Doug Sahm: A Lone Star State Of Mind

Doug Sahm is a giant of American music, and he’s even bigger than that in his home state of Texas. But the rebel cowboy hippie who spent his life crossing the borders of Tex-Mex, British Invasion, psychedelia and honky-tonk continues to flirt with obscurity long after his death. By Mitch Myers

In the old days, unless your name was George Bush, Texas kids (even the white ones) would rarely dream of growing up to be president of the United States. Of course, Texas has always had its fair share of idyllic wealth and golden opportunities, but it was one tough place to live in the early 1950s. And for an all-American boy to imagine escaping the pervasive barrenness, narrow-minded intolerance and soul-killing humdrum of everyday Texas life, dreams just needed to be a little bit more down to earth.

A San Antonio kid might fantasize about being a country-music legend like Hank Williams. A few years later, that same kid might grease back his hair and imagine being Elvis Presley or a local hero like Lubbock’s Buddy Holly. Or maybe he’d learn to play the devil out of the guitar and dress to the nines like Aaron Thibeaux “T-Bone” Walker, a pimped-out blues pioneer from Linden. Later still, that very same kid could fantasize about being in a group like the Rolling Stones or singing like Bob Dylan or maybe jamming with the Grateful Dead.

Doug Sahm dared to dream all those different dreams, and he grew up to be all those different people. He traversed the realms of country, jump blues, honky tonk, primal rock ‘n’ roll, Cajun, San Francisco psychedelia, all sorts of roots music (including Tex-Mex, Conjunto and two-step polkas), as well embracing sophisticated jazz, soul, R&B and Dylan. Sahm met most of the famous artists he respected, shared in the joys of their music and delved into their unique lives. But he always moved on.

Sahm played American music. He mastered the steel guitar by the age of five and soon played fiddle, electric guitar, bass and mandolin; he could also sing his ever-loving ass off. Sahm epitomized the complex traditions of Texas music in a way that Willie Nelson never could. Of course, Nelson was smart. Smart enough to emulate Sahm’s redneck-hippie persona and doubly smart to hook up with Waylon Jennings, another Texas rebel. Still, when it came to Texas, Sahm was the man.

Sahm was the hometown boy made good. He earned his own living on his own terms, was fanatical about baseball and wrestling, brought his reefer with him everywhere he went and loved Texas as much as he loved music. A fast-talking cosmic cowboy, Sahm performed and recorded prolifically for more than 50 years, until his death on Nov. 18, 1999. Still, the Sahm discography remains splintered and disorganized, with several of his finest recordings lamentably out of print. In a world where American music martyrs like Townes Van Zandt and Gram Parsons command respect in terms of comprehensive reissues, there’s no retrospective boxed set being planned for Sahm.

There are, however, two new tribute albums. The Bottle Rockets’ Songs Of Sahm and Eugene Chadbourne’s Texas Sessions: Chapter Two were made on minuscule budgets and released on indie labels. There are no special duets or alt-country superstars paying homage—just bright new versions of wonderful songs written by Sahm.

“Doug’s an example of why music is interesting, and it’s not about accumulating large amounts of money,” says avant/jazz/psych guitarist Chadbourne. “The guy was into so many styles of music; it’s too much for most people. Going from psychedelic rock to country and then a heavy blues thing, he kept jumping around the whole time.”

While he may be the polar musical opposite of Chadbourne, Brian Henneman—frontman of alt-roots-rockers the Bottle Rockets—agrees. “The first time I heard Doug Sahm, our friend put on (1969’s) Mendocino,” he says. “From note one, the sound of that record was cooler than anything that I’d been listening to. I wasn’t even wise enough to formulate the reasons why I loved it. I didn’t realize that it was country and blues and Mexican music and psychedelic rock. I didn’t separate it like that yet. I was still digging Aerosmith.”

