BY TIM FLETCHER
WEM advertisement from February, 1970.
The name of Charlie Watkins will forever be synonymous with two things :
The famous Watkins Copicat, which he launched upon an unsuspecting world in 1959 in perfect time with Hank Marvin coming along (albeit with a Meazzi EchoUnit) and resulting in every young guitarist of the time rushing out in order to buy Charlie's cheaper model, and....
The master/slave PA rigs he invented and which were behind all the big outdoor UK pop festivals of the late 1960s and early 70s.
His guitar amplifiers are less well-known, with the possible exception of the legendary V-front Dominator of course. He chose to position them at the budget end of the market, perhaps wisely recognising that competition was fierce at the top with Vox, Selmer and later Marshall vying for position. Watkins (later Wem) amplifiers were well-made, sounded great (and still do) and easily undercut the prices of his competitors. Consequently they sold in countless thousands to young musicians, as did the Watkins guitars made by his brothers Reg and Syd.
Now for a potted history - very abridged as it's covered elsewhere:-
Serving in the Merchant Navy during WWII, Charlie learnt to play the accordion and upon his discharge became a semi-pro player, often accompanied by a guitarist. In 1949 he opened a record shop in London as a side-line with his brother, and in 1951 moved into selling accordions and guitars. He made a first batch of 20 amplifiers in the early/mid-1950s, but that enterprise was near-disastrous as he had to recall them upon hearing of a guitarist being electrocuted by a similar AC/DC unit. Undeterred, in 1957 he commenced production of the Westminster, a plain grey model at that time, and by 1960 when the rock'n'roll guitar boom hit the UK, he had added the Clubman and V-front Dominator to his range. Demand became huge and the fledgling company expanded : in 1960 the Copicat tape echo became an instant best-seller, and by 1963 a dozen models of amplifier were offered.
In 1963/64 the Watkins company re-branded itself as Wem : the lovely two-tone coloured amps disappeared in favour of the ubiquitous black coverings which were more or less compulsory by then. Throughout the 1960s, Wem offered a range of combos including updated Clubman, Westminster and Dominator models and various "piggy-back" amp head and speaker cabinet set-ups. The big development came in 1966/67 though, when Charlie developed his pioneering master/slave PA systems which for the first time made possible power ratings of 1000+ watts and literally set the stage for all the major outdoor pop festivals which followed. Wem catalogues quickly became showpieces for state-of-the-art PA systems, and guitar amps began to take a back seat.
Despite a proliferation of new names in the guitar amp market in the late 60s - Sound City, HiWatt, Laney, Carlsbro etc. - Wem soldiered on throughout the 1970s offering a wide range of guitar, bass and PA amplifiers. In 1982, the company re-located from 66 Offley Road, London SW9 to Tritton Road, and then soon afterwards to a small factory close to his home in Upper Norwood, London SE19. Here Charlie operating on a smaller scale selling accordions, amplifiers and Copicats. Retirement was apparently an option which never seemed to have occurred to him.
WEM advertisement from August 1967.
Charlie Watkins, the grand-father of British guitar amplification, passed away on 28th October 2014. His legacy lives on and he will not be forgotten.