The nephew of jazz talent Johnny St. Cyr, Joe Watkins was a traditional jazz drummer and vocalist from New Orleans.
The nephew of jazz talent Johnny St. Cyr, Joe Watkins was a traditional jazz drummer and vocalist from New Orleans. Watkins was most widely known as the drummer in George Lewis’s band during its heyday and was remembered for his sought-after vocal stylings and much-admired timekeeping skills on the drums. Over the course of his career, Watkins played with Earl Hines, Kid Howard, Isaiah Morgan, Herb Morand, and Punch Miller. The George Lewis All-Stars’ version of “Red Wing,” featuring Watkins on drums, is included on the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s 2007 CD/DVD boxed set Made in New Orleans: The Hurricane Sessions.
Watkins was born Mitchell Joe Watkins on October 24, 1900, in New Orleans; some sources list his surname as Watson, not Watkins. An early love of percussion led him to use found objects and household items as percussive instruments. Though he began to play music on piano, in 1923 he was able to purchase his first set of real drums. Soon afterward, drums became his primary instrument, and he began taking formal lessons with Henry Martin. Growing up, Watkins was influenced by the work of “Baby” Dodds, James “Red Happy” Bolton, and others.
Watkins’s first jobs were playing for house parties, though he soon joined the Foster Lewis band, with whom he gigged frequently. During the early years of the Depression, Watkins played in a trio with Herb Morand on trumpet and Walter Nelson on guitar, but the dire economic circumstances of the time soon made it difficult to get paying work, and he was forced to sell his drums.
In the mid-1940s, as the economy improved, Watkins bought a new drum set and began playing with the great clarinetist and bandleader George Lewis at such venues as Manny’s Tavern and the El Morocco Club on Bourbon Street. Watkins would soon become a permanent member of George Lewis’s band, staying with the popular group from the mid-1940s through the 1960s and gaining international acclaim for his talent. In 1955 Watkins traveled to California with Lewis to perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Over the next few years Watkins traveled back and forth between New Orleans and California, playing with Earl Hines and Lewis. Watkins would also play with blues and vaudeville singer Lizzie Miles on live recordings made in the mid-1950s. During the George Lewis band’s heyday, the group featured Lewis on clarinet, Lawrence Marrero (banjo), Alcide “Slow Drag” Pavageau (string bass), Alton Purnell (piano), Jim Robinson (trombone), Kid Howard (trumpet), and Watkins on drums.
In the early 1960s Watkins was a regular at Preservation Hall with Lewis and Punch Miller, with whom he had played earlier in his career. Watkins—beloved for his crowd-pleasing vocal skills (particularly exhibited on the Lewis band standards “Ice Cream” and “Down by the Riverside”) as well as his extraordinary talents on percussion—played an integral part in developing and defining the George Lewis sound. In 1966 Watkins’s failing health put an end to his public performances.
Watkins died on September 13, 1969, in New Orleans.