Wah Wah Watson, Guitarist Whose Sound Was Everywhere, Dies at 67

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Melvin Ragin, the guitarist who performed as Wah Wah Watson through decades of recording and touring — with the Temptations, Michael Jackson, Maxwell, Herbie Hancock, Alicia Keys and dozens of others — died on Oct. 24 in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 67.

His death was announced by his wife, Itsuko Aono. She did not specify the cause.

Mr. Ragin took his nickname from the gadget that gave him his trademark sound: the wah-wah pedal, a filter that altered the tone of his guitar to make notes and chords wriggle, moan or seem to say “wah.”

Working the pedal with prodigious and playful subtlety, he used it on many hit songs — for crunching syncopations and floating, curling chords in the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”; for slinky countermelodies in Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On”; for chattering propulsion in Rose Royce’s “Car Wash”; for little bluesy sighs and rhythmic nudges in Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”; and for airborne, echoing interjections in Maxwell’s “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder).”

One of his signature sounds was a luxuriant swoon, a combination of wah-wah, echo-delay, fast tremolo picking and a downward glissando that became synonymous with sensual R&B. He was widely admired, and imitated, by guitarists seeking the essence of funk.

Mr. Ragin was born on Dec. 8, 1950, in Richmond, Va., to Robert and Cora (Brown) Ragin. His father was a minister, his mother an evangelist.

His mother bought him his first guitar for $15 “with a promise from me that I would learn how to play it,” he told an interviewer. As a teenager he worked with a Richmond group, the Montclairs, before moving to Detroit.

In the late 1960s he joined Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, a Canadian soul band signed to Motown Records, and left Richmond for Detroit. When not touring with the Vancouvers, he was a regular member of the house band at the Twenty Grand Club, often backing Motown headliners.

After hearing the wah-wah pedal deployed by Dennis Coffey, who was the Motown studio guitarist on songs like the Temptations’ 1968 hit “Cloud Nine,” Mr. Ragin bought a Cry Baby brand wah-wah pedal and rebuilt his guitar style around it.

Norman Whitfield, the Temptations’ producer, brought Mr. Ragin into the Motown studio band that became known as the Funk Brothers; his first major session was in 1970 for Edwin Starr’s “Stop the War Now.” (Mr. Coffey had played on Mr. Starr’s earlier hit, “War.”)

Mr. Ragin went on to record and tour with much of the Motown roster — the Jackson 5, the Supremes, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Marvin Gaye and many others — and by the early 1970s was calling himself Wah Wah Watson. After Motown moved to Los Angeles in 1973, Mr. Ragin also settled there. In his Motown years and afterward, many of his guitar parts earned him songwriting credits.

In 1976 he released his own album, “Elementary,” with his guitar up front. But he was heard far more widely as a studio musician: behind Michael Jackson (on the 1979 album “Off the Wall”), Barry White, Smokey Robinson, Bill Withers, the Pointer Sisters, Quincy Jones, Labelle and even Barbra Streisand, on her 1979 album “The Main Event.”

He began working with the keyboardist Herbie Hancock on the 1974 soundtrack to the movie “Death Wish” and continued to collaborate with Mr. Hancock, as composer and producer, through the rest of the decade on albums including “Man-Child” and “Feets, Don’t Fail Me Now.” Well into the 2000s, he rejoined Mr. Hancock funk band,the Headhunters, on tour. He was also a member of Marvin Gaye’s live band in 1983, Gaye’s final tour.

Neo-soul and hip-hop connected Wah Wah Watson to a younger generation of collaborators in the 1990s, among them Brian McKnight, Angie Stone, Lisa Stansfield, Me’shell Ndegeocello and Alicia Keys. And by way of a sample from Maxwell’s “The Suite Theme,” his guitar appeared this year on “After Dark,” a track on Drake’s album “Scorpion.”

In addition to Ms. Aono, his wife, he is survived by two sisters, Robinette Paige and Delores Knox, and two brothers, Robert and Larry.

“Wherever he is,” Ms. Aono said in a statement, “he’s groovin’.”

By Jon Pareles  Nov. 1, 2018

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