“What Mac (Dr. John) is to New Orleans, Doug is to Texas…”
- Jerry Wexler
San Antonio born and raised, Doug Sahm, (November 6, 1941 – November 18, 1999), personified Texas as an extremely knowledgeable and highly skilled performer of its various musical forms whether they be Blues, Country, R&B, Rock & Roll, Western Swing, Cajun, or Polka.
In sum, Sahm could play all of Texas’ indigenous musical forms authentically. And before there was Tex-Mex there was Doug Sahm – that led to more than one observer to surmise, (quite rightly), that Sahm was the progenitor of the genre that mixes varied American and Mexican styles of music. A prime example of Tex-Mex is Doug’s first National and International hit as leader of The Sir Douglas Quintet – 1965’s “She’s About A Mover”.
Doug Sahm’s story started much earlier than 1965. In fact, it started some 19 years previous when, at the age of 5, Sahm appeared on a local KMAC radio broadcast for the first time singing the then popular Sons Of The Pioneers’ “Teardrops In My Heart”. It would be the first of many radio, (and TV appearances), for the local child star as he became a regular on San Antonio radio stations before he was 10 years old.
Encouraged by his parents to learn to play as many instruments as possible, young Doug was a child prodigy. He started playing triple neck pedal steel guitar at the ripe old age of 6. While being very impressive, it’s only one of a number of instruments that young Sahm mastered. In quick succession Doug became equally proficient on fiddle, guitar, bass, drums, mandolin, and bajo sexto among others. His father – who appreciated all forms of music – nurtured Sahm’s musical appreciation by taking him to see Country stars such as Webb Pierce, Hank Williams, and Bob Willis. That wouldn’t be the last time that Doug encountered Country greats. At 8 years of age, billed as “Little Doug Sahm”, he was a featured player on the Louisiana Hayride backing Pierce, Hank Thompson, and Faron Young on steel guitar. (Louisiana Hayride, a TV show out of Shreveport Louisiana, was a direct competitor of The Grand Ole Opry out of Nashville, and, incidentally, was where Elvis got his start on the road to stardom). And just three years later Little Doug would back Hank Williams himself on stage at The Skyline Club in Austin. (Sahm would later be offered a regular spot at The Opry but the move was vetoed by his mother who wanted him to stay home and finish junior high).
And growing up in the predominantly black, east side of San Antonio provided Sahm a window into the world of Blues and R&B as well. Doug related that: “Across a plowed field from my house was a place called The Eastwood Country Club where on any given night you had T-Bone Walker, Junior Parker, the Bobby Blue Bland Revue, Hank Ballard, and James Brown”.
Uptown R&B and Blues were just two elements of San Antonio’s musical melting pot that also included Country Blues, Jazz, Soul, and Mexican music. All was absorbed by a teenage Sahm who learned his lessons well. Adding another dimension to his musical education, Sahm bought 45’s from a local jukebox distributor, (for a nickel a piece), that he first heard on radio shows KCOR and KMAC hosted by black DJ’s Scratch Phillips and Flip Forrest respectively.
With his early performance experiences as his calling card, it was only natural that Sahm would seek to emulate his heroes in the recording studio. And, once again opportunities would present themselves, (on local labels), at an early age – Doug was only 14 when he made his recording debut in 1955 on the Sarge label with a Sahm co-write “A Real American Joe”. That was the start, and Sahm’s first bona fide release would come on another local label, Warrior, 4 years later – a Sahm original and Little Richard influenced “Crazy Daisy”, (“Crazy, crazy Daisy; you won’t do your daddy right”). Sahm’s breakthrough came in 1960 – Sahm’s composition “Why Why Why” on San Antonio’s Harlem label that received significant local airplay.
By this time Sahm was gigging regularly at local San Antonio haunts, e.g. The Ebony Lounge, Le Jac, and The Tiffany Lounge. He was playing primarily fiddle and guitar displaying a varied repertoire while leading a number of bands including The Knights, The Pharaohs, and The Mar-Kays.
Appropriately, Sahm’s musical wanderings matched his personality. He was always doing more than one thing at a time; continually making plans, talking a mile a minute. The club scene that demanded constant entertainment suited Sahm perfectly. An endless bolt of energy, his shows had very little between song patter as he kept the proceedings moving along with no fixed set list; moving from R&B stompers, to Western ballads, to old time Rock & Roll, and beyond. Indeed, it was hard to distinguish Sahm’s off-stage and on-stage personalities; and they would continue to be one and the same for the rest of his career.
