepted Hornsby’s offer. Making his own mark in the music world, Watson opened his own studio in downtown Greenville, Watson Wood Music; formed his own five-member jazz band, Watson’s Riddle; developed the jazz program at Greenville’s Fine Arts Center more than 20 years ago, and now teaches 45 students; and about five years ago, through his contact with saxophone professor Matt Olson, signed on with Furman as part of the music faculty teaching jazz guitar and jazz history.
Adding to the list of accomplishments, Watson’s Riddle released its first original music CD on Sony label, Palmetto Records, in late 2011. The smooth jazz project earned a top 25 spot on Billboard magazine’s jazz charts and reached the top 10 on contemporary jazz charts around the country, in addition to receiving a generous amount of airplay. Perhaps nudging its success a bit was the appearance of guest and legendary jazz pianist Chuck Leavell on the project who was a member of Allman Brothers Band among others, and has played alongside icons John Mayer, Eric Clapton and George Harrison, and has toured more than 30 years with the Rolling Stones.
With Watson’s rich background, he no doubt has much to offer students, Furman and Fine Arts Center alike. “I’m able to let them know what it’s like to really work and be a professional in the field, and what kind of focus and practice regime it takes to succeed … Some say I’m a taskmaster, but really I’m not. As long as [my students] are doing the work and enjoying it, I’m a really nice guy. It’s all about the effort,” he says.
You could say Watson knows all about effort with the workload he carries, not to mention intermittent gigs like the one his band performed at the Handlebar in March. When asked how he keeps all the plates spinning, he says, “I have my daily routine and move on to the next thing when it’s time, and just do my best.” A busy guy who evidently thrives at a frenetic pace, he says, “I’m not one to sit around. I always have something going on.” And that’s just the way it is.
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