The way Beverly “Guitar” Watkins tells it, her association with the musical instrument that’s become a part of her name goes back to the 1940s.
She was a young girl then, living with her grandparents in a farming community outside Commerce, Ga. Watkins had been born in 1939 in Atlanta, a “Grady baby,” but after the death of her mother when Beverly was about 8, her grandparents took her in and “raised me down in the country.”
Her grandfather, like many of his neighbors, was a sharecropper. Beverly walked to school and remembers that the family hitched the “Sunday horse” to a wagon to go to church. “Everywhere my granddad would go, I’d go with him,” she said. “He’d go rabbit hunting, I’d be right there with him. Fishing. … I was like a tomboy because I was around my granddaddy all the time.”
Most of their neighbors kept some kind of musical instrument in their homes, whether a guitar or a fiddle or an old upright piano, and played for their own entertainment, she said. The community held dances. “Back then, we’d call it a ‘barn dance.’ We call it a party now,” she said.
Her grandfather played banjo. When Beverly was about 9, one of her aunts gave her a guitar for Christmas. Beverly learned some songs, mostly country songs, she said.
She returned to Atlanta as a teenager and lived with her aunt. Watkins enrolled in high school and learned to play trumpet and to play guitar as part of a band.
Her training paid off. She’s made a long career of playing blues and rhythm-and-blues in metro Atlanta, has toured internationally, recorded a CD and been honored as a “Georgia Music Legend” by the Atlanta Blues Society. And, at age 79, she’s still playing.
In November, during a ceremony at the Atlanta History Center, Watkins was named the 2018 recipient of the Positive Aging Icon Award from LeadingAge Georgia, an association of not-for-profit organizations focused on providing housing, healthcare and community-based services for seniors. She is the seventh recipient of the award. Past honorees have included former Atlanta mayors Andrew Young and Sam Massell, 1968 Olympian Dr. Mel Pender and Baseball Hall of Fame inductee and retired Atlanta Braves president John Schuerholz.
“Ms. Watkins’ talent, longevity and spirit is a shining example of positive aging. She sets the stage for others by showing that age doesn’t have to slow you down or keep you from doing what you love … and providing joy to others,” Jacquelyn Thornton, senior vice president of LeadingAge Georgia, said in a press release announcing the award.
Watkins’ electric guitar playing has made her a fixture on the Atlanta blues scene. She joined her first band while she was in high school, she said, and played in clubs around town. In the late 1950s and the 1960s, she performed with Willie “Piano Red” Perryman in several of his bands, playing with him on records including his hit, “Right String, But the Wrong Yo-Yo.”
One Perryman-led band she played in was called Dr. Feelgood and the Interns and the Nurse. Watkins says she was “The Nurse” in the group, which wore medical-themed clothing onstage. “I didn’t wear the shoes,” she said. “I wore the nurse’s suit, and the hat, but I wouldn’t wear those ugly shoes.”
Over the decades, Watkins has played in a string of different bands. She played for tips at Underground Atlanta during the entertainment district’s heyday and, in 1999, recorded her first CD, titled “Back in Business.”
And, as she likes to say, “things rock on” with her music. She still appears in clubs and now performs at senior centers, too. She said she also regularly performs gospel music in churches on Sunday mornings.
Recently, Watkins showed a group at Clairmont Oaks, a senior residence in Decatur, that at 79, she’s still rolling along. Accompanied by drummer Arthur Johnson, she sang and played a string of familiar blues and rhythm-and-blues tunes during a luncheon marking the center director’s retirement. “We’re going to party, y’all,” Watkins told the crowd as she kicked off a set of songs that ranged from “Summertime” to “You Send Me” to “Rock Me, Baby.”
As Watkins played, Clairmont Oaks resident Gloria Monroe-Drummond clapped along and danced in her seat. “I think she’s great. I love it,” Monroe-Drummond said. “I love the music and she’s a senior. That’s making it even better.”
Watkins says she has no plans to slow down any time soon. Playing guitar is her gift, she said.
“It’s a gift from God,” she said. “This is my gift and I’m giving it back to the community. And I enjoy what I do. It’s hard, but God, he’s always there. I want to keep doing it until he says, ‘Well done, my child.’ It keeps me going. It’s something to look forward to. Maybe I’ll be playing in the heavenly band someday.”