Although Sahm did well in building a strong local following there would still be a lot of scuffling over the next 5 years. In the hopes of remedying the situation, Sahm contacted local legend Huey P. Meux (“The Crazy Cajun”) who had produced a number of National hits including Barbara Lynn’s “You’ll Lose A Good Thing”, Joe Barry’s “A Fool To Care”, and Roy Head’s “Treat Her Right”. Fortunately, after several failed attempts to interest him, Meux called Sahm with an idea. Like virtually everyone else Stateside, Meux was having difficulty competing with The British Invasion acts, specifically The Beatles. Hoping to come up with a plan, local folklore has it that after considerable study of Beatles songs, (aided and abetted with copious quantities of Thunderbird wine), Meux decided that their sound wasn’t far removed from Cajun 2-Step. As such, he instructed Sahm to write a 2-Step song along the lines of The Beatles’ “She’s A Woman”, and along with the band, grow his hair long, wear a British styled suit, and come up with a British sounding band name.
The band name chosen was The Sir Douglas Quintet and the song initially called “She”s A Body Mover”, (but discarded because Meux thought it to be risque), was “She’s About A Mover” that climbed to #13 Pop. The song featured a cheesy Polka riff played on a Vox organ by long time band mate and San Antonio native Augie Meyers, and featured very few lyrics; (“She’s About A Mover” is repeated 10 times and the other prominent lyrics “What’d I say”, 4 times).
The song would generate National exposure for the band with appearances on prime time TV shows like “Hulaballoo” and “Shindig” as well as providing opportunities as a concert opener for the likes of The Rolling Stones, James Brown, Otis Redding, and Little Richard. And to keep the British band charade going, Meaux told Sahm and the band not to speak; (Sahm couldn’t get a handle on a British accent). But the jig was up when on tour the band resorted to their standard repertoire of R&B, Roadhouse Blues, and Western Swing.
(As a sidebar, another Tex-Mex song released a year later that hit big, “96 Tears” by ? & The Mysterians, utilized the same organ sound and owes a debt to “Mover”. The band was Michigan based, but ? himself was, in fact, Dallas native Rudy Martinez, and the song was released on Pa-Go-Go Records, a San Antonio label).
“Mover” was followed by “The Rains Came” a Swamp styled entry in 1966. It was also in’ 66 that Sahm and the band were busted for pot possession at the Corpus Christie airport. Sahm, who was finding the local scene stifling, took this as a sign to get out of town. And he did just that, relocating to the Haight Asbury District of San Francisco. There he made fast friends with the local musicians, jamming with members of The Grateful Dead and others including Texas expatriates Boz Scaggs and Steve Miller.
But Sahm wasn’t finished with his own unique personal statements and re-formed The Sir Douglas Quintet once again, (including Augie Meyers who also relocated to the Bay area). After signing with Mercury Records TSDQ cut several albums with the most prominent being “Mendocino” (1969) that not only yielded the hit title cut but also served as a forerunner of Country Rock. Unfortunately, the hits dried up – the last SDQ single to chart was “Dynamite Woman”, also in1969.
The ever restless Sahm was on the move again and moved back to his home state, but this time it was to Austin. And, it was in Austin that Sahm met Jerry Wexler and formed a long-time friendship. Wexler, (who introduced Sahm to Bob Dylan), a fan of Sahm’s from afar, wanted to record him. Finding that he was still under contract with Mercury, Wexler stepped in and bought out his contract. Once freed, Wexler along with Arif Mardin helmed a project that would go down as one of Sahm’s best moments on record. “Doug Sahm & Band”, released in 1973, is a joyous, star studded, raucous affair that boasted Sahm’s new friend Bob Dylan on vocals, harp, and guitar; Dr. John on keys; David “Fathead” Newman on tenor sax; and David Bromberg on dobro, among others. All joined Sahm, (on guitar, fiddle, and vocals), in serving up a typical Doug Sahm loose smorgasbord of Blues, Country, and Western Swing.
In Austin, Sahm became friends with Blues lover and bar owner Clifford Antone. Similar to bringing Tex-Mex to the general consciousness of a record buying public, Sahm helped Antone establish Austin as a music centre to be reckoned with, and put his club Antone’s in the centre of the action. In doing so, Sahm paved the way for the whole Austin Blues scene including Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Angela Strehli, Lou Ann Barton, and Marcia Ball. Adding more fuel to the fire, Sahm headlined National Antone’s tours with artists like Strehli, Barton, and guitar players Derek O’Brien, and Denny Freeman in tow.
