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.