The Jay-Z and Johnny “Guitar” Watson “Gangster” Connection
Photos: Getty Images

Photos: Getty Images

Little-known rapper Jay-Z just released his low-key Magna Carta Holy Grail album without a hint of fanfare (in the Bizarro Universe where everything is backwards, anyway). One of its niftiest samples is the snaky, honking percussion-and-horn groove that powers “Somewhere in America,” Jay’s free-form meditation on upward mobility.

If you look at the credits for “Somewhere in America,” they note that Hit-Boy and Mike Dean‘s production “embodies portions of ‘Gangster of Love (Part 1)’ written by Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson.” (Yes, the same Johnny “Guitar” Watson who wrote “I Don’t Want to Be a Lone Ranger,” as featured in this column last week. But it’s not Watson’s own version of that song sampled in the Jay-Z track — it’s Jimmy Norman’s 1968 cover.

(That sort of arrangement wasn’t so uncommon in 1968: compare, for instance, the introduction to Marva Whitney’s “Unwind Yourself,” which has been sampled so many times it’s become a hip-hop trope.)

Jimmy Norman’s cover of “Gangster of Love” has occasionally been falsely attributed to Jimi Hendrix. Amazingly, though, it’s scarcely been sampled before “Somewhere in America” — the only example I can find is Lone Catalysts’ 2011 track “Back to School.”

Norman, who died in 2011, was one of the all-but-hidden figures of R&B: he wrote (most of) the lyrics to Irma Thomas’s “Time Is on My Side,” sang with the Coasters (after most of their hits were ancient history) and Harlem River Drive, worked with Hendrix (several years before “Gangster of Love”) and Bob Marley, and scarcely made a ripple under his own name. His biggest hit on his own was 1962′s New Orleans-style single “I Don’t Love You No More (I Don’t Care About You),” which almost-but-not-quite made the R&B Top 20.

Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s song, on the other hand, was one of the cornerstones of Watson’s own career — and not entirely a stroke of braggadocio. (By many accounts, he made money on the side as a pimp; by other accounts, he made money on the side as a musician.) He first recorded “Gangster of Love” in the mid-’50s, and first released a version of it in 1957. Watson’s 1963 re-recording wasn’t quite a hit, but it got around in blues aficionado circles.

The still-teenaged Johnny Winter, for instance, promptly recorded “Gangster of Love” as his second single.

Likewise, in 1966, the Steve Miller Band’s second album included a brief cover of “Gangster of Love.” That recording is a laid-back throwaway, but the song stayed in the band’s repertoire ever after (the live performance below is from 1972), and Miller has referred to it repeatedly in his own later songs — “some call me the gangster of love,” he sings in “The Joker.”

The Geto Boys’ second album, 1989′s Grip It! On That Other Level, features a track called “Gangsta of Love,” prominently including a sample from “The Joker.” (A later release substituted a bit of “Sweet Home Alabama” for the Steve Miller Band sample.)

“Gangster of Love” stayed in Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s repertoire for decades, becoming an increasingly spectacular showpiece as Watson’s style evolved along with the sound of R&B. This extended 1977 live performance (with a hilariously drawn-out intro — listen for Watson searching for the name of the city where he’s performing) is close to the hit version he’d record the next year.

Two years ago, Yelawolf apparently planned to release his own “Gangsta of Love” as a single; it ended up being scrapped after the song leaked early. It does, however, start with a witty sample from Watson’s late-’70s version. (“He is very heavily armed … and legged…”)

Over the decades, the title “Gangster of Love” slipped into common parlance: it’s turned up in one form or another on a whole bunch of songs, including one late-period outtake by Talking Heads. Norman, meanwhile, finally got to make a few full-length albums of his own in his later years. 1998′s Tobacco Road included a new version of “Gangster of Love” that owed much more to Watson’s 1963 version than Norman’s 1968 cover. Norman’s final record, The Way I See It, appeared in 2011. It included a new, original song called, naturally, “The Joker.”

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