Trying to understand the talent of Doug Sahm is like trying to grasp the enormity of the Grand Canyon. Sure you can “Google” the hole in Northern Arizona and you will find that it is 277 miles long and as much as 18 miles across and a mile deep.
Then you can go visit the Canyon and stand at the south rim, as millions of people have done through the years. With your mouth agape you try and process what you are seeing with your own eyes. You can’t, as there isn’t any other comparable point of reference.
Then if you are young, fit and healthy (as I once was all of three of these things) you might say to yourself, ‘I want to see more’ and begin a descent down Bright Angel Trail. After three hours of vigorous hiking you have discovered you are just a tiny speck and still very near the rim of the canyon and seemingly no closer to the canyon floor than when you got started. Now, as you begin your ascent out of the tiny fraction of the canyon that you have explored in an attempt to gain a better understanding of this geographical wonder, a set of pack mules passes you, all shaking their heads and rolling their eyes.
I felt that way as I begin to do my research in preparing for this essay and explore the musical life of Doug Sahm. The deeper I got, the deeper he gets. I thought I would
retreat and explore just a modest sampling of the music of Doug Sahm. With this in mind, it is high time we revisit the album entitled, The Last Real Texas Blues Band featuring Doug Sahm.
Famed Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler has been quoted as saying that Doug Sahm is the most talented musician he has ever worked with. I’ll pause for a moment while you get your mind around that. Wexler, in case anybody needs reminding, is the guy that worked extensively with Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin among others.
One of the things I liked about Sahm was he was the only guy, or so it seemed, in the state of Texas that thought of the game of baseball as more than some minor recreation that took place between the Cotton Bowl and the opening kick-off of the college football season. He is the only person who I have ever attended a Major League Baseball game with whom I couldn’t get a word in edge wise. I’ll pause for a moment and let you get your mind around that. In other words, Sahm could go from Cootie Williams to Ted Williams to Hank Williams and not miss a beat. All while doing play by play, color commentary, putting that evening’s contest in the historical context it deserved and even commenting on games being posted on the out of town scoreboard. It was like hanging out with the broadcast team of Vin Scully, Stanley Crouch, Bob Costas and Hunter S. Thompson for a few hours, quite entertaining, but not something I think I could do every day.
Doug Sahm also embodied two key observations I have made about his home state of Texas as it relates to music. First of all Texans, generally speaking, have a more broadminded approach to music and are not as likely to put music in any type of box or put up any artificial boundaries around different types of music. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly for Texans, the music has got to have a groove. It is, after all, dance music. Nobody, and I mean nobody, personified both aspects of these important, deeply rooted concepts like The San Antonio Hipster, Doug Sahm.
He embraced virtually all types of American music with equal zeal and could find the essence of whatever type of music he was playing. He never sounded out of place or like some kind of interloper. He inhabited the music. He owned it.
Sahm’s long career included recordings of everything from different styles of rock music, jazz, country, German polkas, western swing, Tex-Mex, swamp pop and yes, healthy amounts of blues. He could do everything and do it well. He could play a variety of instruments and sing his ass off.
Doug Sahm was born in San Antonio in 1941. He was a child prodigy and was an accomplished steel guitar player at the age of five and a recording artist by the age of twelve. His legacy is cemented in the minds of most as being bookended by his two biggest crossover successes with bands, both featuring his childhood friend Augie Meyers, he of the Vox Continental organ fame. They were of course the 1960’s era Sir Douglas Quintet and the 1990’s super group The Texas Tornadoes. The latter also featured guitarist and vocalist Freddie Fender and the great innovator of the conjunto accordion sound, Flaco Jimenez.
Doug Sahm played in the company of some of the best musicians in the world. He traveled the globe bringing his music to audiences who wanted to hear whatever muse had Sahm’s soul at that particular moment, but as Jerry Wexler was quick to point out, “His address was rhythm & blues. It is where he got his mail.”
By the mid-90’s, Sahm had been in near constant motion both geographically and musically. However, he returned home to Texas and the rhythm & blues of his youth for a couple of outstanding albums, Juke Box Music and The Last Real Texas Blues Band featuring Doug Sahm. He returned, so to speak, to the nightclubs of his youth like the Eastside Country Club and the Ebony Lounge where he heard such blues luminaries as T-Bone Walker, Bobby Bland and Guitar Slim. The blues was never too far away from Doug Sahm and he brings all of that love, affection and talent to bear on The Last Real Texas Blues Band featuring Doug Sahm.
