Monday, August 27, 2012

Sir Doug Sahm: Saving Knight of Tex-Mex

When Tex-Mex music needed a knight in shining armor, Sir Douglas Sahm showed up
By Adrian Perez, Vida de Oro 

There have been many stories told about rock’n roll heroes that influenced music, like Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and even the Beatles.  However, few have written or even heard of Douglas Wayne Sahm (pronounced saw-mm), a White Tejano (Texan) who not only influenced music worldwide, but brought Tejano (Tex-Mex) music to mainstream America and the world.  His story goes something like this:

Huey P. Meaux
In 1962, Huey P. Meaux was a well-known and successful music producer with two extremely popular musical acts, Barbara Lynn (“You’ll Lose A Good Thing”) and Dale And Grace (“I’m Gonna Leave It All Up To You”).   So when a young White male musician/singer named Douglas Sahm asked Meaux to produce his music, Meaux said no. 

Sahm, an accomplished musical child prodigy, had already performed at the Grand Ol’ Opry in Nashville when he was in junior high.  Having written and recorded his own material, and opened for the famous British group, the Dave Clark Five, Sahm felt he was ready to reach the next level.  But Meaux, the top producer in South Texas, felt he didn’t need another musical act, or at least not until an interesting thing happened in 1964 that changed the course of music worldwide.

It’s been said that stress can either break a person or make them a genius, and in Meaux’s case, it was genius.  His stress arrived in early 1964 in the form of an event called “Beatlemania,” a rock’n roll paradigm shift, making the music he produced almost obsolete.  Feeling frustrated that kids weren’t listening to his music, Meaux locked himself up in a hotel room in San Antonio with a bottle of wine, a record player, and a crate filled with Beatle records.  He was determined to break the secret of Beatle music, and in 1965, Meaux discovered that secret. 

Little Doug Sahm
Douglas Wayne Sahm, who initially went by “Little Doug Sahm,” was born November 6, 1941, in San Antonio, Texas, and could play the steel guitar, mandolin and fiddle by age five.  It was at KMAC, a radio station in San Antonio, where the five-year old got his first public exposure.  Within two years his popularity grew especially after performing with country western icon Hank Williams, Sr., who died just two weeks after introducing Little Doug Sahm to an Austin, Texas audience.

“At about twelve or thirteen years old, my neighbor, Homer Callahan, a red-headed Irishman who loved to fight and listen to Howlin’ Wolf, would bring over these great 45’s with colorful labels like Excello, Atlantic, and specialty, and dudes like Lonesome Sundown, Jimmy reed, and Fats Domino,” wrote Sahm some years later.  “My mother, bless her soul, couldn’t understand the profound effect these records had on her White son who was growing up fast in the predominantly Black section of San Antone….”

Douglas Wayne Sahm
By age 11, Sahm had recorded a couple of songs for Sarg Records and in high school he was the front man for the Pharaohs, the Dell-Kings and the Markays, which was the band that opened for the Dave Clark Five.  It was at that show where he met Augie Meyers, a guitar and piano player who headed the band The Goldens.  The son of a grocer in San Antonio, Meyers had polio as a child and found playing guitar and piano as a way to keep his hands mobile.  The meeting of the two musicians was not a coincidence, but fate.

Locked in the hotel room Meaux figured out the Beatles musical secret, it had a Cajun two-step beat that resonated well with teens.  He called Sahm and told him to grow his hair long, put a band together and write a song with a Cajun two-step beat.  Sahm moved quickly, getting his new friend Augie Meyers and combining members of both their bands and formed “The Sir Douglas Quintet,” a brilliant name idea by Meaux to ride the British invasion wave.

Sir Douglas Quintet
The Sir Douglas Quintet was comprised of Sahm, Meyers, Jack Barber, Frank Morin and Johnny Perez.  They got mop-tops, dressed and acted like the Beatles on stage, took fun photos and released their first single “She’s About A Mover in 1965, which had a slight take on the Beatles hit “She’s A Woman.” 

Sahm and the Quintet were off to a strong start, hitting the charts in the U.S. and U.K. with several hits, but they could not hide their Tejano feel and sound.  The New York Times’ John Pareles wrote, “Despite the band’s British fashion sense, the music is unmistakably Tex Mex.”  Their cover was fully blown by fellow Tejano and teen sensation Trini Lopez on the TV musical program “Hullaballoo” when he told the audience they were fellow Texans.

The mid-1960’s also experienced the growth in use of drugs, like marijuana and LSD by many top musicians and musical groups, and in 1966 Sahm was arrested for possession of marijuana at the Corpus Christi, Texas airport.  His arrest led to the end of the Quintet especially after receiving much negative media attention from a still conservative, bible-belt state of Texas.  Feeling the heat, Sahm moved to San Francisco to enjoy a life among the Hippies, adopting a new way of life. 

Doug Sahm and his son Shawn
Sahm’s new beginning on the west coast also gave him national attention after he and his 3-year old son Shawn graced the cover of the number one music and underground newspaper, Rolling Stone with the featured story headline “Dispossessed Men and Mothers of Texas.”  It was the 23rd issue of Rolling Stone from December 1968, sandwiched between the 22nd issue featuring Frank Zappa on the cover and the24th issue featuring Jimi Hendrix.  Sahm made San Francisco, his home, adopting the vocabulary and forming a new band called “The Honkey Blues Band.” Unsatisfied with limited club success, he reached back to his roots and reformed the Sir Douglas Quintet, reconnecting with his friend Augie Meyers.  In 1968 they recorded an album featuring the hit “Mendocino,” staying true to their staple Tex-Mex sound. 

