Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sir Douglas Quintet -- "At the Crossroads" (1969)

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 lots of soul

It saddens me that Doug Sahm died of a heart attack in a Taos, New Mexico hotel room in 1999, when he was 58 years old.  And it troubles me that I had no idea that he had died until recently.  How could it have taken me almost 12 years to become aware of this?

Doug Sahm was the Texas equivalent of Oklahoma's Leon Russell.  Both were versatile and eclectic musicians who put out some great music of their own and who collaborated with a lot of great musicians.  Both have been favorites of mine for a very long time, and I feel a very personal connection to their music. 

Doug Sahm
Sahm was a child prodigy -- a pop-music Mozart who began performing at age six and released his first record when he was 11.  He was on stage with Hank Williams, Sr., in Austin, Texas, on December 19, 1952.  It was Williams's last performance -- he died in the back seat of a car on New Year's Eve.

The story goes that Sahm was offered a chance to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry, but that his mother said no -- she wanted him to finish junior high school.

As a teenager, Sahm joined a band that performed blues music, mostly at black R&B clubs in San Antonio.  He also got to know a number of Mexican-American musicians.

In 1964, Sahm assembled a band and persuaded record producer Huey P. Meaux (a/k/a/ "The Crazy Cajun") to record them.  Meaux named the band the "Sir Douglas Quintet," hoping to capitalize on the popularity of British invasion bands.

After moving to San Francisco, the band released an album titled Mendocino in 1969.  It included their two biggest singles, "She's About a Mover" (which had been a hit back in 1965) and "Mendocino." 

The Sir Douglas Quintet dressed the part of a British invasion band when they appeared on Shindig and Hullabaloo, but no one with half a brain would have been fooled.  For one thing, two of the band's members were Mexican-Americans.  For another, Sahm had an unmistakable Texas accent.  

Not only that, the Sir Douglas Quintet sounded nothing like a British band.  What did they sound like?  As the Allmusic website explains, they sounded like a little of everything:
[The Sir Douglas] Quintet mixed country, blues, jazz, R&B, Mexican conjunto/norteƱo music, Cajun dances, British Invasion rock & roll, garage rock, and even psychedelia into a heady stew that could only have come from Texas.
I went to college in Texas, but I never really appreciated it until I moved to Massachusetts to attend law school.  I then became an evangelist for all things Texan -- much to the amusement of my law-school friends, many of whom had never been west of the Hudson River.  You couldn't find decent Tex-Mex food within 500 miles of Harvard Square, but at least I could listen to Mendocino in my cold, spartan dorm room.

Bob Dylan and Doug Sahm
I had found Mendocino in a bargain bin at Grandpa's discount store in Joplin, Missouri, the summer before I started law school.  

Grandpa's is long gone -- it was the discount store in Joplin you went to if you couldn't afford to pay Walmart prices.  I have a vivid memory of getting three albums for a dollar at Grandpa's -- Mendocino, an album by a British group called Dr. K's Blues Band that I knew nothing about, and a Status Quo album that contained their hit, "Pictures of Matchstick Men."

Sahm moved back to Texas from San Francisco in 1971, and the original Sir Douglas Quintet disbanded shortly thereafter.  But Sahm continued to record and perform all kinds of music until his death.

Sahm's New York Times obituary called him "a patriarch of Texas rock and country music."  That's accurate, I suppose, but when I hear someone described as a "patriarch," I expect him to be an old geezer with a long white beard.  

That wasn't Doug Sahm.  He was the "Texas Tornado" -- the band he had formed after the Sir Douglas Quintet disbanded in the early 1970s was called the Texas Tornadoes -- and that nickname fit his energetic personality and frenetic performing style to a T.

Doug Sahm and his son Shawn
Writing shortly after his death, Margaret Moser of the Austin (TX) Chronicle captured the essence of Doug Sahm in an article titled "State Musician of Texas" -- which is a title he richly deserves:
When he appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1968, Baron Wolman's photograph of Sahm wearing a cowboy hat and long hair with young Shawn Sahm on his knee single-handedly created the image of the cosmic cowboy for the nation and the world. It's almost laughably quaint to explain today why the cowboy hat and long hair were such an anomaly back then, but dang if Doug Sahm, then based in San Francisco, didn't make the dread redneck look cool. The Byrds and Burrito Brothers could wear all the satin Nudie shirts they wanted; Sahm and company were the real item. The cowboy hat and long hair became his lifelong look, uniquely Texas, uniquely Doug.
He wrote the music of a lifetime, a unique soundtrack for the Lone Star state of mind. He left children who carry on his music in their own unique ways. He made five decades of recordings that spanned the globe. He gave millions of memories to millions of fans and played goodwill ambassador to the world with pure Texas pride. Maybe it's time to establish a state musician of Texas.

Here's "At the Crossroads":

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

1 comment:

  1. Good read - Thanks! My memories to discover them were sometime 1980+ via LA Times Calendar section and exaggeration (sorta) of their greatness. The fact was their records were deplete from most record stores and really had to attend those Beatles or other music Conventions to find albums. They were to attempt at comeback at that time, so weird that was 30 years ago, and felt I was the only reader of those update status to reunite.