He’s About A Mover

From pedal steel prodigy to Texas Tornado, the late Doug Sahm was a walking (and jumping and singing and fingerpicking) encyclopedia of music. This exclusive excerpt from a new biography tracks the launch of his first great band, the Sir Douglas Quintet.

February 2010By and Comments

“Little Doug,” pedal steel guitar prodigy.

Excerpted from Texas Tornado: The Times and Music of Doug Sahm, by Jan Reid, with Shawn Sahm. Published with permission from the University of Texas Press.

Doug Sahm and his band, the Sir Douglas Quintet, were enjoying a phenomenal year in 1965. Thanks to the hit singles “She’s About a Mover” and “The Rains Came,” the San Antonians were sharing stages with the Rolling Stones, playing for national television audiences, and winning high praise from Bob Dylan. But just before New Year’s they were arrested in Corpus Christi for possession of small amounts of marijuana. The Texas legal system, then as now, was tough on pot smokers; though the band managed to avoid prison time, parole conditions forbade one member from leaving the state, a brutal turn of events for a rookie band that would have gotten a boost from a national tour. Taking advantage of the resulting vacuum, other bands across the country masqueraded as the Sir Douglas Quintet, while the genuine article was stuck playing small gigs in Texas backwaters.

It was during this fallow period that the Kappa Sigma fraternity at Midwestern University in Wichita Falls put on one such show. I was a member of that fraternity; we had been kicked off campus for some shameful deed, and as first-time rock promoters, we were trying to recover our finances and reputations. The Sir Douglas Quintet was the biggest name we could get with the money we had in hand. We booked them in a low-ceilinged hall called the MB Corral, which belonged to members of the western swing band the Miller Brothers, one of whom, the trumpet player, had been my next-door neighbor when I was growing up. Most evenings the hall was a country honky-tonk, but on Thursday and Sunday nights it was sometimes rented to black promoters, who brought in rhythm and blues acts. Cops swarmed the MB the evening of the Quintet’s show. The youths packed inside were refused alcohol, even those who were of legal age to buy it. But they made do; Doug later remarked that he’d never seen so much glue sniffing in his life.

The MB had a low stage, and the band mikes were no more than fifteen feet from where I found myself in the writhing, leaping crowd. The band tore through the two sets they performed. Doug scooted around, playing the fire out of an electric guitar but keeping his mouth close to the mike, the better to project his raw baritone. He offered no patter between the numbers, other than occasionally giving credit to some songwriter he idolized. As he sang, his gaze flicked back and forth, as if he were afraid that some sort of mayhem was as likely to jump out of that crowd as some sweet young thing. Doug’s great friend Augie Meyers, a large, lantern-jawed youth, sang backup and played a flimsy-looking keyboard called a Vox.

The quintet had captured enough of the then-popular British style to get their hits played on the radio, but “She’s About a Mover” had evolved out of the rich stew of Texas music that Doug listened to growing up in San Antonio. We didn’t know it that night, but over the next thirty years, Doug would emerge as a true chameleon of Texas music, drawing on country-western, big-city rhythm and blues, polkas born of dance music in northern Mexico and South Texas, a knowing appreciation of jazz, and a cross-ethnic blending that he joyously branded “conjunto rock and roll.” Until his death, in 1999, Doug fused these styles better than anyone. Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Janis Joplin, and Stevie Ray Vaughan had more luck at the cash register, but none of those Texas rock stars mastered as many instruments or so ambitiously channeled the state’s entire musical history.

Still, though Doug loved Texas, he was never married to the place. That MB gig turned out to be one of the last he would perform in his home state for a while. As soon as his parole officer assured him that he would not be branded a fugitive, he took off with his wife and children to Northern California, known in those days as a much friendlier golden land. He stayed there five years, reveling in the San Francisco scene that nurtured the careers of his new pals the Grateful Dead and transplanted Texans such as Joplin, Steve Miller, and Boz Scaggs. Musically, though, Doug never left Texas behind. And so, inevitably, he herded his large family back in 1971, a full-blown rock star who, with his long hair and Stetson, had invented the vogue of the cosmic cowboy before anyone in Austin knew it was cool.