Even the title of the album reeks of Doug Sahm and the kind of Texas bravado that would be annoying if it weren’t so darn sincere and often backed up in at least some truth. On this album, which is a mix of live and studio recordings, Sahm and his cohorts stir up an irresistible batch of tunes that, even within the context of the blues, covers a broad musical palette.
The live sessions were recorded in Austin’s Antone’s Nightclub. The album is dedicated to that institution’s founder and proprietor, Clifford Antone. It is the voice of Antone, which sounds like a fog horn cutting through the thick air of a Port Arthur shipping lane, that introduced the acts at his nightclub which was celebrating its 20th year of existence in 1995.
At first glance, some of the song titles seem overly familiar. Right out of the shoot the band starts off by playing the Lowell Fulson blues standard, Reconsider Baby. Did I really need to hear another version of this song? The answer, as it turns out, was and is a resounding...YES.
With Sahm at the wheel this journey is liable to go anywhere and it does as he and the band visit New Orleans for a Fats Domino tune and one by Guitar Slim. As the band, which also features Denny Freeman on guitar, concludes the number Sahm shouts out, “Eddie Jones (Guitar Slim) is doing alright.” By now Sahm has shifted from guitar to piano for a couple of numbers. On various tracks Freeman plays piano as well. The album’s co-producer (with Sahm) is Derek O’Brien. He also lends his guitar playing to the disc.
Throughout the record Sahm throws solos to a cadre of campadres including tenor sax man Rocky Morales whose career had been intertwined with Sahm’s since their youth growing up in San Antonio. The two appeared on a regional hit way back in 1959 entitled, Why? Why? Why? Morales, who was a member of the West Side Horns, is all over this album. So when you hear Sahm yell out, “ROCK...EEEEEEEEE!” you just know a sax solo is coming as thick and juicy as slice of Texas BBQ brisket.
By 1995, Sahm and this collection of seasoned musicians had been playing together off and on for decades. Their ensemble playing shows great empathy toward one another as well as a genuine sense of fun. Their enthusiasm is contagious. Drummer George Rains, who goes back with Sahm to the late 60’s, has an incredible sense of swing and lays down a deep groove. He is the foundation on which the band can build a monument to the music of the gulf coast and beyond.
In Texas it may be a law that every band has to play Bill Dogget’s Honky Tonk. Did I really need to hear another version of this tune? The answer is Hell yeah! The 6 minute 45 second take on this standard is better than any version of this song I have ever heard. The three piece horn section on this number, like everything else on the record, is so fat that it could take home a blue ribbon at the livestock show in Fort Worth. Many of the horn arrangements on the album are credited to Sahm.
The entire fifteen song collection of blues, ballads and some of Sahm’s Texas dance hall favorites are mixed together in a way that puts you right in the middle of the best Saturday night of your life.
After the band orders a round of drinks, Sahm yells out, “Its T-Bone Walker time,” And the group launches into the very familiar opening riffs to T-Bone Shuffle. Did I really need to hear yet another version of this tune? After you hear The Last Real Texas Blues Band simply hit this tune out of the park, it will become the best version in your library. This song and this album personify how great Texas and gulf coast blues music can be in the hands of true masters.
Doug Sahm died in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on November 18, 1999. He was 58 years old. Even though he appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine not once, but twice and had a handful of television appearances, it is kind of baffling why Doug Sahm isn’t more famous.
There are those who have speculated he was too talented for his own good. He couldn’t be marketed and packaged in any traditional sense. Maybe his ability to do so many things so well turned off the so called purists of every genre he embraced. Perhaps, he was just viewed by the uninformed as simply some kind of eccentric, dope smoking, cosmic cowboy/hippie. He
was all of those things and more, but there is nothing simple about Doug Sahm. It is that image I suppose that might keep those without ears and a soul with which to process
this information from taking the man seriously. Maybe that image is like reading about the Grand Canyon without even attempting to explore the great natural wonder.
Last month at the annual South by South West music extravaganza in Austin a documentary film entitled, Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove had its premier showing. I have yet to see the film by director Joe Patoski, but perhaps now, 15 years since the passing of Doug Sahm, the world will have a chance to get another glimpse of a true renaissance man, who just happened to play some great blues.
Doug Sahm is the embodiment of all that is great about American music. On The Last Real Texas Blues Band he demonstrates what is so wonderful about the blues.
- David Mac