The Groover Is Gone

When they buried Doug Sahm, they buried Texas music

SAN ANTONIO -- The crowd was so large that about one-third of the estimated 1,000 mourners had to huddle around an underequipped Peavy speaker outside. But even more impressive than the large turnout at the November 23 funeral of Doug Sahm, who succumbed to heart disease five days earlier while visiting Taos, New Mexico, was the way those in attendance cut across all lines of age, race and social standing. Then, that's what you would expect for a musician who could flip styles, from conjunto to blues to country to rock, and play them with as much credibility as the masters of each genre.

"We never had a set list," said son Shawn Sahm, who played guitar in the '80s and '90s incarnations of the Sir Douglas Quintet. "Dad would just say, 'Gimme some titles.'" Like a pitcher waving off a catcher's signals, Doug would finally nod on one, and the band would kick right into it. That he was a musician's musician was apparent by all the Austin and San Antonio club veterans who came to say goodbye.

But also coming to pay their respects were bikers, field workers in their best jeans, club owners, music executives, and fans from as far away as Holland and Canada. They wore black cowboy hats and Chicago Cubs caps in homage to the cosmic cowboy whose passion for life was infectious. And when they approached the open coffin, after waits as long as an hour and a half, they touched the trademark hat Sahm still wore and slipped in little gifts -- guitar picks, joints, poems -- to be buried with the Texas music legend.

"The Last of the Great Hippies": Doug Sahm, 1941-1999.
John Halpern
"The Last of the Great Hippies": Doug Sahm, 1941-1999.
Wallflowers, wallflowers: Bob Dylan and Sahm during the latter's early '70s Atlantic Records sessions.
David Gahr
Wallflowers, wallflowers: Bob Dylan and Sahm during the latter's early '70s Atlantic Records sessions.
A late '60s snapshot of Sahm and son Shawn.
Baron Wolman
A late '60s snapshot of Sahm and son Shawn.

A notable no-show was Freddy Fender, the former Texas Tornados bandmate whom Sahm single-handedly rescued from mid-'70s obscurity by covering Fender's "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" and getting him gigs in front of roots-crazed gringos. At the post-funeral jam held at a San Antonio brewery the night of the funeral, several people were grumbling about Fender's snub. Sahm was by all accounts a motormouth, and anyone who witnessed Fender glaring at a rambling Sahm during a Texas Tornados show could feel the tension between the two. Fender usually traveled on tour with the equipment truck so he wouldn't have to hear Sahm go on about baseball, herbs, pro wrestling, Amsterdam, or any number of other subjects he was an expert on. After a friendship that went back 30 years, you'd think Fender could show up at the funeral. Instead, he chose to remember his compadre in numerous interviews after Sahm's death.

"Doug would've loved this." That's what folks at the funeral kept saying when they saw the line wrapped around San Antonio's Sunset Funeral Home. He wouldn't have liked the way his final capacity show began, however, with the funeral director's cell phone going off in mid-announcement, and then a cheesy oldies radio station being piped in.

The station had planned to make a special on-air announcement at 3:45 p.m. But since the viewing took so long, the timing was off: A weather report, followed by a hit ("Hey! Baby") by another artist, came out over the public address system instead. Country singer Lee Roy Parnell, speaking for numerous grumblers, angrily confronted the funeral director, who wisely canned the inappropriate radio tie-in. After all, with the exception of "She's About a Mover," "The Rains Came" and "Mendocino" in the 1960s with the Sir Douglas Quintet and "(Hey Baby) Que Paso," the '90s regional smash for the Texas Tornados, Sahm's gritty vocals were rarely heard on the airwaves.

"You just can't live in Texas if you don't have a lot of soul," Doug sang in one of his signature tunes, "At the Crossroads." Although that line has been disproved by the likes of Ty Herndon and Edie Brickell, it was Sir Doug's motto until the end.

"He loved to be called a hippie," Fender said in one interview given after Sahm's death. "The Last of the Great Hippies" is what Fender suggested Sahm's tombstone read. The word "hippie" today conjures an image of a stoned burnout who talks like a surfer, but Sahm embodied the higher ideals of the counterculture. He was a true hipster -- hence the cowboy garb in tie-dyed '60s San Francisco -- who created music that made people dance. He'd take natural beauty over social conventions every day of the week.

"Dad could never understand why everyone didn't live like him," his son Shawn said at the services. "You know, it would be too hot in Texas, so he'd get in his Cadillac and drive to Vancouver and just hang out for a couple months." The younger Sahm recalled going to a Metallica concert with his dad, who was being courted by Metallica's manager Cliff Burnstein. "I'm the oldest one here," Doug said, to which Shawn answered, "Yeah, but you're also the hippest."

After the services let out and Doug Sahm was moved to be buried next to his father and mother at a family-only gathering, many of those on hand milled in the parking lot and told their own Sahm stories.

"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.'"

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 Bandand 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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