Doug once remarked that he made up his mind to spend his life playing music the night he watched Lefty Frizzell punch out a drunk and jeering cowboy and then leap back onstage and resume singing. Doug was a steel guitar prodigy who performed as “Little Doug” before he was in junior high; at age eleven he sat in on an Austin gig with Hank Williams a few weeks before the legend, dosed with morphine and vitamin B-12, eased off on his last Cadillac ride. But even as Doug played with country bands and wore the costume of a drugstore cowboy, he spent many nights holed up in his room in his parents’ house listening to 45 rpm singles by artists with names like Lonesome Sundown and Howlin’ Wolf. Rhythm and blues and its thrilling offspring, rock and roll, blared from powerful AM stations flung across the continent, from New Orleans and Chicago to Gallatin, Tennessee, and Ciudad Acuña, Mexico. Doug was mesmerized by the music and televised performance antics of Little Richard, and he got to see a live concert by Elvis Presley in San Antonio. At night he began to sneak out of the house and make his way to an unfamiliar world inhabited by black people who danced till the sun came up.

Across a plowed field from the Sahm home was a dance hall called the Eastwood Country Club. “He took me there once, years later,” said Doug’s friend Bill Bentley, a record producer. “The show started at midnight, and the first band break was at four in the morning. What a night.” The dancers writhed, whirled, and strutted to the rhythms and tempos of T-Bone Walker, Junior Parker, Hank Ballard, and James Brown. The white kid was so persistent, lurking in the shadows, trying to peek inside, that the owner let him come in and have a soda pop while sitting off to the side of the stage. Doug’s mother couldn’t fathom what had gotten into the boy she called Bootie. The pedal steel prodigy was learning new dimensions of slide guitar by watching the great bluesman Elmore James.

And he wasn’t only interested in rhythm and blues. He met gifted young Latino musicians on the city’s sprawling West Side, and they introduced him to the traditions and music of the Texas-Mexico borderlands. These new friends included Rocky Morales, who blew his tenor sax as if he had the lung capacity of a whale, and Johnny Perez, a drummer and diminutive boxer who decked troublesome guys on Doug’s behalf on more than one occasion. They joked with Doug that he was so Mexican he needed a proper Mexican name, and they gave him one, Doug Saldaña.

But rock and roll—albeit a version of rock and roll informed by San Antonio’s full range of musical styles—was where he was headed. Asked to perform at an assembly at Sam Houston High School in 1956, Doug was warned by the principal not to do anything ugly. “They had this fear of rock. They didn’t want anybody ‘Blackboard Jungle’–ized,” he later said, describing the principal’s lecture. So of course he launched into a little Elvis routine, which got the curtain dropped right on top of him and all but set off a riot in the auditorium. In his senior class photo he wore a white sport coat, a loudly striped shirt, a well-oiled pompadour, a grin full of characteristic bravado, and an oversized pair of sunshades.

As he outgrew the persona and stage name Little Doug, he stopped playing with his elders in country bands and for a while threw in with youthful rockabilly outfits like Rudy Grayzell and the Texas Kool Kats. Grayzell had performed with Doug on the country music radio show Louisiana Hayride, and he was old enough to drive. “I used to take Doug on tour in Houston, and he tore the house down,” he told one journalist. “I used to pull up to Doug’s school and tell ’em, ‘I’m Doug’s guardian and he’s gotta come home right now.’ They’d pull Doug out of class and I’d have my car out front with our guitars in the trunk. And I’d say, ‘C’mon, Doug, I got us a show!’ ”

Doug’s parents doubtless heaved a sigh of relief when he graduated from Sam Houston High, in 1958, but there was no question of his following his older brother to college. The musician’s life had him firmly in its grip by then; he was out all night, playing gigs and chasing the thrills that might follow. He played with rock and roll bands that competed for coveted “base gigs”—shows on the city’s Air Force bases and Army posts. One time Doug is said to have shared a bill with an airman named Gene Pitney, the high-voiced singer known for such hits as “Town Without Pity.” Doug was likely more impressed when he played bills with Freddy Fender, a son of Rio Grande Valley migrant farmworkers who had scored a minor national hit with the blues shuffle “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.” Doug was awed by what Fender could do with his voice, and the squealing of young girls filled him with pleasure, envy, and ambition.

By then Doug had established himself as a club performer, but he wanted his own recordings on the Billboard charts. He wanted people hearing his voice on the radio; he wanted it all. Doug recorded singles for the small San Antonio labels Satin, Warrior, Harlem, and Cobra and caught the ear of some local AM disc jockeys who weren’t afraid to push homegrown songs into rotation with the national hits. Backed up by one of his first bands, the Pharaohs, Doug chased the alchemy of radio airplay in a revved-up imitation of Little Richard: “Crazy, crazy Daisy, you won’t do your daddy right.”