Catch A Man On The Rise
Born Nov. 6, 1941, Douglas Wayne Sahm began making Texas music at a very early age. With his parents’ encouragement, Sahm was touted as a child prodigy playing a triple-neck Fender steel guitar. An instrumental wunderkind, he appeared on radio and television and went by the stage name Little Doug. Something of a novelty, Little Doug performed on Louisiana Hayride (a popular live radio show), played with local Western-swing bands and began supporting big-time country acts like Webb Pierce and Hank Thompson. Little Doug even appeared onstage with Hank Williams in Austin in 1953, just two weeks before Williams’ death.

A smattering of black blues bars on San Antonio’s East Side had a huge impact on Sahm as a teenager. Sneaking into the Eastwood Country Club near his home, the underage Sahm would watch and listen to mature R&B performers like T-Bone Walker, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Hank Ballard and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. Drummer Ernie Durawa met Sahm in 1957 and gigged with him sporadically over the next four decades. “We bounced around all of the clubs on the East Side,” says Durawa. “That was our education, learning to play blues shuffles. We had a gig playing in a black band led by a tenor player named Spot Barnett at a club called the Ebony.”

Attending high school by day and playing shows at night, Sahm also worked at a nightspot called the Tiffany Lounge in the Chicano-dominated West Side, where shootings were common and a breed of rough-and-tumble musicians was getting its start. The brusque mixture of white, black and Hispanic culture was a natural part of life in downtown San Antonio, and it soon became a component of Sahm’s own sound.

Sahm made his recording debut in 1955, but it took a few years for his local appeal to take hold. Now leaning toward San Antonio’s Hispanic “West Side Sound,” replete with a bruising horn section, he enjoyed regional success with the Little Richard-inspired screamer “Crazy Daisy.” By the time Doug Sahm & The Mar-Kays (featuring tenor saxophonist Rocky Morales) hit it big with “Why, Why, Why” in 1960, his celebrity within San Antonio’s Chicano population was well established.

As a hip-shaking-cat-gone-rock-‘n’-roller, Sahm provided South Texas with a local alternative to the growing number of entertainers inspired by Elvis Presley. During this time, Sahm became aware of a Tex-Mex recording artist called El Be-Bop Kid. The Kid was born Baldemar Huerta but became forever known as Freddy Fender, and like so many musicians Sahm met during those days—Barnett, Morales, Durawa and drummer Johnny Perez among them—he would be pulled into Sahm’s musical whirlwind for decades to come.

Sahm’s next group, the Sir Douglas Quintet, was born of the British Invasion; just as the Beatles and Stones captured the imagination of teenagers on both coasts, they inspired the racially mixed R&B groups thriving in San Antonio. Original SDQ bassist Jack Barber remembers things this way: “The type of music we played in San Antonio was rhythm and blues like Bobby Bland, with horns and a lot of chord changes. They had these battle of the bands, and everybody had to kick butt or you weren’t in the clique. The Quintet came in 1964; Doug came up with the idea after the Beatles came out. He knew Huey could help us.”

Enter Huey P. Meaux, a.k.a. “The Crazy Cajun.” A self-styled hustler who owned a barbershop in Houston, Meaux had his fingers in countless pies and made contacts in the course of his work behind the barber chair. Just why Sahm was so excited to make records with Meaux is something to consider, but their unusual business alliance proved to be successful beyond anyone’s expectations. The key to their success lay in the hands of a childhood friend of Sahm’s named Augie Meyers. Meyers owned a Vox Continental organ (the only one in Texas at the time), and it became the jewel in Sahm’s ornate musical crown.

“Doug and me grew up together since we were 10 years old and met at my momma’s grocery store when he was looking through all the baseball cards,” recalls Meyers. “I had my band and he had his band until we were in our 20s, then we got together for the Quintet. I opened a show for the Dave Clark Five, and Doug’s band came on afterward. Huey Meaux was there, trying to see what all the commotion was about with those English bands. Huey said, ‘Man, you got long hair, and Doug, you got long hair—you all got to put a band together. Let’s get an English name and go with it.’ So that’s what we did, but it was really hard to pull off because we had three Mexican guys in the band.”

