Some 62 years ago, Beverly Watkins received her first guitar. She called it Stella, and she would play it Friday nights when she accompanied her grandfather to the community barn dances near their home south of Commerce, Ga.
In the six following decades, Beverly Watkins never gave up on the guitar. From her first public performance — she played Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" at a school talent show — Watkins hasn't slowed down much. Her professional career began while she was still a teenager, completing her schoolwork by correspondence as her band Piano Red and the Meter-tones began touring regionally, then nationally.
The band kept changing its name. It's been known as Piano Red & the Interns, Dr. Feelgood & the Interns, Dr. Feelgood, and the Interns & the Nurse. Piano Red's band carried on in some form, with Watkins on rhythm guitar, touring internationally into the '70s.
"I was around good musicians back in those days," she says, "and that's how I really learned to play, you know, correctly."
Those skills became even more important when the band finally did break up, sometime between 1976 and 1978, by Watkins' recollection. For a time, her career slowed, and she took jobs to cover expenses.
"I worked at car washes, I worked at office buildings, I cleaned people's houses," Watkins recalls. But, "I never did let my music go. I always found somewhere that I could go out and play."
She played for some time with Leroy Redding (cousin to Otis Redding), then found gigs in the '80s with Eddie Tigner and Mudcat (both of whom are Watkins' labelmates on the N.C.-based Music Maker Relief Foundation).
Watkins, who celebrated her 70th birthday this April, hasn't stopped.
In 1999, Music Maker released Watkins' W.C. Handy award-winning debut, Back in Business, a 12-track showcase of Watkins' adept blend of roadhouse blues, rockabilly, and boogie — a sound Watkins has famously referred to as "hard classic blues, hard stompin' blues, you know ... railroad smokin' blues."
The Feelings of Beverly "Guitar" Watkins followed in 2005, and 2007 saw the release of Don't Mess with Miss Watkins. She currently has a gospel record in the works.
With the exception of occasional trips for festivals and showcases — Watkins recently played the Apollo in Harlem — she spends her time playing in her hometown of Atlanta. It certainly worked for Watkins, whose solo debut arrived when she was 60 years old.
With six decades with a guitar in her hands, Watkins might know a thing or two about life's changes and serendipity.
"I guess there's a purpose and a time for everything," she says. "He gives everyone a talent, but first we have to find our talent."