The 69-year-old San Antonio keyboardist used his Vox organ to bridge the gap between sixties psychedelia and Tex-Mex and gave the Sir Douglas Quintet its signature sound. In 1990 he and his Quintet bandmate Doug Sahm joined Freddy Fender and Flaco Jiménez to launch the Texas Tornados, a band that lasted until Sahm’s death from a heart attack in 1999. In 2006, before Fender died of cancer, they began recording again, with Shawn Sahm filling in for his dad. Those sessions have recently been completed (with producer Ray Benson) and released as Esta Bueno (Bismeaux).
How did you come to play the organ? I lived with my grandparents until I was ten years old, and I couldn’t walk because I had polio. We lived out on a farm where we had a woodstove, an outhouse, and no electricity. About half a mile down the road these black people worked for my grandparents, and they had a piano. And they would tie my leg with a rope to the piano and give me a pie pan with some cookies and a jar of water. And that’s how I learned to play the piano. I’d hum a song and pick it out.
And when did you first meet Doug Sahm? When I was twelve. He would come to my parents’ grocery store, and we became friends. Back then they sold, like, five baseball cards with a slice of bubble gum for a nickel, and he’d bring in cards that he had too many of, and we’d open these packages and I would trade ’em out and close them up. We didn’t eat the gum.
So how did the Texas Tornados get started? Warner Brothers called Doug and said, “Why don’t y’all put a Tex-Mex supergroup together?”
So the story of you all meeting by chance at a show in San Francisco never happened? No. Doug said, “I want to get Freddy Fender.” I said, “Well, let’s get Flaco Jiménez.” And then we got Louie Ortega, Speedy Sparks, and Ernie Durawa, who were playing with the Sir Douglas Quintet at that time, and Oscar Tellez, who was playing bajo. We called it the Tex-Mex Band—we didn’t have a name back then—and we sold out four shows at Slim’s in San Francisco in two days. Freddy didn’t understand it yet. He brought his own band along.
Was there any trepidation about getting the band back together again? I’m always getting calls for the Tornados to play. After Doug died, me and Freddy and Flaco, we were going to do it and we said, “Nah, it just doesn’t seem right without Doug,” and then Freddy got sick, and I told Shawn, “Freddy’s still here. Let’s put an album together.” And then Freddy got real sick, and we said we’re not going to put the album out until Freddy gets well. Then Freddy died, and so we let it sit for almost two years.
You’ve played with Dylan a few times over the years. What was it like to work with him? People don’t know it, but he’s a great piano player. He can sit there and take a song in one key and put it in another key and transpose it so fast in his head, where most people have to sit there and study. I did. But he’s real open-minded. When I was recording with him in Florida, he asked me, “If you and Doug were gonna do this tune, how would y’all do it?” And I said, “Well, we wouldn’t have two drummers and three guitar players. We would just have a five-piece band and cut it live.” And he said, “Let’s try it that way.” He likes things real simple, but he’s got so many people around him, bringing ideas to him constantly.
It’s hard to imagine what his world must be like. Aw, man, I wouldn’t like it.
You’ve lost Doug and Freddy in recent years, and now you’re having health problems of your own. I’m getting ready to have a kidney transplant. My son put it on my Web site, and we’ve had a lot of people get tested to see if they’re a match. One guy said, “I want to give you my kidney, but I want you to pay my rent, my phone, my lights, my electricity, and my food bill for the next six months.” [Laughs] So that’s where we’re at with that.