Doug had a regional hit in 1960, “Why Why Why,” that showcased his reverence for rhythm and blues and enlisted some of San Antonio’s best young horn players. “His look in those days was a pompadour haircut, suit and tie, and a diamond pinkie ring,” said Harvey Kagan, a bass player who soon became a friend and collaborator. “I was a few years younger and kind of awed by him, because his songs were on the radio all the time, and he could play all these instruments, and play them so well.”

Inspired by the success of “Why Why Why”—which earned a brief mention in Billboard—Doug hit the road for the first time, calling without much luck on club owners and booking and recording agents in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. When he came back to San Antonio, he put together a nine-piece band propelled by Hispanic sax and trumpet players, members of the loose collective that came to be known as the West Side Horns. One of them was his old friend Rocky Morales, who later became a fixture in Doug’s bands whenever he wanted a horn section.

San Antonio’s top bandleader at the time was a black sax player, Spot Barnett, whose East Side base was the Ebony Club. Doug said, “He was the king. [He had] five old ladies, twenty-something kids, and the finest bands, with three players on horns . . . We were in the clubs, seeing Spot. We’d walk in and say, ‘We got a band here.’ The black cats would say, ‘Oh, man, you bunch of honkies. Can you play that guitar? Let’s see what you can do.’ And I’d say, ‘What you want to hear?’ and then we’d hit it with ‘Further on up the Road’ or something like that. They’d invite us back and kind of took me under their wing.” Doug joined Barnett’s band for a time, playing bass, and with their standout backing he got to release a sock-hop snuggler, “Just a Moment,” as another A-side single in 1961. Doug thought he was singing like Junior Parker, but his voice broke on the sexiest part, and he tried to draw four or five syllables out of “moment.” He could play anything he got his hands on, but as a singer he still hadn’t figured out what to do with vowels.

Doug used to say that rock and roll came in with a blast in 1955: Elvis, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis. This vanguard was followed by a lull, with the charts claimed by show-off novelty acts like the Coasters and slick singers like Frankie Avalon and Bobby Vinton. “Then in 1964,” said Doug, “boy, here it came again. It was just four guys writing great songs and doing great harmonies in England.”

There are two versions of how the Beatles and the other bands that crossed the Atlantic inspired Huey P. Meaux, the top record producer in Texas, to help Doug launch his most famous band, the Sir Douglas Quintet. Meaux, whose Tribe label specialized in a Texas-Louisiana soul hybrid that came to be known as swamp pop, was worried that his acts were being washed off the charts by the British Invasion. So he carried a turntable and a stack of records to San Antonio, rented three rooms in a motel, and tried to figure out the secret of the British bands’ success. The stakes, he said, were nothing less than whether he would master the music business or quit. In his telling, he was playing his dad’s recording of “Lake Charles Two-Step”—his father was a Louisiana musician—when he decided that the Beatles were doing the same thing: “The beat was on the beat, just like a Cajun two-step.” Meaux then invited Doug to his motel room but warned him he should stay away if he was going to be judgmental—Meaux had been drinking cheap booze for days and was badly messed up. When Doug showed up, Meaux told him to listen closely to the beat of the Cajun song. He also advised Sahm to grow his hair long.

That’s Meaux’s version. Others didn’t remember it quite the same way. According to Kagan and Augie Meyers, the Dave Clark Five came to San Antonio for a concert in 1964 without some essential baggage. When roadies discovered that the London quintet had somehow arrived without the Vox organ played by lead singer Mike Smith, a frantic scramble ensued. Augie, who played with Kagan in one of the evening’s opening bands, Denny Ezba and the Goldens, lent Smith his Vox, rescuing the headline act. Meaux was out in the crowd, taking the measure of Augie and Doug, who was playing in the other opening act, Doug Sahm & the Markays.

Maybe the truth has room for both versions. “After that, Huey got Doug and Augie working together,” Kagan said. “They were doing this thing with Huey on the side, very quietly, and none of us knew anything about it. Denny [Ezba] could not believe it when Augie told him he was quitting the band to join up with Doug.” Other members of the new group, the drummer Johnny Perez and bass player Jack Barber, were already playing with Doug in one of his variously named bands. “At first we had a black saxophone and maracas player,” Augie said, “but it was a problem for him anytime we had to go anywhere and check in a hotel or go to a restaurant, so he quit and we hired Frank Morin,” who was Hispanic.

In naming the band the Sir Douglas Quintet, Doug left no doubt that he was the group’s driving force; for the rest of his life his ego compelled him to be the bandleader, whomever he played with. On their first single the Quintet tried to extract the Beatles’ magic from a cover of “Sugar Bee,” a song written by Cleveland Crochet, which in 1961 had been the first Cajun hit to make the Billboard Hot 100. The new band’s rock and roll version generated no such response.