It was also in Austin that Sahm took the opportunity to record two fine albums on the Antone’s imprint: “Juke Box Music” and “The Last Real Texas Blues Band”, (currently available as a twofer). The two releases feature covers exclusively, with Sahm – always a soul satisfying singer – concentrating primarily on vocals with marvellous results. “Juke Box music” is strictly a studio affair while “The Last Real Texas Blues Band” combines both studio and live performances taken from shows at Antone’s. “TLRTBB”, the more celebrated of the two, was released in 1994 although the unspecified live recordings were thought to be from the late 80’s. Here Sahm pays homage to his heroes with heartfelt renditions of selections including Lowell Fulson – “Reconsider Baby”, Fats Domino – “My Girl Josephine”, and Little Willie John – “Do Something For Me”. (Personally speaking, the only complaint is that Sahm doesn’t cover The Casinos’ / John D. Loudermilk written “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” that’s right in his wheelhouse. I have no doubt that he would have torn that mother up. And, yes I know The Casinos aren’t from Texas; they’re from Ohio. But songwriter Loudermilk is a southern man, from Durham N.C. And, by the way, it was Loudermilk who tutored a young Gregg Allman on the art of songwriting).
Sahm reformed SDQ a number of times and recorded under his own name as well. (In truth, it was sometimes hard to distinguish between a solo project or a SDQ project). One solo album that bears mentioning is “Hell Of A Spell” (1980) that’s dedicated to Guitar Slim and for all intents and purposes is a rare straight ahead Blues project that shouldn’t be missed.
As usual, Doug Sahm had other irons in the fire at the same time. Never standing still, Sahm, after spending a good part of the 80’s in Sweden, returned to North America in 1986 to play The Edmonton Folk Festival. Backed by guitarist Amos Garrett and The Festival House Band, Sahm was a big hit. That experience led to Doug joining forces with Garrett (ex Maria Mudaur and Paul Butterfield’s Better Days) and Gene Taylor (ex Blasters and Fabulous Thunderbirds) on keys. They combined for a superb release, “The Return of The Formerly Brothers” on Edmonton’s Stony Plain label. The album, as usual, contained Swamp Rockers, Folk, Country, and R&B; and was very well received. The success led not only to festival appearances across Canada and an International tour, but would also earn the band a 1989 Juno Award for “Best Roots & Traditional Album”.
It’s fitting in that Sahm, with his infectious energy and enthusiasm, made friends and was at home wherever he went. Sahm stayed in Canada for two years and, not a fan of the Canadian winters, settled on Vancouver Island. (Incidentally, Sahm’s Canadian musical success and residency went almost completely under the radar south of the border).
But an opportunity to put together the only real Tex-Mex Super Group was calling Sahm back home. Now Sahm teamed up with boyhood idol Freddy Fender, (of “Wasted Days And Wasted Nights” fame), accordion virtuoso Flaco Jimenez, and frequent musical compadre Augie Meyers to form The Texas Tornadoes. The jumping off point for the Tornadoes’ fruitful 10 year run was 4 sold out shows over 2 nights at Slim’s, (Boz Scaggs’ club), in San Francisco. From there they recorded 9 albums, including compilations, and won a Grammy for their sophomore release “Zone Of Our Own’.
As Sahm introduced his SDQ bandmates, (Rocky Morales, Jack Barber, Augie Meyers, and Johnny Perez), to the world; he gave Fender and Jimenez’s respective careers a much needed shot in the arm. Had it not been for Sahm, by their own admission, Fender would have spent his time fixing cars in Corpus Christie and Jimenez would have continued to be one of the best kept secrets of the San Antonio barrios.
With The Sir Douglas Quintet, The Texas Tornadoes, and solo projects, Sahm recorded over 75 albums – all with some merit and something vital to say. Sahm recorded right up to the last years of his life. And when Doug Sahm was felled by a fatal heart attack on November 18, 1999 in Taos New Mexico, at 58 years of age, Texas lost part of its musical history and the world was deprived of a cult figure admired by many. He was the “Texas Cat of Texas Cats” who exemplified the adrenalin pumping spirit of great Rock & Roll.
As a postscript, I’m still waiting for the general release of the 2015 DVD “Sir Doug & The Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove” directed by Texas writer and long-time fan Joe Nick Patoski. There’s no doubt in my mind that it will be worth the wait.
A SELECTED DOUG SAHM PLAYLIST
- She’s About A Mover
- Be Real
- San Antone
- The Rains Came
- The Tracker
- Song Of Everything
- I’m Not That Kat Anymore
- Nuevo Laredo
- Dynamite Woman
- It’s Gonna Be Easy
- Groover’s Paradise
- I Get Off
- Adios Mexico – The Texas Tornadoes
- Rico Ferrara, March 2021