Houston All-Stars Pay Tribute to the Texas Tornado

Last year's "Beebe Sings Sahm" show. Left to right: Landis Armstrong, Allen Hill, Eric C. Hughes, David Beebe, and Jim Henkel.
Last year's "Beebe Sings Sahm" show. Left to right: Landis Armstrong, Allen Hill, Eric C. Hughes, David Beebe, and Jim Henkel. Photo by John Salinardo/Courtesy of Allen Hill
The name Doug Sahm would not make any list of the Top 20 Most Famous Texas Musicians. Nor would it likely appear on a Top 50 roster. But among diehard fans of Texas music, his name and influence ranks far higher. After all, this is the guy who wrote “Texas Me,” “Texas Tornado,” “Nuevo Laredo,” and the lyric “You can teach me lots of lessons/You can bring me lots of gold/But you just can't live in Texas/If you don't have a lotta soul."

Two musicians and longtime bandmates in many playing units – one local and one ex-local – agree wholeheartedly. And that’s why Allen Hill and David Beebe are spearheading their second annual “Beebe Sings Sahm” tribute show on Thanksgiving night at the Continental Club.

click to enlarge Show poster - CONTINENTALCLUB.COM
Show poster
They’ll be both playing the familiar and digging deep into the Sahm catalog with a hand-picked band, playing more than 50 songs in the show that has already had warmup gigs in San Antonio (Sahm’s hometown) and Marfa (where Beebe moved nearly a decade ago and is now a Presidio County Justice of the Peace), and will hit Austin after.

Still, for the casual Texas music fan, the name Doug Sahm may not ring a bell – even if they’re heard “She’s About a Mover” a million times. Beebe thinks that’s a shame, and part of the thing that drives him to do these shows is to shine a little more spotlight on a personal hero.

“He was a musician’s musician, and he played so many different types of music,” Beebe offers. “But the way he managed his career was really bizarre. He left Austin at the height of the Cosmic Cowboy era when he was maybe even on top of Willie Nelson. And he never had a regular record label.”

“Doug was just so real and he had a lot of soul,” Hill adds. “Getting into Doug Sahm, you learn a lot about yourself and tons about music. Doug’s energy and affection was just incredible, and it all comes out. But he was always chasing that first hit. He also played in so many different styles, that he never fit in a box.”

Something of a child musical prodigy, the San Antonio-born Sahm (1941-1999) played onstage with Hank Williams at 11 and was offered a permanent position on the Grand Ole Opry two years later while still in junior high.

The multi-instrumentalist and singer’s brand of “Tex-Mex” music brought him fame with the Sir Douglas Quintet’s garage rock classic “She’s About a Mover.” The group’s name was a blatant attempt to capitalize on the mania for All Bands British, despite the fact that Sahm had a strong Texas twang in his voice and two-fifths of the group were of Mexican descent.

A move to San Francisco solidified Sahm’s affinity for hippie culture as he pursued recording and performing with various versions of the Quintet (who had another hit with “Mendocino”) and solo work. Bob Dylan and Dr. John were a big fans, and appeared on his 1972 solo debut Doug Sahm and Band. “Dylan was a complete recluse in the early ‘70s, but he came out of his house for Doug Sahm. That says a lot.” Hill offers.

In 1989, he formed the roots rock super group the Texas Tornados (with Freddy Fender, Augie Myers, and Flaco Jimenez), enjoying a career resurgence until his death from a heart attack a decade later. His story was told in the 2010 book Texas Tornado: The Times and Music of Doug Sahm and the 2015 documentary Sir Doug & the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove.

Looking at his catalog, the breadth of the musical genres he played is fairly impressive in addition to Tex-Mex: rock, blues, jazz, R&B, soul, country, psychedelic, western swing, doo-wop, gypsy, and even polka.

As a teen, Beebe’s record-playing parents introduced his ears to “She’s About a Mover” – which he thought was actually by Ray Charles. Years later as a college student in the late ‘80s at the University of Texas in Austin, he began to educate himself to Tex-Mex rock and roll via introductions from ZZ Top and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and frequented the storied blues club Antone’s. Hearing about the debut of the Texas Tornados, he began to put it together. And all roads led to Doug Sahm.

