Doug Sahm: Son of San Antonio: The Roots of Sir Douglas

Doug Sahm
Son of San Antonio: the Roots of Sir Douglas
Music Club

I found myself grieving a bit with Doug Sahm’s departure. I had to stop and assess this twinge of loss, as I never collected his records or saw him perform. Eventually, I realized that I somehow connected Doug Sahm with a few perfect car radio moments that symbolized the best of times. Even at that, I’d only heard a few of his songs on the radio. Nonetheless, he struck me as a sweet, crazy guy. His influence in synthesizing some Tex-Mex rhythms into popular music was profound, and probably under-appreciated because most of it managed to sneak in unnoticed. That, and also he was still fairly young, 58 or so when he died in a motel room on tour in 1999. But those perfect, synchronous radio moments are how I remember Doug Sahm.

Wherever anyone happened to be driving, when Doug Sahm’s music came across the car radio you could always count on the driver’s and passenger’s hands colliding as they simultaneously reached over to turn up the volume. As the notes flew out the speakers, it was as if the backseat were suddenly draped with a serape and extra long steer horns had sprouted out as the radiator’s hood ornament. Doug Sahm meant Texas, which is to say Tex-Mex mixed with a lot of C&W, a little taste of blues, all layered into rock and roll.

Which may have been odd, because Doug Sahm grew up as a Lebanese-American in a black neighborhood in San Antonio, Texas. He lived right across a plowed field from a venue that featured visitors like T-Bone Walker and Bobby Blue Bland. As a child prodigy, he literally sat on Hank Williams’s bony knee and played pedal steel guitar, and then went on to play rock and roll in a handful of amateur bands providing music for local venues and dances. Because San Antonio was a big military town with a lot of bases that always brought in big-name national acts to perform, those venues were off-limits to local performers unless you fit the bill exactly.

By 1964, even a local rock and roll band in Texas had to come from England or young folks might not go see them. Yet when American airwaves seemed only to have room for those who made up the British Invasion, a wily Texan slipped through. Disguised by an English-sounding name, Doug Sahm’s band rechristened as the Sir Douglas Quintet charged on to the radio with “She’s About a Mover”.

The story has it this song came into being when Sahm’s producer, Huey “The Crazy Cajun” Meaux decided he needed to define what made the Beatles popular. His artists were increasingly locked out of work due to an epidemic of Beatlemania. Seeking a solution, he locked himself into a motel room in San Antonio with a few bottles of Thunderbird and a stack of Beatles records. Meaux discovered that many of those early Beatles tunes (in particular, “She’s a Woman”) accented the on beat just like Cajun two-steps. He emerged to encourage Doug Sahm to write some songs using that structure.

Sahm’s first attempt to fly harnessed the wings of Cleveland Crochet’s 1960 hit “Sugar Bee” to a Beatles-inspired chug, complete with a playful false fade-out that would fake out dj’s cueing the next disc for play on the air. “She’s About a Mover” was the successful product of that pop rhythm styling. The simple beat was also carried by an uncomplicated but extremely persistent organ part. Though fashioned after an existing pop aesthetic, including a prominent mic on maracas shaken not swirled, the whole texture of the song sounded a little loose and a little bit wild. The ecstatic, upbeat song sneaked its way on to the radio and the charts in 1965.

Because Sahm was a known quantity to Chet Helms, a recent émigré to San Francisco from Texas, the Sir Douglas Quintet was invited during 1966 to play at some of the earliest Family Dog productions at the Avalon Ballroom. Those audiences were open to hearing all sorts of blended music, and Sahm became a regular feature at the psychedelic dance hall palaces of that time. He shared space on both the artful posters and stages with the likes of Big Brother and the Grateful Dead, and grew his earlocks long and wore his bell bottoms wide at the bottom with a traditionally-styled Spanish flair. Sahm soon became known for his generosity towards other artists. In the late 1960s, he came upon a music group in Salinas, California. The band was called Louie & the Lovers and the members were children of migrant agricultural workers. Sahm got them a major record company deal with Epic and produced their album.

While most of the 15 songs on this CD were recorded between 1964-1967, this collection offers a taste of Sahm’s experiments with roots music. Sahm gives Huddie Ledbetter’s “In the Pines” a modal, minor chord blues treatment and then provides his own unique version of a blues song indelibly connected with Sonny Boy Williamson, “One Way Out”. There is a nod to the Carters with “The Story of John Hardy”, Jimmie Rodgers’s “He’s in the Jailhouse Now #2”, and Woody Guthrie’s “Philadelphia Lawyer”. There are also hints of the kinds of songs he played to keep clientele of beer joints dancing on the tables with the boozy, bluesy “Bacon Fat”. Also included is a number drawn from the required repertoire of every club band of the time, Gary U.S. Bonds’s “Quarter to Three” with Sahm’s voice a bit raspy and hoarse as if he’d been singing extra loud to be heard over the noise of the crowd all night.

Though not included on this collection, “Mendocino” was a perfect blend of music that knew no boundaries, and was a simmering mix of C&W, rock and roll, and conjunto. I have a great memory of first hearing that song come across the radio. “Mendocino” as if by magic hit on perfect first measure at exactly the instant I’d rounded a curve and caught sight of a particularly spectacular vista where the ocean meets a river on the coast of California, where I spied a green and white highway sign that simply read “Mendocino”. Doug Sahm, even playing on the radio in my memory, always reminds me of the best old times.

Part of Sahm’s appeal might have been he spoke a secret language understood by every cowboy hippie. In fact, a fitting epitaph probably comes from Freddy Fender, who said Doug Sahm loved to be called a hippie.