Masquerading as an English group with Prince Valiant haircuts, the Sir Douglas Quintet didn’t receive a royal reception with its first single, 1964’s “Sugar Bee.” But the group’s second effort, “She’s About A Mover,” broke things wide open later that year. Powered by Sahm’s bluesy voice and Meyers’ monomaniacal Vox pulse, “Mover” borrowed from Ray Charles’ “What I Say” while adding the demented context of infectious greaser garage rock. “We were doing things different way back when,” says Meyers. “‘She’s About A Mover’ was a polka with a rock ‘n’ roll beat and a Vox organ. I played what a bajo sexto (a 12-string bass guitar) player in a Conjunto band would do.”

Sahm, Meyers, Barber, Perez and saxophonist Frank Marin were soon touring America, opening for the Rolling Stones, James Brown, Otis Redding and the Beach Boys, as well as appearing on television programs like Hullabaloo and Shindig. It was around this time Sahm met Bob Dylan, who insisted he wasn’t fooled by the SDQ’s English façade on Shindig.

The SDQ released more singles and scored again with “The Rains Came,” but the band’s momentum came to an abrupt stop when its members were arrested at the Corpus Christi airport for possession of marijuana. Pot laws in Texas were unusually harsh during this time, and the bust didn’t bode well for the SDQ.

Not to be deterred, Meaux released the band’s debut full-length, The Best Of The Sir Douglas Quintet, in 1965. The “best of” title was a particularly confusing claim for a group’s first record, but Meaux was unsure of the Quintet’s future after the bust. So unsure, in fact, that he designed an album cover featuring the band in silhouette in an attempt to extend its faux-British mythos. The anonymous group photo also allowed Meaux to package phony versions of the SDQ for concert appearances while Sahm and the boys were out of commission.

Steve Earle grew up in Texas and remembers the impact of the Sir Douglas Quintet. “The Quintet were the local heroes,” he says. “‘She’s About A Mover’ happened while I was in grade school and I was pretty plugged in to it. In those days, there were local teen shows, and the Quintet did all that stuff. Then they moved to California.”

Groover’s Paradise
There were two bands from Texas with long hair in the mid-‘60s: Roky Erickson’s 13th Floor Elevators and the Sir Douglas Quintet. Sahm claimed his band was unfairly set up for its drug arrest and that he was really just being harassed for his rebel-hippie stance. Soon after, Sahm decided to move with wife Violet and their two young sons, Shawn and Shandon, to the more tolerant environs of Northern California. Living in Salinas and spending much of his time in San Francisco during its ‘60s heyday, Sahm immersed himself in the liberated lifestyle of the Haight-Ashbury elite.

“When I met Doug, his little son Shawn walked in while we were talking and Doug handed him a joint,” says Denny Bruce, a producer and manager who now runs the Takoma label. “It was the first time I had seen an adult give pot to a kid, and Shawn took a toke and his eyes started spinning. Doug was a real free spirit and probably took advantage of the hippie thing. He liked the notoriety and the acclaim.”

Reforming the Quintet without Meyers (who initially stayed in Texas), Sahm began what many consider his most adventurous musical period. Performing at the Fillmore Auditorium and the Avalon Ballroom with the likes of Big Brother & The Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Grateful Dead, Sahm became close with Jerry Garcia and partied with fellow Texpatriots like Chet Helms and Janis Joplin.

Thriving in San Francisco, Sahm was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1968 and again in 1971. George Rains, a drummer from Fort Worth, played for the SDQ during this time. “Doug was such a promoter of San Francisco,” says Rains. “He considered himself a hippie, the whole thing of getting loaded and free love. He felt it was just heaven, and for a musician, it was. That’s all he talked about, ‘Man, you gotta go up to San Francisco.’”

His first California album, 1968’s Honkey Blues, was credited to the Sir Douglas Quintet + 2. The record displays a jazzy, experimental and strangely psychedelic R&B that was undeniably brilliant, but it confused both his record company and his fans. Sahm reunited with Meyers and his Vox for the Quintet’s next effort, Mendocino.