While trying to please Meaux, the Quintet played bar gigs in San Antonio, working on rock and roll riffs that might be shaped into songs. The experimentation paid off one night when they were getting their chops down; a dancer in front of the stage put on a show, tossing her skirt as she twirled and pranced. Doug leaned away from the microphone and said to the others with a grin, “She’s a body mover, isn’t she?” And that was the song’s title at first, “She’s a Body Mover.” But Meaux and others said that that was too sexy and suggestive; disc jockeys would never play the song. So the title evolved into “She’s About a Mover.” The single was short, just under two and a half minutes, which was largely Doug’s career-long, pop-conscious style. It’s the song that people remember him for to this day.

It began with the chords of Doug’s guitar, then a banging of a tambourine, and then the exotic entry of Augie’s Vox. He played it with an insistent pumping of two- and three-note bursts that echoed the accordion he’d grown up listening to. Doug held the Cajun music of south Louisiana in high regard, but he agreed with Augie that the song was inspired by the Tex-Mex German-Polish-Czech dance music of their youth. “Oompah-pah came first,” Augie contended. “ ‘She’s About a Mover,’ that’s just a polka with a rock and roll beat.”

The sketchy lyrics—“Well, she was walking down the street / Looking fine as she could be”—about a cool guy checking out a brassy girl, told scarcely more story than that. Doug repeated the song’s title ten times; the second–most-repeated line—“What I say!”—was a none-too-subtle borrowing from one of Ray Charles’s biggest hits. Doug was a versatile songwriter, but he usually stayed away from lyrics with a complex narrative; he wanted people going around singing two or three lines that they’d heard on the radio and couldn’t get out of their heads. With this song he’d done it. Augie and Meaux could debate what the players did with the beat, but on the radio it was as irresistible as the sound of a small-town carnival: What it really seemed to race with and echo was the listener’s pulse.

According to Meaux, “She’s About a Mover” broke out on small stations in southwest Louisiana and on Port Arthur’s KPAC. At some point Meaux decided that the sound alone wasn’t derivative enough; he had to sell the Quintet as a genuine British band. He licensed the record abroad to England’s London label and told the musicians to keep their mouths shut until the record hit the international charts. Meaux had an overbearing sense of marketing: He wouldn’t let the band do any promotion until he was certain the time was right. “One night we had a gig in San Antonio,” Doug recalled, “and this guy came up and said, ‘What are you doing? You’ve got a song that’s number one from Houston to Miami, and you’re in this dump with two hundred people!’ ”

Soon “She’s About a Mover” was streaking up the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, peaking in the United States at number thirteen. Meaux outfitted the Quintet in black Beatles attire and footwear and got them on bills with James Brown, the Beach Boys, and Little Richard, and he told them just to sing, not to say anything. The ruse couldn’t work very long, but for a short time radio jocks and listeners thought they really were British. Doug laughed and said, “I’d say ‘pip pip’ and stuff like that when we met Peter Townshend and the Who, while trying to hush Johnny and Frank, who’d be going, ‘Hey, qué pasó? What’s happening?’ ”

According to Augie, Meaux required married band members to take off their wedding rings before a performance; the young girls who were the target audience needed to believe, or at least fantasize, that the musicians were available. The promotional climax came with appearances on American Bandstand and the prime-time music program Hullabaloo. Sponsored by brands of toothpaste, car wax, and a deodorant that provided “gentle protection without harshness,” the Hullabaloo show began with a well-scrubbed crew of dancers in V-neck sweaters, modestly short skirts, and go-go boots. There was a lot of hair-shaking and finger-snapping as an announcer introduced Chuck Berry, the Four Seasons, Freddie and the Dreamers, Herman’s Hermits, Martha and the Vandellas, and, finally, the lads from San Antonio. Holding a guitar and wearing a suit and tie, the host was Trini Lopez, a Dallas native who was best known for his version of the folk song “If I Had a Hammer.” Lopez said it was his pleasure to introduce royalty: “Ladies and gentlemen, lords and ladies, Hullabaloo proudly presents the Sir Douglas Quintet.”

For their first number, the Quintet appeared in front of a set of boards cut and painted to resemble English castles. Another prop was an armored knight riding a horse and carrying a lance. A young woman wearing an armored breastplate was assigned to move not a muscle, barely an eyelash, as the band sang about a street girl and kicked their Beatles boots in periodic tandem. Was she meant to be a princess? Joan of Arc? Whatever role she was told to play, she was no body mover.

