Beverly Watkins, a rare woman among blues guitarists, who cleaned homes when music did not pay her enough and did not record her first solo album until she was 60, died Oct. 1 in Atlanta. She was 80.
Her son and only immediate survivor, Stanley Watkins, said the cause was a heart attack that had been preceded by a stroke.
Watkins called her music lowdown, stomping blues and complemented it with crowd-pleasing antics into her 70s — playing her electric guitar on her back and behind her head, sliding across the stage. When she sang, it was often with a growl.
Watkins, often billed as Beverly "Guitar" Watkins, followed in the footsteps of women like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a gospel singer whose brilliant electric guitar playing helped influence rock 'n' roll; and the blues singer, guitarist and songwriter Memphis Minnie. But even in the 21st century, after having worked since the late 1950s with the R&B star Piano Red, and with bands like Leroy Redding and the Houserockers, she was something of an anomaly.
In an interview with Living Blues in 2017, she recalled how some men reacted to her playing.
"I'd been on shows, back then, I was young and mens would come up and say, 'Hmm, I ain't never seen no woman play like you,'" she said. "And I had a lot of them say, 'Where did you learn to play like that?' and I'd say, 'Jesus.'"
Men, she said, also told her: "Put that guitar down. You don't need to be playing no guitar."
She was undeterred, playing guitars that she named Red Mama, Sugar Baby and the like as if she were on a mission, even when the gigs paid little. In the 1980s, while performing at nights and on weekends, she cleaned houses and offices. Late in the decade, she began playing in the retail and entertainment district Underground Atlanta. Sometimes she worked with other musicians, sometimes accompanied by a drum machine. She made as little as $30 a day, as much as $600 on Christmas Eve.
Decades later, she was still largely unheralded. But in the mid-1990s, while playing at Underground Atlanta, she was introduced to Tim Duffy, a folklorist who with his wife, Denise, had started the Music Maker Relief Foundation to help Southern musicians in need. The connection provided Watkins with an outlet to record her first album, "Back in Business" (1999), which included several songs she wrote or co-wrote.
When the album was nominated for a W.C. Handy Blues Award in 2001, the category was "best new artist debut." She was 62.
She subsequently released two other albums, "The Feelings of Beverly 'Guitar' Watkins" (2005) and "The Spiritual Expression of Beverly 'Guitar' Watkins" (2009).