Doug Sahm was my hero. I knew it from the moment I heard the strains of “She’s About a Mover” blaring over the AM radio in 1965. Both the song and the band that recorded it, the Sir Douglas Quintet, were marketed to the world as a product of the British Invasion, but it sounded suspiciously like Texas. A subsequent radio hit, 1969’s “Mendocino,” was a pop confection in the same vein; notwithstanding Augie Meyers’ Vox organ, it celebrated the psychedelic movement busting out of San Francisco, but it too sounded like Texas. Two years later, the back-to-the-roots album The Return of Doug Saldaña—whose cover featured longhaired Doug in a cowboy hat, a bottle of Big Red in hand—signaled to Texans in exile that it was okay to come back home, that we wouldn’t get our asses kicked for looking or being different. A cover story by Chet Flippo in Rolling Stone about Sir Doug holding court at Soap Creek Saloon, a funky roadhouse outside of Austin, was the last straw. I packed up my belongings, left Minneapolis (where I was living at the time), bypassed my hometown of Fort Worth, and headed straight for Central Texas.
All because of the music. All because of Doug. And now he’s gone—dead of heart disease at age 58.
He had been a child prodigy, singing “Teardrops in My Heart” on radio station KMAC in his native San Antonio at the tender age of five. He learned to play guitar on a triple-neck steel guitar and proceeded to master the fiddle, the mandolin, the bass, the drums, and the bajo sexto, the twelve-stringed centerpiece of the sound commonly known as Tex-Mex. He sat in with Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, and Hank Thompson—Texas musicians who put the western in country and western. He matched T-Bone Walker note for note in blues guitar battles and quoted Guitar Slim from the get-go. Yet he was at home in a South Texas cantina and understood polka as the foundation of all things musical in Texas. One of his most memorable songs, “Chicano,” contained the line “Soy chicano” (“I’m Chicano”); the composition was so genuine and convincing that Chicanos covered it and made it into an anthem.
He was the grooviest of the groovies, a charter member of the Haight-Ashbury scene and the ultimate cosmic cowboy (he certainly looked the part, from his black cowboy hat and fancy rings to his tie-dyed shirt and pointy-toed boots). A teen sensation who cranked out a string of local rock and roll and R&B hits before graduating from Sam Houston High School, he became a pal of Bob Dylan’s and a running buddy of the Grateful Dead’s. And he was responsible for putting Austin music on the map. In 1972 veteran producer Jerry Wexler, who launched the careers of Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, among others, came to Austin searching for Doug and that elusive quality known as Texas soul and wound up finding Willie Nelson too.
Doug played almost every venue that had a PA system, from Carnegie Hall to the Louisiana Hayride, from Disneyland to the Paradiso in Amsterdam. As much as he grew to hate the smoke and the cramped facilities, clubs were his element. Growing up in San Antonio in the late forties and early fifties, he got his education at places like the Eastwood Country Club and the Tiffany Lounge, soaking up every kind of sound that was being made at a time when live music was just about the only entertainment around. For the past 25 years, he was the one guy in Austin who could walk