The strange choreography didn’t matter; the song’s jumpy beat and Doug’s cocksure singing got the program racing. Doug looked as if he might have been at home on the streets of Liverpool or London. He had gotten his nose broken somewhere along the line, and as a lower-middle-class kid, he had grown up without the benefit of braces.

But the most striking thing about Doug was his hair. It wasn’t that long, but it appeared that Doug’s wife or perhaps the bass player Jack Barber, who really was a barber, had roughly whacked it with scissors. The kid who had once tried to dress up like Frankie Avalon was transformed into a tough guy—strong jaw, a face composed of craggy angles, interesting. Barber, Morin, and Perez went through the routine stone-faced, but a viewer who saw that number would never have guessed that Augie had been partly crippled by a childhood bout of polio. He was dancing behind the Vox and—pay attention, England—shaking his hair like a dust mop.

When they hit the last notes and finished their wiggles and kicks, Lopez walked out briskly. “I suppose all you people assume that the Sir Douglas Quintet is from England,” he said, grinning. “But I have a surprise for you. Believe it or not, these fellows are all from my home state of Texas. Isn’t that amazing?”

Doug stepped forward again and slyly drawled into the camera, “Y’all come back, heahh?”

The Quintet encountered unexpected difficulty in following up on their first hit. Their next release, “The Tracker,” sounded so much like “She’s About a Mover” that disc jockeys declined to play it. “Also,” Augie said, “they listened to it and thought Doug was calling himself a tractor.” It was a corny song about a lover who enlisted the CIA and a fleet of submarines to help chase down his honey; the low point was when Doug yelled, “Yeah, blow your horns,” followed by Augie taking a solo on his Vox. That was typical Doug, both in his studio ebullience and his resistance to editing.

Another release, “In Time,” found the band trying too hard to sound like the Animals. But they regained the charts that same year when Meaux steered them back to the well. In a raggedly typed letter to an interviewer many years later, Meaux claimed he wrote the Quintet’s next hit at a truck stop during a drive back home from New Orleans: “My girlfriend had left me and I was down about that. It was 3 a.m. in the morning I remember it was raining cats and dogs. I wanted to get me some black coffee so I could make it to Winnie before I fell asleep. This truck driver came in and stomped his boots and had a brown corduroy cap and slapped it against his leg and said, ‘This is the day that the rains came.’ ” And so, Meaux said, he wrote “The Rains Came” on a paper napkin.

Another story had it that Meaux had bought the rights to the song for $25 from the Gulf Coast sax player James Young, who recorded it in 1960 for Meaux under the name Big Sambo and the Housewreckers. Doug later claimed that he wrote it one stormy night in New Braunfels in tribute to a special woman friend. However “The Rains Came” was created, the Quintet’s version was a Top 40 hit, due perhaps to the delightfully off-key back-up singers, Augie’s carny-like organ, and Doug’s soulful delivery of the absurdly simple lyrics (“Rain, rain, rain, rain . . .” ). Dick Clark booked them on American Bandstand, and for the first time since Doug had performed as Little Doug, his costume featured a cowboy hat.

Around the same time, Bob Dylan was asked at a press conference if he could recommend any up-and-coming folk singers or rock groups. “I’m glad you asked that,” Dylan replied. “The Sir Douglas Quintet I think are probably the best that are going to have a chance of reaching commercial airwaves. They already have with a couple of songs.”

An unsolicited public endorsement by Bob Dylan! How did that happen? Years later, in an article for Crawdaddy magazine titled “The Psychedelic Cowboy Makes His Move,” Doug explained to the rock journalist John Swenson how he had first met Dylan in New York in 1965. As often happened to Doug, his speech was rendered in the piece as redneck dialect: “Aw, it was jes destiny y’know. The first tahm ah actually saw him was at the Kettle of Fish with Brian Jones an’ it was really a trip. That was th’ first tahm we’d come to th’ city, we were really hicks in them days, man, jes out from th’ woods. It seems lahk that everbody, y’know, man, he did such a thing to that era with that role that he played, that lil monster lil magic guy with th’ words an’ y’know that whole trip, that aura . . .”

Rock and roll writers might think Doug talked like an incoherent hayseed, but the bottom line was that in little more than a year he’d gone from opening for the Dave Clark Five in San Antonio to hanging out in New York with Dylan and Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones. But Doug never forgot where his roots ran deepest. Perhaps his greatest song, “At the Crossroads,” was written when he put the teenybopper themes aside and described a brokenhearted love affair of two grown-ups. “You just can’t live in Texas,” he reflected on the song’s setting, “if you don’t have a lot of soul.”

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