Former Uncle Tupelo singer/guitarist Jay Farrar recalls the mercurial magic of Mendocino. “There is an elusive quality to it that drew me in and never let go,” he says. “The ease at which Doug moved around and blended styles from Tex-Mex to Texas R&B to psychedelia and country are what kept me a devotee.”

The California edition of the SDQ recorded two more masterful albums (Together After Five and 1+1+1=4, both from 1970), but Sahm was ready to move back to Texas.

Texas Me
The cover of Sahm’s next record, 1971’s The Return Of Doug Saldaña, said it all. “He’s sitting on my front porch (in Bulverde, Texas), leaning back in a chair holding a bottle of Big Red,” says Meyers. “He owes me enchiladas for that.” For the uninitiated, Big Red is an all-the-sugar-and-twice-the-caffeine soda that originated in Texas and is usually consumed by kids too young to know better. Still, Sahm always enjoyed the stuff, and the elixir probably took the edge off of the copious amounts of weed he was smoking. Hyperactive with or without Big Red, Sahm moved home to San Antonio only to quickly leave again. This time he headed to Austin, where he helped blaze the trail of so-called redneck rock.

Divorced and living down the road from the Soap Creek Saloon, Sahm grooved into another essential phase of his musical sojourn. Between Soap Creek and the Armadillo World Headquarters club, there was an assortment of cosmic cowboys hanging around—including Jerry Jeff Walker and the newly arrived Willie Nelson, who was eager to reinvent himself after a decade of songwriting in straight-laced Nashville. Sahm established a weekly gig at Soap Creek and set about gathering his troops. Jack Barber moved up from San Antonio, and George Rains followed Sahm from San Francisco. Old pals like Rocky Morales and trumpeter Charlie McBirney gave Sahm the toughest horn section in town, reviving memories of the fabled West Side Sound.

Austin also allowed Sahm to be supportive of musicians less fortunate than himself. By reviving Fender’s classic tune “Wasted Days And Wasted Nights” during his Soap Creek sets, Sahm showed empathy for a forgotten compadre who’d been imprisoned for marijuana possession and had withdrawn from the music business. He eventually coaxed Fender out of retirement, securing the singer a reassuring comeback gig within the friendly confines of Soap Creek. Sahm also produced the “Red Temple Prayer (Two-Headed-Dog)”/“Starry Eyes” single for Roky Erickson, who’d fallen on hard times due to a nasty combination of schizophrenia and drug abuse.

In 1973, Atlantic Records honcho Jerry Wexler produced Doug Sahm And Band in New York City. The star-studded album featured Meyers, Dr. John, David “Fathead” Newman, an obscure accordion player named Flaco Jimenez and the very famous Bob Dylan. “In many ways, Doug and Bob were flip sides of each other’s personalities, which is why they were so musically compatible,” says Chet Flippo, Sahm’s friend and a veteran music journalist. “Each perhaps secretly envied the other a little bit and hoped that some of that particular magic would rub off.”

Wexler had signed both Sahm and Willie Nelson to recording contracts, but neither artist fared well with Atlantic. (Nelson’s success came soon after leaving the label.) Speedy Sparks, a roadie for Sahm and sometime bassist with the SDQ, remembers the influence Sahm had on Nelson. “Willie wanted that rock ‘n’ roll crowd, and Doug had them,” he says. “Willie would come out and watch Doug and figure out what Doug was doing. Willie got the hip rednecks, and then he won everybody else over. At first, Doug was the king, not Willie or Jerry Jeff or Waylon.”

Using leftover tracks from Wexler’s Manhattan sessions, Sahm pieced together a 1973 album called Texas Tornado. “Texas Tornado is one of the records that made it hip to play country music in Texas,” says Steve Earle. “There used to be a dividing line between musicians that played pop music and the musicians that played country. It was a social line, too. That whole Armadillo World HQ/Soap Creek Saloon thing in Austin, it changed Texas.” 1974’s Groovers Paradise was a passionate homage to Austin and featured the former rhythm section of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Sahm was still making great music, but his commercial success was dwindling.

