Melvin Ragin, known as “Wah Wah Watson” for the quivering, darting, wonderfully textured sounds he conjured from his guitar and wah wah pedal in countless sessions for stars of soul and funk, died on Wednesday. He was 67 years old.
“It’s with a heavy heart that we regret to announce the passing of my loving husband Wah Wah Watson today at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica,” the guitarist’s wife, Itsuko Aono, said in a statement. “He will be greatly missed, but music is eternal. Wherever he is, he’s groovin’.” A cause of death was not immediately revealed.
If Ragin had quit playing guitar in 1980, he would still be of vital importance to the pop canon: He joined the Motown house band, the Funk Brothers, in 1968 and later played on one of the Temptations’ most iconic singles, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” which incorporates long, flickering funk riffs, bluesy excursions and pointillistic solos. The shimmery, lingering guitar part after the line “it was the third of September” is a perfect demonstration of the wah wah pedal effect.
Ragin went on to appear on both Marvin Gaye’s sensual masterpieces, Let’s Get It On and I Want You, Quincy Jones’ most successful solo LP, Body Heat, Rose Royce’s breakout album, Car Wash, Smokey Robinson’s criminally underappreciated Love Breeze, disco classics from Gloria Gaynor (“I Will Survive”) and Greek singer Demis Roussos (“L.O.V.E. Got a Hold of Me”) and Michael Jackson’s solo starmaking LP Off the Wall, which still lights up clubs today.
Ragin was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1950, but later moved to Detroit. He was just 20 years old when he was called into Motown for a session with Norman Whitfield, the producer who shepherded the Temptations through their wildly successful orchestral-funk phase, according to Watson’s website. Watson impressed Whitfield enough to get called back, which eventually led to his work on “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”
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When Ragin arrived in Detroit, he was not yet feeding his guitar lines through the wah wah pedal, the famous gizmo that allowed players to add all sorts of striations and wrinkles to their riffs (notably exemplified by the Charles “Skip” Pitts’ guitar on Isaac Hayes’ “Theme From Shaft.”) “When I first got to Motown, I didn’t play the wah wah,” Ragin explained in one of the rare interviews that can be found on the internet. “But there was a guy named Dennis Coffey that did [the Temptations’] ‘Cloud Nine’ [and] ‘Ball of Confusion,’ all that stuff. I’m saying, ‘damn, where did you get that from?’ … So I went and bought a wah wah pedal.”
At first Ragin found the device mystifying. “I looked at it, it had the directions, up and down, up and down — I said, but that’s all it do[es]? I took this damn thing home.” In his initial wah wah sessions, he would only use the pedal in the manner specified by those directions. “The horn players were older guys, and they said, ‘I wish he’d turn that chika-chika-wah-wah shit down!'” Ragin recalled. “I just got the point where I’m saying, I would like to make it sound like something else other than ‘wah wah,’ but have control over it, so if I wanted it to say ‘wah wah,’ it would [still] say ‘wah wah.'”
He achieved his goal, playing countless sessions on guitar and helping Whitfield, who would often experiment in sessions by adding a second bassist or a second drummer, expand the sonic potential of soul. In addition to his instrumental prowess, Ragin apparently made cutting jokes in the studio. “The guys would come up with the funniest stories about another guys’ mother,” recalled Robert White, another session guitarist, in the book Standing in the Shadows of Motown. “Eddie Bongo was the most original, and Wawa was probably the most vicious.”
Ragin’s pace slowed in the 1980s as R&B embraced synthesizers and drum programming and impeccably arranged big-band funk lost some of its commercial momentum. But as R&B experienced a back-to-the-source moment in the Nineties, Ragin was once again in high demand, contributing to Me’shell Ndegéocello’s, Plantation Lullabies and Peace Beyond Passion, Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite and Now, and Brian McKnight’s Brian McKnight and I Remember You.
Ragin’s influence also extended far beyond his discography. When Stuart Matthewman began to work with Sade before her debut album, Diamond Life, the start of a partnership that would eventually sell over 50 million albums worldwide, he had one goal in mind. “I wanted to sound like Wah Wah, who played with Marvin Gaye,” Matthewman told the Red Bull Music Academy. “He was my favorite guitar player.”