ATLANTA — From outside Blind Willie’s, a small club in Atlanta, a scorching guitar solo can be heard over a blues chord progression one evening in July.
Step inside, and you might be surprised by where the sound is coming from: a 76-year-old grandmother.
Beverly Watkins is a longtime fixture on the Atlanta roots music scene. She is a guitarist and singer, still capable of commanding a rock club stage at an age when most people would have resigned themselves to singing in church (though she does that, too).
Not content to just rip her solos, she still employs a few guitar showwoman’s tricks, such as whipping her guitar behind her head. She has won awards, traveled the world and opened for some of the biggest names in music along with her band: “We used to open up for James Brown; we’ve opened up for Ray Charles … Aretha Franklin.”
It was not an easy road for Watkins, an African-American woman, growing up in the Jim Crow South. The Georgia native’s grandparents were sharecroppers, and she remembers “barn parties” during the yearly harvest season. She was exposed to rock and blues music in the 1940s; bands would play on the “rub board,” fiddle and guitar.
When she was 8, her aunt gave her a guitar, and she hasn’t been without one since. She played in several bands led by blues singer Piano Red. As a female guitarist, she feels she was both a draw and constantly forced to prove herself.
“I would see men; they would come up, ‘I heard about you.’ I would say ‘OK.’ ‘I don’t believe you can do that.’ I’d say, ‘You know, the only thing I can tell you is just wait and see the show.’ ”
One of the iterations of her band with Piano Red was called Dr. Feelgood and the Interns and the Nurse. Watkins was the nurse. The men performed in doctors’ smocks, and she wore a nurse’s cap and gown (but she refused the shoes the band had picked out for her costume. “I didn’t like the shoes,” she said).
She did not feel like the outfit was ridiculous, though, as she explained, “I would say, in music … to stay on top, you gotta have something very unusual, something that somebody hasn’t seen.”
Watkins, who has one son and five grandchildren, worked odd jobs for years while continuing to play in bands. In the ’90s, she had a regular gig performing at the Underground Atlanta shopping center. She caught the attention of a record producer who got her into the studio to record “Back in Business,” her first solo album, at age 59.
A few years later, she had a heart attack after a show in Washington.
“After I had come off stage, I started sweating real bad, sweat just coming off of me,” she remembered. She was airlifted to a Georgetown hospital and stabilized. Following up with treatment, doctors discovered a cancerous mass on her left lung.
She recuperated for a year but hadn’t lost the love for playing guitar on stage: “I was out a whole year, and I’m still here 11 years (later).” In 2014, she was treated for an aneurysm.
Still energetic and entertaining at 76, Watkins does not expect to give it up any time soon, saying she’s going to keep playing “until I can’t play no more. Something happens, they’ll have to put me in a wheelchair and roll me up on stage, because I’m a dedicated musician.”