Obituary: Doug Sahm

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The Independent Culture
"I'M A part of Willie Nelson's world and at the same time I'm part of the Grateful Dead's," said Doug Sahm. "I don't ever stay in one bag."

Sahm's music combined blues, country, rock 'n' roll, cajun, Mexican polkas, psychedelia and anything else that took his fancy. Rolling Stone captured its essence by saying that "fusing country and rock comes much easier when you're stoned". Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Doug Sahm is not that he has died relatively young (aged 58), but that he actually lived so long.

Sahm was born of Lebanese- American extraction in San Antonio, Texas, in 1941. When only five years old, he was singing on local radio and he was soon learning fiddle, mandolin, acoustic guitar and steel guitar. He joined Hank Williams on stage at the Skyliner club in Austin in 1952, a few months before Williams's death. "It was awful," Sahm remembered. "His breath stunk of whiskey, and there wasn't nothin' left to him. He was all skinny, and his knees were sharp and poked right into me."

In his youth Sahm would walk across a ploughed field to the black area of San Antonio to hear blues music at the Eastwood Country Club. Blues became a dominant influence in his music and his 1980 album, Hell of a Spell, was dedicated to his hero, Guitar Slim. In 1994 he recalled the songs of his heritage in a superb album, The Last Real Texas Blues Band.

Sahm's first record, in 1955, was "A Real American Joe", which was credited to "Little Doug". It was followed by several records for local labels, all of them poorly recorded and sluggishly performed. His enthusiastic vocal rescues "Slow Down" (1960), and he did have local hits with "Crazy Daisy" (1958) and "Why Why Why" (1960).

In 1960 he met Augie Meyers, the son of a local grocer. Meyers had learnt the piano as a way of achieving dexterity in his hands following polio. He and Meyers had separate groups and both wanted a recording contract with Huey P. Meaux, the so-called "Crazy Cajun", whose records by Barbara Lynn and Joe Barry were national hits.

Meaux told me in 1993:

Doug Sahm had been bugging me for years to make records with him, but the Beatles came along and wiped my records off the charts. I told Doug we gotta figure out where these guys are comin' from. If we didn't, we're all gonna starve to death! I got a case of T-bird wine and I bought some Beatles records and I figured out that it was all on the beat, that was it, same as my daddy's cajun two-step. I called Doug and said, "Come on over, man, I'm drunk but I know what we gotta do. You gotta write some tunes with that beat and grow some hair."

Sahm responded by writing "She About a Mover", clearly derived from the Beatles' "She's a Woman". Meaux brought in Augie Meyers on organ and, much to Meyers's chagrin, named the group the Sir Douglas Quintet. With this name, Meaux hoped to trick American teenagers into thinking they were British. The ploy worked and Meaux told Sahm not to perform live until they were in the US Top Forty, as no one would be fooled if they saw the Chicanes in his line-up. The single, now a glorious golden oldie despite its dubious origins, made No 13 in the US and No 15 in the UK. The resulting LP, The Sir Douglas Quintet, also stressed the group's English roots and a second single, "The Rains Came", made the US Top Forty.

Sir Douglas's success was shortlived, as Sahm was arrested for possessing drugs, and he moved to the less restrictive climate of San Francisco. In 1968 he formed the large Honky Blues Band but he had difficulty in taking such an unwieldy outfit on the road. He reduced the numbers to "Sir Douglas Quintet Plus Two" for the single, "Are In-laws Really Outlaws?"

Down to a Quintet again, the group had a US success with "Mendocino" (1969), in which Sahm thanked his beautiful friends for their beautiful vibrations. This was followed by the albums Mendocino (1969) and 1+1-1- 4 (1970), where the musicianship was considerably better than the arithmetic, Together After Five (1970) and The Return of Doug Saldana (1971), where he gave himself a Mexican name.

In 1971 he appeared as a drug dealer in the Kris Kristofferson film Cisco Pike. The soundtrack included "Michoacn", released under the name of Rocky and the Border Kings. The title line, "Down in Michoacn, paradise waits for me", was ambiguous. "It's a song about dope," he explained, "the best dope around, but the record company thought it was a song about a state in Mexico."

In 1973 a leading R&B producer, Jerry Wexler, signed Doug Sahm to the Atlantic label and they made a superb album, Doug Sahm and Band, with Bob Dylan, Dr John and the accordion wizard Flaco Jiminez. The key tracks included "Is Anybody Going to San Antone", a poignant revival of the Delmore Brothers' "Blues Stay Away From Me" and a new Dylan composition, "Wallflower". The title of his second Atlantic album, Texas Tornado (1973), gave rise to a sobriquet.

Sahm made his next album, Groover's Paradise (1974), for Warner Brothers, and several albums for a variety of labels followed. Generally speaking, Sahm worked with whoever was at hand and so his numerous albums are somewhat hit-and-miss. In 1977 he reformed the Quintet and their concert at the Armadillo in Austin was released under the title Wanted Very Much Alive, with more of the concert being released as Back to the Dillo. For a while, they were fashionable and even opened for the Pretenders.

Sahm recorded with the Grateful Dead and Rick Danko and in 1987 he put together the Amos Garrett/Doug Sahm/Gene Taylor Band for the excellent Return of the Formerly Brothers. He built up a following in Scandinavia and his album Midnight Sun (1983) was dedicated to his new fans and included "Meet Me In Stockholm".

In 1990 four leading names in Tex-Mex music, Sahm, Meyers, Flaco Jiminez and Freddy Fender, were grouped together as a Texas version of the Travelling Wilburys or, as Sahm preferred to put it, "a bunch of rockin' grandfathers". Their first album, Texas Tornados, was issued in both English and Spanish, and they had a popular single, "Who Were You Thinkin' Of". The album won them a Grammy and they toured together and made further albums: Zone of our Own (1991), Hangin' on by a Thread (1992), 4 Aces (1996) and Live from the Limo (1999). They were planning a European tour for 2000.

All four Texas Tornados maintained their solo projects. Sahm's sons Shawn and Shandon joined him for a new Sir Douglas Quintet CD, Day Dreaming at Midnight (1994), which included his thoughts on Bob Dylan's individuality, "Dylan Come Lately". Another Sir Douglas Quintet CD, S.D.Q., was released last year, but his best record in recent years has been a superb Tex-Mex version of "Will You Love Me Tomorrow", called "Will You Love Me Manana" (1993).

Despite his socialising and his excesses, Doug Sahm maintained an extraordinary output in his 44 years of recording. As he wrote in one of his songs, "I did a lot of cocaine but I did a lot of rhythm and blues."

Spencer Leigh

Douglas Wayne Sahm, singer: born San Antonio, Texas 6 November 1941; married (two sons, one daughter); died Taos, New Mexico 18 November 1999.