Walk down any street in Los Angeles and you’re engulfed in a roiling tide of psychic history, the accrued mana of generations of big-city struggle and achievements. Life here is a perpetually kaleidoscopic course of joy and pain, exultation and tragedy, and for music fans these cycles oft swirl and eddy with particular ferocity. The past week was a real mother in that regard with two ghastly losses: fabled Motown session guitarist Melvin “Wah Wah Watson” Ragin on Wednesday, followed by old-school country star Freddie Hart early on Saturday morning.
The Richmond, Virginia–born Ragin was indisputably one of the key guitar stylists in midcentury American music, and his death, at the age of just 67, was particularly shocking. The guitarist’s influential trajectory across soul/R&B’s celestial firmament was consistently effective, a characteristically supple, expressive style, burnished with evocative, exquisitely graceful funk, which was always spectacularly ideal in its support and enhancement of any given assignment.
And, man oh man, did he ever make his mark — the in-demand player racked up hundreds of stellar credits at Motown, bringing unforgettable atmosphere to The Temptations' smash “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and the epochal jam portion of their nine-minute-plus “Run Away Child, Running Wild,” which gloriously anticipated the modern funk-disco era. He set the evocatively erotic tone for frequent collaborator Marvin Gaye’s critical bedroom war cry “Let’s Get It On,” and Michael Jackson’s true crown jewel Off the Wall was significantly elevated by Ragin's rhythmic drive and singularly gleaming, decisive precision — all persuasive testimony verifying his status as a spectrum-spanning, visionary master.
When Ragin arrived here in L.A. in 1972, he quickly fell in with fellow session guitarist and wah wah guru Del Casher, the inventor who in 1967 perfected Vox’s crude prototype into the wah wah pedal.
“Wah Wah Watson was a dear friend,” Casher said. “He was quick to hear the future using the wah wah pedal sound I developed and brilliantly reinvented himself from Melvin Ragin into Wah Wah Watson. He jokingly told me he got the wah wah name idea when horn players would yell during recording sessions, ‘Hey Wah Wah, turn your wah wah down!' As a Wrecking Crew member, I recorded many Motown sessions with him and we planned to do a record together as his comeback album. Wah Wah’s friendship and great guitar playing will be sorely missed by all.”
Alabama-born singer-songwriter Freddie Hart led an altogether extraordinary life, both in and out of country music, which included drastic violence and wild disruptive behavior that were in marked contrast to his sweet, endearing demeanor and warm, affectionate aesthetic.
At 15, he lied about his age to join the Marine Corps, became an expert in hand-to-hand combat and saw heavy action in Guam and Iwo Jima. Following his discharge Hart, who took up guitar at age 5 and regularly performed atop a tree stump for an audience of chickens on his parents’ farm, fast-talked Hank Williams Sr. into hiring him as a roadie.
After Lefty Frizzell and Williams went on the road together, Frizzell poached Hart, using him as an opener and persuading Columbia to sign the singer in 1953. Both men moved to Los Angeles in 1953 and Hart divided his time between appearing as a regular on KTTV’s three-hour live show Town Hall Party and teaching martial arts at the Los Angeles Police Acdemy.
He also began writing a string of classic honky-tonk standards, including “Loose Talk,” “Backstreet Affair” and “The Keys in the Mailbox.” While everyone from Webb Pierce, Porter Wagoner, Patsy Cline and Conway Twitty recorded Hart’s songs, he didn’t enjoy real success as a singer until the early 1970s, when “Easy Lovin’” became a career-redefining, chart-topping million-seller. Another half-dozen equal successes followed but Hart had made a mistake common to many other Los Angeles–based country artists: He signed management and publishing deals with the infamous Buck Owens, who rooked Hart for millions in unpaid royalties (“I was around when that was happening,” Merle Haggard told me. “It made me want to puke”).
Typically, Hart, who always radiated an appealing aura of backwoods beatitude, never had a bad word to say about Owens. Hart had essentially retired by the turn of the century, singing only at retirement homes after Sunday church services, but was always quick to relate some mind-bending reminiscences about Hank, Lefty and his own life to any fan who’d ask.
Pardon the cliché, but they really don’t make ’em like these two anymore.