SALISBURY — The only hint of flashiness was her grey-and-black patent leather spectator loafers.
Otherwise dressed in slacks, a blouse and a cardigan sweater, Beverly “Guitar” Watkins, 74, could have been any other senior citizen gathered Friday afternoon at Rufty-Holmes Senior Center.
That is, until she launched into a fearless guitar performance that ranged from fast licks to sweet melodies to rock-steady rhythms. The Commerce, Ga. native thrilled the crowd of about 100 people, who were treated to a mini concert sponsored in part by the Rowan Blues and Jazz Society and Rowan Arts Council.
Nearly three-quarters of the way to a century of birthdays, Watkins can still toss the guitar behind her head and keep on playing.
“My style is real Lighting Hopkins lowdown blues,” Watkins says in her promotional material. “I call it hard classic blues, stompin’ blues, railroad smokin’ blues.”
Watkins returned to Salisbury after performing at the 2011 Rowan Blues and Jazz Festival, 12 years after organizer Eleanor Qadirah said she first heard about the well-known talent in Underground Atlanta.
Watkins has played with James Brown, B.B. King and Ray Charles. Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, she performed with Piano Red and the Meter-tones, also known as Piano Red & the Interns, Dr. Feelgood & the Interns, Dr. Feelgood and the Interns & the Nurse. Watkins was the nurse.
Watkins was a generous headliner on Friday, repeatedly urging the audience to give it up for her accompanists, guest artist Beth Ann “Bad to the Bones” Dukes on drums and local musician Joe Ponds on piano.
Dukes has worked as Watkins’ back-up drummer for some time, and it showed as the women seamlessly teamed up on gospel standards to blues favorites.
Ponds and Watkins, however, met for the first time three hours before the concert.
An observer would have thought the two had been playing together since Watkins picked up her first guitar at age 8. They traded solos on several songs, and Watkins was so pleased with Ponds’ skill at the keyboard, at one point she said, “Give the pianist a hand — he’s my pianist now.”
Watkins surely inspired the students in Bob Wingate’s guitar class at Rufty-Holmes, who were recognized during the concert.
The program included this endorsement for taking up the guitar at any age: “A growing body of evidence suggests that learning to play an instrument and continuing to practice and play it may offer mental benefits throughout life,” according to “Health Day Reporter.”
According to the July issue of “Frontiers in Human Neuroscience,” people who learn to play an instrument may experience less mental decline associated with aging, and people who learned music in childhood and continue to play an instrument for at least 10 years outperformed others in tests of memory and cognitive ability.
Watkins, however, may have provided the best proof that playing an instrument helps keep you young.