“I knew there was something about Doug Sahm, but at first figured out he was in that band just because he needed a gig. At the same time, he did a solo record on the Antone’s Records label, and I began to want to learn everything I could about him,” Beebe says.

click to enlarge Presidio County Justice of the Peace for Pct. 1, David Beebe, at home in Marfa. - PHOTO BY SARAH VASQUEZ/COURTESY OF ALLEN HILL
Presidio County Justice of the Peace for Pct. 1, David Beebe, at home in Marfa.
Photo by Sarah Vasquez/Courtesy of Allen Hill
In 1991, he found a Sir Douglas Quintet double cassette compilation in the cut-out bin at a Houston Sound Warehouse in Greenbriar Center (now Shepherd Plaza). It became his constant companion in his Walkman while jogging.

Beebe recalls he became “obsessed” with the release, which lead him further down the Doug Sahm rabbit hole, even down to buying a Farfisa organ (a frequently-used Sahm instrument) to use when he began touring with his and Hill’s group Banana Blender Surprise a couple of years later. By that time, he had already met Sahm informally at the Hole in the Wall club on Austin’s Guadalupe Street.

But it was during a soundcheck at a Antones’s in the early ‘90s on that same street with that band where Beebe and Hill had an unexpected encounter with the man himself, who was wearing a baseball cap and sitting at the bar nursing a beer. Once the band realized who their one-man audience was, they launched into a tune that featured the organ. The pair recall with genuine joy Sahm’s comment to them “Man! You guys sound like the Sir Douglas Quintet on speed!”

Beebe says BBS wrote a song called “Sir Douglas on Speed” and Sahm even expressed interest in producing the group, but it never happened. He later got to know Sahm even more while working the manager at Houston’s Fabulous Satellite Lounge where Sahm played a few times toward the end of his life.

The timing of Sahm’s passing made its own mark on Beebe. He remembers being onstage fronting the El Orbits at Austin’s Continental Club on a Thursday Bingo Night when he noticed something odd. “We were having a great time and all of a sudden the room got really weird and everybody was seemed depressed and left,” he says.

After the show, Continental impresarios Pete Gordon and Steve Wertheimer sat Beebe down and told him that Sahm had died. “I realized how much it meant to me to have Doug Sahm in my life,” Beebe reflects. Soon, Doug Sahm tribute shows began to pop up around the state, but Beebe says he wasn’t connected enough or often busy to participate. Putting on his own tribute show became a bucket list item.

click to enlarge Doug Sahm in a publicity portrait for Atlantic Records, 1973. - GDUWEN/WIKICOMMONS
Doug Sahm in a publicity portrait for Atlantic Records, 1973.
As for Hill, it was an early ‘90s live performance of the Texas Tornados at the Austin Music Awards that first really put Sahm on his radar – even if he was a self-described “young punk at the time who really didn’t get it or what the accordions were about.” It was a couple of years later in Banana Blender Surprise when he began to expand his musical palate, taking in a heaping helping of Doug Sahm.

Flash forward 15 years, and Beebe, Hill, and guitarist Jim Henkel were sitting around drinking tequila, and decided to make it happen for real. They immediately started writing down Sahm songs, and within 10 minutes had dozens of playing possibilities.

Hill – now a booking agent in addition to playing, was already hooked into all their former collaborators, so he began to put the pieces together. And in 2017, the “Beebe Sings Sahm” show debuted in Houston and Austin. In addition to Beebe (vocals/organ/harmonica/slide guitar) and Hill (bass), this year’s band includes many made men in the Continental Club Mafia like Eric C. Hughes (drums), Landis Armstrong (guitar), Pete Gordon (piano), Jim Henkel (sax/guitar), and Derek Huston (sax).

Band members rehearse by becoming familiar with the songs before they even stand in the same room together for their all-too-brief actual run throughs. The expansive set list includes both the most familiar and most obscure Sahm material over his decades of recording, and Beebe says he choose some material specifically because it will remind him of certain points in his own life.

Both Beebe and Hill say that they are already thinking about next year’s tribute show and how to shake it up – even though the band members live as far was as Marfa and as far east as Louisiana.

“David and I have played rock and roll together for 30 years, and we’ve got this all-star cast of guys” Hill says. “But it’s hard to get together often. There’s a whole lot of I-10 in this band! But Houston is the middle ground. We love the music, and it’s an honor to do this.”

Beebe has the final word. “Every single person in the band really loves Doug Sahm music, and they’re cool. And the people that come to see the show and are into it are cool too. And it’s even helped me learn a lot. And by the way, Doug Sahm belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”

Beebe Sings Sahm is at 8 p.m. on November 22 at the Continental Club, 3700 Main. For information, call 713-529-9899 or visit $12
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero