The Groover Is Gone

When they buried Doug Sahm, they buried Texas music

"There was no such thing as failure in his life," said Reprise Records vice president Bill Bentley, who started the Los Angeles-based Tornado Records with Sahm a few months ago. "There would be like two Podunk stations playing the Tornados, and Doug would be acting like he had a hit record on his hands. 'They're playing us in Poughkeepsie!' he'd say. 'If you can win over Poughkeepsie, you can take on the world!'"

Writing in the Austin Chronicle recently, Bentley described the Tornado Records maiden release party held for Texas native Ed Burleson in Dallas only weeks ago. Bentley recalls the moment when Sahm, who performs on and helped produce Burleson's debut My Perfect World, took the stage to sing "Texas Tornado."

"I could barely breathe, it was so beautiful," Bentley wrote. He wrote of the moment when, after the show, he walked back to his downtown Dallas hotel: "It was misting and as I cruised down Elm Street a prayer came to me: 'Dear God, help me deserve this day.'"

A late '60s snapshot of Sahm and son Shawn.
Baron Wolman
A late '60s snapshot of Sahm and son Shawn.

Being in the presence of Doug Sahm was to be linked to the days when Lightnin' Hopkins and Freddy King played juke joints, Ernest Tubb's tour bus hit every honky-tonk in Texas, Adolph Hofner had the most stomping polka band in the land, and producer Huey P. Meaux hummed future hits while he cut hair at his barbershop in Annie. Now that Sahm is gone, the recent past seems like ancient history.

"It's like they burned the encyclopedia of Texas music," said Joe "King" Carrasco, whose nuevo-wavo sound owed a huge debt to the music Sahm and Augie Meyers made with the Sir Douglas Quintet.

Sahm began his musical career as 6-year-old Little Doug, a pintsize steel-guitar prodigy who played Western swing on the Louisiana Hayride and was called to the stage at age 11 by Hank Williams during his next-to-last concert at Austin's Skyline Club in 1952. It was an impromptu moment, but in retrospect the meeting has passing-the-torch implications. Like Williams, Sahm cultivated a taste for gritty soul music of all forms as a boy looking through windows of forbidden joints. Even as the San Antonio native evolved from a country curiosity to a rock 'n' roller, he never stopped looking through those windows, never stopped searching for the sounds that could shorten the walk home.

During the early rock 'n' roll explosion, he formed his own bands and had regional hits while still in high school. During the British Invasion of the 1960s, Sahm and producer Huey P. Meaux concocted a faux British band called the Sir Douglas Quintet and broke nationally with "She's About a Mover" in 1965. The song featured the pumping Vox organ of longtime sidekick Augie Meyers and inspired such later hits as "96 Tears" by ? and the Mysterians and even the New Wave sounds of Elvis Costello and the Attractions. The English ruse was discovered when the band was interviewed on Hullabaloo and Sahm's Texas drawl rolled out.

After being busted for pot in Corpus Christi in 1967, Sahm disbanded the Quintet and moved to San Francisco, where his Western duds started a fashion trend. He hung out with some heavy cats (in the Sahm vernacular), including the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan. Sahm eventually rejected the hippy-dippy scene and came back to Texas with a vengeance, reestablishing himself as a bona fide rocker with The Return of Doug Saldana. Two other albums from that period, 1973's Doug Sahm and Band and Texas Tornado later the same year, remain Texas barroom classics.

"When you look back on the true originators, the real pioneers of Texas music," says Stevie Ray Vaughan biographer Joe Nick Patoski, "there are four main guys: Bob Wills, Willie Nelson, T-Bone Walker, and Doug Sahm."

The night he died, Austin's KUT-FM played his songs nonstop, and as the doo-wop, slicing electric blues, conjunto numbers, garage-rock classics, and unclassifiable groove tunes all came together like a big family at dinnertime, you could feel what music meant to Sahm. He had undeniable instincts for what was the good stuff, with the rare ability to make his own.

He didn't like what Austin has become in recent years, with so many newcomers who hadn't even heard of, well, Doug Sahm. Seeing this musical mecca transformed into a high-rent, high-tech capital was painful to the point that even Austin's enchiladas just didn't taste the same. Sahm would often drive all the way to San Antonio for lunch.

There can be no better way to be remembered than in the way Sahm has been in the past few weeks -- as a person who craved honesty, devotion and soul, whether it was with music, food or baseball. "If [Ken] Griffey goes to Atlanta," he said just last month, "then I'm through with baseball." It had to come from the heart, or Sahm would walk away, cursing into the hand that always covered his mouth when he talked, like a coach stifling lip-readers.

Doug Sahm tapped into the Texas pioneer spirit to create the soundtrack to all that is real in these parts, and by extension a soundtrack for all those who crave that same spirit, regardless of where they call home. Thus, he receives the special salute given to those who, in death, remind us of all the great things that can come from life.

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