‘I wanna bring up one of my really old buddies, Doug Sahm! Everybody knows Doug and we go back a long way … ‘ (Bob Dylan welcoming Doug to the stage in 1995)
‘You just can’t live in Texas if you don’t have a lot of soul’ (Doug Sahm)Embed from Getty Images
Doug Sahm was a walking, talking, totally, ‘Texas Texture’ kind of a guy. A Texan’s Texan. Texas is a very, very, big place and is home to a staggering variety of music which is nourished in beery roadhouses, sprung floor dance halls and honky tonks heavy with the aroma of marajuana.
Music there is avidly listened to, played and danced to by a knowledgeable audience who know which songs are the best to two-step to, which are the best to slow dance to and which are the best to get you ready for a first class fist fight.
Doug Sahm growing up in a largely black section of San Antonio in the 1940s and 1950s absorbed the music blasting out from the radio and the clubs and stored it away as the treasury he would draw on, honour and add to for the rest of his life. You name it Doug Sahm knew it, loved it and could play it with the affection of a true devotee.
Doug was your man if you wanted to hear honkytonkin’ country, some gritty R&B, gutbucket or romantic blues, a Cajun two step, a once round the floor again polka, western swing or Tex-Mex border ballads. And, you could hear all these styles in one night and dance till you dropped! Whether you were a redneck or a hippie, a fan of Willie Nelson, The Grateful Dead or T Bone Walker, Doug had just the groove you were looking for.
Doug has been a boy wonder musician playing fiddle, steel guitar and mandolin on radio from the age of 6 – he was never anything other than a working musician until he died at the tragically young age of 58 in 1999.
Though Doug was widely known in Texas where he had played paying gigs before he turned 10 (once sharing the stage with the great Hank Williams) he first came to wider notice in 1965 with a fabulous record, ‘She’s About A Mover’. This was issued under the name The Sir Douglas Quintet as legendary producer Huey Meaux hoped buyers would assume the band were members of the all conquering British Invasion.
The subterfuge couldn’t last long once it was noticed that two of the band were clearly of Mexican heritage and they all had rich Texas accents. No matter, radio play was duly delivered and once heard, ‘Mover’ was an unstoppable hit!
Doug and the boys had managed to blend Ray Charles, The Beatles and a Texas two-step rhythm into an addictive confection which still has the freshness and impact of a classic song (Texas Monthly No 1 Texas tune of all time!). The Quintet lock into the rhythm as the magnificent Augie Meyers adds bite, colour and texture on the Vox Organ.
Front and centre Doug shows what a marvellously soulful, warm and winning singer he was; always true to the spirit of the song he was singing, always connecting with his fellow musicians and his audience. As I might have said in 1965 – it’s a gas! An absolute gas!
Doug was launched into a career which featured national TV spots and tours with James Brown, The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys. There was never a major hit follow up to, ‘Mover’ but the initial version of the Quintet produced albums with gems a plenty including, ‘Mendocino’ and, ‘Nuevo Laredo’.
The next Doug Sahm record I want to draw your attention to is the Jerry Wexler produced album, ‘Doug Sahm And Band’ on Atlantic from 1973.Embed from Getty Images
The record is notable for extensively featuring Bob Dylan who at that time was still largely in reclusive mode. More importantly it is one of those records which has such a consistently attractive musical character and personality that it seems to glow in your imagination as you listen to it. And, believe me as someone who has listened to this record hundreds of time its charm never palls.
It’s one of those records like Van Morrison’s, ‘Moondance’ which alters your mood for the better every time you hear it. One of those records that just as you are about to put it back in the sleeve you decide with a smile that you should play again, just one more time!
Every track has been my favourite at one time or another. Doug, the Cosmic Cowboy, assisted by musicians of the calibre of Dr John, Flaco Jimenez, ‘Fathead’ Newman, David Bromberg and his indispensable musical brother Augie Meyers cooks up a richly flavoured Texas stew which continually whets and satisfies your musical appetite.
There is a glorious sense of relaxed enjoyment in making music, a sense, listening , that we are neighbours of Doug’s dropping in on a house party that will last for days, each song suggesting another, as everyone is having so much damn fun! It’s Texas blues, Texas country, Tex-Mex and 100% the magic of Doug Sahm.
Forced to choose one song to play here I’ve selected his anthem for his hometown, ‘(Is Anybody Going)To San Antone’ which features Dylan on guitar and harmony vocals. This song, like so many on the album and throughout Doug’s career, conjures joy out of thin air – which will do for me as the definition of what music at its best can do in our lives.
Doug was always touring, always making music whether he was in or out of fashion. Mind you, he was always in fashion with fellow Texas musicians and musicians and listeners everywhere who appreciated a man who talked a mile a minute, wore his heart on his sleeve and was always ready to play one more song.
Doug made a lot of records featuring wonderfully productive collaborations because he put the music first not his ego. He brought a lot to any group venture but he knew that it’s the combination of flavours that makes for the tastiest meals.
The ideal example of the above is the glorious series of records he made with his friends, Flaco Jimenez, Freddie Fender and Augie Meyers under the banner of The Texas Tornados. Listening to these albums offers a feast of pleasures as they carry you through a loving history of Texan musical culture. A few days spent with these wonders virtually guarantees you a PhD in Texas Studies!
To give you a sense of the prowess and generosity of Doug as a bandleader here’s a deliriously enjoyable clip of him with the Tornados featuring a properly rowdy version of, ‘Adios Mexico’ followed by a lovely take on Butch Hancock’s exquisite ballad (Number 1 in my Texas pantheon), ‘She Never Spoke Spanish To Me’. If you’re not up and dancing at the first and crying after the second there’s no hope for you.
Doug Sahm lived every day with a smile on his face. All over the world from Stockholm to San Antone, from London to Lubbock his music made him friends and followers. When you dig a groove as wide and deep as Doug did it can never vanish. I usually like to recommend selected records to illustrate an artist’s career. But for Doug Sahm I would simply advise you to buy as many as you can.
Adios compadre. Vaya con Dios.
Thanks to Cheryl Sahm, Doug’s daughter for approving this post.