Johnny Guitar Watson's Gangster Of Love.
There are a ton of songs about or inspired by Dallas, and they say a lot about who we are. So each week in this space, we'll take a closer week at one of these songs — and we'll try to determine what, exactly, they say about this great city of ours. Check out this feature's archives here.
Though Johnny “Guitar” Watson was born in Houston, he has more Dallas ties than probably even he realized.
A third-generation musician, his grandfather bought him his first guitar at age 11 under the condition that he didn't play any of the “devil's music.” But his biggest hero at the time was Oak Cliff blues pioneer T-Bone Walker, who was known for innovating the electric blues.
Many years later, one-time Oak Cliff resident Jimmie Vaughan and his brother Stevie Ray would continue this tradition started by Walker. To this day, Jimmie often mentions in interviews that, while growing up in Dallas, Johnny Watson was the guitarist he and his brother attempted to emulate the most.
By proxy, it seems, Watson continued the tradition of the Oak Cliff sound, and further entrenched the Dallas suburb as the nexus of electric blues.
And it was during the early period in Watson's career when he wrote what would become his most famous song. Released as a seven-inch record in 1957, “Gangster of Love” didn't really become a big hit until it was re-recorded in 1978. In the interim, though, Watson had drastically revamped his image, becoming a flamboyantly dressed master of funk. This look get him accused of being an actual pimp on more than one occasion.
“Gangster of Love” too occurred more than once: The song wold go on to also be recorded by fellow Texan Johnny Winter, as well as Dallasites Sam The Sham & The Pharaohs and Steve Miller. Woodrow Wilson graduate and Lakewood resident Miller not only recorded the song, but adopted the nickname for himself. He references this fact in many of his other songs — most notably in “The Joker.” In that song, you'll no doubt recall, Miller sings that “Some people call me the space cowboy, some call me the gangster of love. Some people call me Maurice, because I speak with the pompitous of love.”
As influential as Watson's song was on the music coming out of Dallas and its musicians, none of this speaks to the song's actual lyrical content or what it says about the city itself.
The opening refrains of Watson's now legendary song are, of course, “There's Frank James and Jesse James, Billy the Kid and all the rest. Supposed to be some bad cats way out in the West.” Those two lines alone are full of Dallas history.
The site where El Centro currently sits was once home to dry goods wholesaler and retailer Sanger Brothers, which was at one time the largest wholesaler of its kind in the Southwest, as well as the premier department store of North Texas. Some of the Sanger Brothers' well-known former employees include Herbert Marcus, co-founder of Neiman-Marcus, and none other than one-time outlaw Frank James.
Following his brother Jesse's death in 1882, Frank spent his remaining 30 years trying his hand at a number of odd jobs — including stints as a public speaker in Sherman, as a betting commissioner at a racetrack in New Orleans and as a ticket-taker at a burlesque theater in St. Louis.
According to Wayne Erbsen's book Outlaw, a man once allegedly walked into Sanger Brothers where James was working as a shoe salesman aiming to pick a fight. “Do you know who I am?” the man asked. “I'm Bill Duggans and I've got a mind to bust you up-side the head if you don't find me in the boots I want.” If Erbsen's account is to be believed, a simple response of “I'm Frank James. Perhaps you've heard of me and my brother, Jesse.” was enough to convince Mr. Duggans to pay for whatever pair of boots he happened to be holding at the time and sheepishly exit the store.
Watson also mentioned Billy the Kid in his opening verse. While Billy the Kid wasn't from Dallas, his eventual killer, Pat Garrett most certainly spent time here. Kid's one-time gambling buddy Garrett and William Bonney, as he was then known, often referred to each other as “Big Casino” and “Little Casino,” respectively.
In 1869, a 19-year-old Garrett found work as a cowboy on a big Dallas ranch. As the practice of cattle rustling was rampant during that time, one of Garrett's roles was as a gunman who protected the herd from thieves.
But that's far from Dallas' only brush with famous outlaws. Heck, even Watson's mention of “all the rest” could have been about our city's rich history of legendary outlaws and gangsters. Legendary female outlaw Belle Starr lived in the area for a significant time. Famed gambler and gunfighter Doc Holliday once opened a dental office just blocks from Dealey Plaza, and later faced arrests in town for both gambling and trading gunfire with a local saloon keeper. Famed outlaw and one-time Denton resident Sam Bass robbed two trains and four stagecoaches within a 25-mile radius of Dallas. And, perhaps most famously, when outlaws Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were capturing the attention of the American public in the 1930s, they still considered Dallas, the town where they met, something of a home base.
Frank James aside, many of these outlaws famously met their ends in a rather untimely fashion. In most cases they died as they lived — by the gun.
Perhaps, if Watson had been around to intervene, their deaths could have all been avoided.
Known for his powerful loving, Watson sings the following about hypothetical encounters with those bad cats in the Old West: “But when they dug me, and my gangster ways, they hung up their guns, and made it to the grave.”