After five years in San Francisco, Sahm returned to Texas with Rolling Stone again giving him national coverage by placing him on the cover of their 86th issue released July 8, 1971, with the headline, “Sir Douglas Goes Home.”  The cover along with a new album entitled “The Return of Douglas Saldaña” signaled to the many Texans who had expatriated themselves that it was ok to return to Texas.  

Bob Dylan and Doug Sahm
Once home, he landed a contract with Atlantic Records allowing him to work on some solo material that featured Bob Dylan, Dr. John, David Bromberg and his friend, Flaco Jimenez on a project called “Doug Sahm and Band.”  He pushed his career further by becoming a session musician for several performers and bands, including The Grateful Dead.  He even dabbled in film, having minor roles in the movies “Cisco Pike” with Kris Kristofferson, and in George Lucas’ “More American Graffiti.” 

Unfortunately, his elusive style began to take its toll as musicians and record executives began to notice Sahm’s high level of independence.  One moment he’s in Austin, the next in San Francisco, or Vancouver.  He had no telephone and could only be reached at a phone number in a hippie-style bar in Austin.  By 1978, his contract with Atlantic ended, so he and Meyers left the states for Scandinavia.

In Europe, Sahm and Meyers where signed with Swedish label “Sonet,” producing the 1980’s platinum singe “Meet Me In Stockholm.”  It registered as one of the largest selling records in Scandinavia. 

“We were having riots on stage,” Sahm once reported.  “Swedish chicks (were) running up on stage, knocking me over, ripping my clothes.”

Although they were enjoying much success in Scandinavia, in 1985 Sahm was involved in an accident, and event he saw as a sign to leave Europe.  So he left for Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada launching a band called “The Formerly Brothers,” recording a country and Cajun album that won him a Juno Award, Canada’s equivalent of a Grammy.  But, missing his native Texas, he moved back to Texas, immediately touring with blues singer Angela Strehli and his friend Flaco Jimenez as San Antone’s Texas R&B Revue.

The Texas Tornados
In 1988, an English-American super-group, “The Traveling Wilburys,” were taking Europe and the U.S. by storm.  The group, comprised of Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and Jim Keltner, recorded an album that received the Grammy Award for Best Rock Album and performed at sold-out concerts worldwide.  Not to be outdone, Sahm suggested to Cameron Randle, of Arista Texas label, that he wanted to do something similar for Tex-Mex music.  Getting the green light from Randle, Sahm contacted his old friends to join him, including:  Augie Meyers on keyboard and vocals; Sir Douglas Quintet backup singer and father of conjunto music Flaco Jimenez; and the legendary singer/songwriter Freddy Fender on guitar.  Together they became “The Texas Tornados.”

The band name was not something new for Sahm.  When he worked on his solo project, he released music under the name Sir Doug and the Texas Tornados, but it had limited success.  With the new Texas Tornados, they blended their unique styles of Tex-Mex and Country Rock, bringing a fresh, special and enjoyable sound that was brilliantly captured in their 1990 album of the same title and released in Spanish and English.  It also gave Tex-Mex music a much needed infusion, becoming popular once again across the nation. 

The first major hit “Hey Baby Que Paso,” led them to win a Grammy Award in 1990 for “Best Mexican/American Performance.”  Their new found success was quick, and were invited to perform for President Bill Clinton’s Inauguration, the Montreaux Jazz Festival and even David Letterman had them on his December 18, 1990 show featuring the Texas Tornados as the house band with Paul Schaffer.  But perhaps none of their performances of the time was captured as brilliantly as their 1990 appearance on PBS’ Austin CityLimits, which is available on DVD and also resulted in a 2005 album, “Live From Austin.” 

Sir Doug Sahm
The Texas Tornados catapulted the four performers back into the limelight, but this time reaching a new generation.  Their shows were like their music, catchy, fun, and reminiscent of an era gone by.  This success convinced Sahm to start his own label in 1999, Tornado Records, where he could record his own music and that of the Tornados.  But, life has a tendency to bring things to a tragic end.

On November 8, 1999, while vacationing in Taos, New Mexico, Sir Doug Sahm died of a heart attack at age 58, less than a year before the scheduled release of his first solo album, “The Return of Wayne Douglas.”  The shocking news of his death led to what many said would be the end of the Texas Tornados.  

Freddy Fender
On October 14, 2006, the band was dealt another shocking blow as Freddy Fender (El Bebop Kid) died of lung cancer at age 69.   It appeared the Texas Tornados were no more.

But great music never really dies, and in 2010 Augie Meyers and Flaco Jimenez were joined by Doug’s son, Shawn to record several previously unreleased vocal performance by Freddy Fender and a song by Sir Doug in an album entitled “Esta Bueno.”

The Texas Tornados, with Shawn
Commenting on the album, Flaco Jimenez said, “The grove is back!” 

NOTE:  Tornado Flaco Jimenez will be performing at the 2012 Tejano Music Festival in Sacramento, California, on Labor Day weekend, August 31 through September 2, 2012.

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