The late great Doug Sahm was a musician, performer, singer and songwriter whose career spanned the pre-rock and roll era until his death in November, 1999, and in that time managed to cover just about every musical style you can name. Just as his native Texas is a huge land mass, Sahm’s musical palette was commensurately immense. He came out of an era when Country, Jump Blues, Western Swing and primal R&B existed below the radar, but like a sponge, he just soaked it all up and it fed back into the music that he made. He had pop hits in the sixties as part of the Sir Douglas Quintet, and he hung out and recorded with The Grateful Dead in San Francisco in the late sixties, yet Texas was always his spiritual home, and he will forever be associated with the Lone Star State.
Sahm was born in San Antonio, Texas, on 6th November 1941. By all accounts, he was something of a child prodigy, musically speaking, with an aptitude for steel guitar, mandolin and violin, and was making records by the mid-fifties. He made his radio debut at the tender age of five, singing the song ‘Teardrops In My Heart’ on the San Antonio radio station KNAC. As the decade wore on, Sahm started sneaking into clubs where rhythm and blues was played, and would eventually end up performing in them. Legend has it that Sahm was on the same bill as Hank Williams Snr at the Skyline Club in Austin Tx, on December 19th, 1952 – which turned out to be Williams’ last ever show.
As a teenager, Sahm had been offered a regular spot on the Grand Ol' Opry in Nashville, but his mother decided that he should stay in his home town and finish junior high school. Doug released a number of singles on various local record labels, beginning at age eleven with ‘A Real American Joe’ backed with ‘Rollin' Rollin’ for Sarg Records. He fronted several bands during his high school years, including the Pharaohs, the Dell-Kings, and the Markays.
In 1964, Doug Sahm's Markays found themselves sharing the stage with Augie Meyers' Goldens, both opening for British headliners the Dave Clark Five. At the instigation of producer Huey P. Meaux, Doug assembled a band composed of members of his own Markays and Augie's Goldens. Meaux gave them an English sounding name, the Sir Douglas Quintet and, in 1965, they scored an international hit with ‘She's About A Mover’, a blend of Texas pop and the Beatles' ‘She's A Woman’, pepped up with an infectious Vox Continental organ motif.
The Quintet actually toured in the UK, too. In an interview in KRLA Beat magazine, 10th September 1966, Doug waxed enthusiastic about the band’s reception in the UK, and the then ‘Swinging’ Brit scene, comparing the atmosphere favourably in contrast to the more buttoned-up US society of the time. Thus began a love affair between Doug Sahm and a UK crowd. After then, every time Doug played in the UK, there was a warm, if modest crowd to thrill to his San Antonio (and all points around the compass) sound.
Following a minor arrest for marijuana possession at the Corpus Christi airport, Sahm left Texas for San Francisco in March, 1966. He remained there for about five years, recording several LP's, including Mendocino, for the Mercury subsidiary Smash and its affiliate Philips, before returning to Texas.
In 1973, Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records bought Sahm's contract from Mercury and produced Doug Sahm And Band, a "supergroup" album featuring Bob Dylan, Dr. John, David Bromberg, and Flaco Jimenez. Sahm’s albums for Atlantic Records did for the rich heritage of Texan music something similar to that which Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal were doing for Blues and Roots styles. Texas is, of course, a state that covers a vast geographical terrain, and the depth and breadth of musical styles that have thrived there is similarly huge, from Texas Blues, Rockabilly, Country, Jazz, Western Swing, R&B, Conjunto, and even the souped-up Polka stylings as served up by Adolf Hofner and his San Antonians. Let’s not forget that Buddy Holly was a Texan, too. Sahm and Meyers continued to record for different American labels throughout the 1970's and early 1980's, but without the popularity of the early years.
Sahm passed away at the scandalously early age of fifty-eight. Apparently, he had suffered a heart attack and died in a motel room in Taos, New Mexico. It wasn’t as if he was a spent musical force; in the eighties and early nineties, he’d returned to the fray with a Texan roots-rock ‘supergroup’, the Texas Tornadoes, along with Freddy Fender, Augie Meyers and Flaco Jimenez, as well as Los Super Seven with whom he was touring regularly and even making records. A posthumous album, The Return of Wayne Douglas, was released in 2000, and a wonderful collection it is too. Sahm’s musical DNA is imprinted in his son Shawn, who continues to play and celebrate his father’s music.
With thanks to Alan Robinson