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.