Not the Sahm Old Thing

It took several days to track Doug Sahm down. It was only when he paused for a moment in San Marcos at the office of somebody named Lucky that he had time to return a call. It may have been 30 years ago that Sahm toured with the Rolling Stones, but he's still not gathering any moss.

After decades of defining his own version of a musical gumbo that defies any label except "Texan," Sahm has the frenzied energy of a teenager. From the faux Brit-look of the Sir Douglas Quintet he's grown into his own, immediately identifiable Cosmic Cowboy image. And now, after a successful run with the Texas Tornadoes -- a San Antonio superstar ensemble that includes not just Sahm, but Augie Meyers, Freddy Fender and Flaco Jimenez -- he's gone in yet another direction, playing boogie-woogie piano with a far-flung coalition of friends that make up the Last Real Texas Blues Band.

Not that the Tornadoes are past history, or that the Blues Band is now the sole object of Sahm's attention. Sahm is one of those people who like to do many things, and as a result, he's mastered the art of doing several of them at once. If you can keep up, it makes sense after a while, but it's a hell of a ride.

That ride began in the early 1950s in San Antonio with a father who was determined to pass on his love of anything with a beat. Today, some self-righteous blue-noses would scream child abuse at the notion of a father regularly taking a pre-teen boy bar-hopping. That "abuse" revealed an ability that first manifested itself on steel guitar -- to such an extent that at the age of 11 Sahm found himself sitting on Hank Williams Sr.'s lap on-stage and picking out "Steel Guitar Rag."

When not bouncing from Bobby Bland shows at the Eastwood Country Club to the honky-tonk heaven of The Barn with his dear ol' dad, Sahm was chasing rhythms down the streets of San Antonio's black neighborhoods. While still in high school, Sahm found two teenagers named Rocky Moralez and Augie Meyers to be kindred spirits and compatible talents. They recorded rockin' Latin-flavored R&B under a variety on names on virtually every independent label in the Alamo city, cutting small-run 45's that collectors today consider too valuable to play and too fun to keep off the turntable.

Sahm and company spent the early '60s in a routine familiar to young musicians to this day -- drifting from lineup to lineup, band name to band name, and hoping for a break. It finally came under the guidance of record producer Huey P. Meaux. Meaux knew Sahm and friends had the talent to make him some money, but at the height of the British Invasion there wasn't much of a market for a group of musicians from Texas. Since Texans were out and Brits were in, the six-piece Sir Douglas Quintet was born with a nudge and a wink in early 1965. Houston music historian Andrew Brown places the band's first performance -- before a crowd estimated at somewhere between nine and ten people -- at Meaux's Teen Town dance hall in Pasadena.

Then came "She's About a Mover," and in six months the Sir Douglas Quintet went from Teen Town to the top of the charts. By the late 1960s, though, the various hippies who had proven to the world that Texans could rock with the best of them were wishing that they were in Britain or in California or on Mars. The Lone Star Republic's draconian drug laws made Texas a dangerous place to be a rock 'n roller. "It was a battleground," Sahm recalls. "That's why I left."

That temporary exodus of talent resulted in a tremendous Texas music network in California. While in San Francisco, Sahm became friends with Junior Parker, and recorded with him after Parker's lengthy stint on Houston's Duke/Peacock label ended. Indeed, Sahm cites the long-since closed blues and gospel label from Houston's Fifth Ward as perhaps the most important of his many influences. He's particularly admiring of all-but-forgotten Peacock studio genius Joe Scoot, who Sahm ranks with Frank Zappa as a conductor and arranger. "What great music," he says. "But the record business changed. They've got all these accountants and lawyers running things and where's the music?"

It might be in Austin, with the Antone's label, which recently released Sahm's Last Real Texas Blues Band on the heels of his Juke Box Music. Disappointment with the way his former label, Elektra, had one of his releases led Sahm to remember a series of live tapes recorded at Clifford Antone's nightclub. Both Antone's albums are combinations of excerpts from those live shows and a recent studio session. It's an unusual way to put out two albums -- more conventional would have been a live album and a session album, or a double album -- but the combination, in the opinions of the market and reviewers, works well. "Last Texas Blues Band is going crazy," Sahm says. "It just really came together. It's probably the hottest independent blues record going now, and I credit it all to Joe Scott and the influence he had on me. He's my hero, the way he did those horns. The world needs to know about him."

If the world really wants to know, all it has to do is ask Doug Sahm, a walking encyclopedia of Texas sounds. But settle in tight before you ask, because once Sahm gets going, you're in for a hell of a ride.

Doug Sahm and the Last Real Texas Blues Band plays at 10 p.m., Saturday, April 29 at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge. Tickets cost $10. Call 869-COOL for info.

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Jim Sherman