The Rains Came
A gifted organizer, Sahm wasn’t the best businessman. “Doug pulled a lot of stunts in his life, financially,” says Denny Bruce. “I’m not saying Doug screwed Augie, but there were so many times that he would take advantage of him. But just when you would count Doug out, he would come up and it would be like, ‘Let’s go, get on the bus, Augie!’”

Part of Sahm’s survival was linked to an enduring popularity overseas. After signing with a Swedish label, Sahm went platinum with the crowd-pleasing “Meet Me In Stockholm” in 1983. Moves to Canada and back to Texas were peppered with the requisite number of baseball games, long nights and musical adventures. Sahm’s relationship with sons Shawn and Shandon (the latter played drums in the Meat Puppets) was musical as well. Doug Sahm & Sons appeared on 1990’s Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye (a tribute to Roky Erickson) and eventually recorded a 1994 full-length called Day Dreaming At Midnight (credited to the Sir Douglas Quartet).

Sahm remained a baseball fanatic throughout his life, and there were times when he would refuse to come out of his hotel room—even to rehearse—when watching a ballgame on television. He declined to tour one fall so he could stay home and watch the World Series. “He liked so many different teams,” says Shawn Sahm. “To be a baseball scout would have been his dream. He had a Joe DiMaggio baseball and an autographed menu from DiMaggio’s restaurant. He would call me from all these training camps, ‘Yeah Shawn, I’m hanging out with the Cubs!’”

Bruce once made a trip to Yankee Stadium with Sahm. “Doug worked his way down to the bullpen and was leaning over and talking to (pitcher) Goose Gossage,” he recalls. “He came back and said, ‘I knew that Goose got high!’ They were talking about pot.”

Performing with ensembles like the West Side Horns and the Texas Mavericks, Sahm was never far from his San Antonio roots. But it wasn’t until 1989 that his love affair with Tex-Mex and Conjunto music came to full flower. Along with Meyers, Sahm reunited with Fender and Jimenez to form the Texas Tornados. Several Tornados albums and tours followed, highlighted by a Grammy award in 1991. “Doug was a real versatile guy and soulful, of course,” says Jimenez. “He was a groover—a super groover—and he played a pretty good bajo sexto, too. There’s not too many Anglos doing that.”

Forever returning to those intricate blues shuffles and triplets he practiced in San Antonio, Sahm made a 1998 album called S.D.Q. ‘98, which included two collaborations with Texas rockers the Gourds. Gourds frontman Kevin Russell noticed a hint of melancholy in Sahm’s manner. “He had a taste of fame back in the day, and I think he was always trying to recapture that,” says Russell. “There was always a little bit of sadness about his best days being behind him. He wouldn’t say that, but I got the feeling that was how he felt.”

Unlike Gram Parsons, who died using drugs and partying with a woman near Joshua Tree, Sahm died alone of a heart attack in a hotel room in Taos, N.M., where he’d gone in hopes of regaining his health. He’d spoken to friends on the phone and complained about pains in his fingers, arm and chest. Although he was clearly sick and contemplated visiting a doctor the night he died, Sahm chose to tough things out on his own.

His final recording, a beautiful country album called The Return Of Wayne Douglas, was posthumously released in 2000. Sahm’s lyrics have often been quoted over the years, but none as much as those from 1969’s “At The Crossroads.” I thought I could write Doug Sahm’s story without using these words, but I’ve changed my mind. “You can teach me lots of lessons/You can bring me a lot of gold/But you just can’t live in Texas/If you don’t have a lot of soul.”

Joe “King” Carrasco, a Texas musician who always emulated Sahm, says, “Nobody that had ever come from Texas covered the whole cross-section of what Texas was about except Doug. The biggest funeral they ever had in San Antonio was Doug’s, and the next one will be when Augie goes. That’s a whole chapter of what’s the best of Texas. Once these guys are gone, that’s it.”

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