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Death of Texas music legend hits Austin hard

By Michael Corcoran and Chris Riemenschneider
Austin American-Statesman
Friday, November 19, 1999

He gave the Austin music scene its soul, and his death Thursday broke its heart.

Doug Sahm, a singer and guitarist who showed the world the glory of Texas music with the Sir Douglas Quintet in the '60s through his '90s stint in the Tex-Mex supergroup Texas Tornados, died Thursday afternoon in Taos, N.M. He was 58.

The San Antonio native, who defined the Austin redneck rock scene with his 1974 album "Groover's Paradise," was found dead in a hotel room. The cause of death has not been determined, though police and family speculated that it might have been a heart attack.

Sahm's eldest son Shawn, who played guitar in the most recent incarnations of the Sir Douglas Quintet, said his dad telephoned his girlfriend in Wimberley on Wednesday complaining of chest pains and more.

"He just wasn't feeling well, but my dad was the type to downplay whenever he was feeling bad," Shawn said. "So many people loved his music, but almost as many people loved him personally."

The news hit the Austin music scene hard Thursday night. Musicians were gathering at Antone's for an impromptu tribute, and radio stations including KGSR-FM and KUT-FM were steadily playing music by the man who many felt embodied the diversity of Texas music.

"You just can't live in Texas if you don't have a lot of soul," Sahm sang on a signature tune called "At the Crossroads." That was his motto until the end. 

"He could play anything -- Cajun music, country music, rock, blues, Mexican conjunto music," said Antone's founder Clifford Antone. "And it wasn't just people in Texas who knew it. He was always playing places like Canada or Scandinavia or Japan or wherever, and there'd be people that have known his music since (1965's) `She's About a Mover.' "

Sahm began his musical career as 6-year-old Little Doug, a pint-sized steel guitar prodigy who performed on Nashville's Grand Ol' Opry and once played seated on Hank Williams' lap. During the early rock 'n' roll explosion, he formed his own bands and had regional hits while still in high school.

`A kid for rock 'n' roll'

It wasn't until the British Invasion of the '60s, that Sahm, masquerading as a British band leader in Sir Douglas Quintet, broke onto the national music scene with "She's About a Mover," a Top 20 hit produced by Texas music legend Huey P. Meaux. The song featuring the pumping Vox organ of longtime sidekick Augie Meyers inspired such later hits as "96 Tears" by ? and the Mysterians and even the new wave sounds of Elvis Costello and the Attractions. The English ruse was discovered when the band was interviewed on television's "Hullaballoo" and Sahm's Texas drawl came rolling out. 

"I was a kid for rock 'n' roll in '55 when I saw Elvis," Sahm told the American-Statesman in 1994, speaking in his nonstop hippie-meets-Texas lingo. "It blew my mind. I saw Elvis, got in front of the mirror, shake, shake, shake. Then the '60s came along, I have all these local hits in San Antonio, and then all of a sudden we turn on the TV and there's the long-haired thing from Liverpool. So, we say, "Hey Huey (Meaux), we can do this crap; let's go get after it.' "

Sir Doug hits in the late '60s included "Mendocino" and "The Rains Came" when the band was deep in the heart of San Francisco psychedelia. In the early '70s, Sahm rejected the hippie scene and came back to Texas to re-establish himself as a bona fide rocker with "The Return of Doug Saldana."

"He could flip from genre to genre at a whim," marveled Texas Monthly writer Joe Nick Patoski. "He epitomized the Austin music scene better than anyone else." 

Sahm traveled frequently between Austin and San Antonio, which was home base for the Texas Tornados. He formed the group with Freddy Fender, Flaco Jimenez and Augie Meyers. They produced seven albums, including this year's "Live From the Limo" and the Grammy-winning, 1990 self-titled debut, which included such hits as "Who Were You Thinkin' Of" and "(Hey Baby) Que Paso"

Although he was most associated with a roots sound that blended Texas and Mexican music, he also fronted a San Antonio-based blues band he called the Southside Horns. 

His musical connections reached far beyond Texas. He took part in sessions for two different Grateful Dead albums, while Bob Dylan can be heard on Sahm's recording of "(Is Anybody Goin' to) San Antone." Younger groups such as Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt and the Gourds have also recorded and performed with Sahm.

The last sir Douglas Quintet album, "S.D.Q. '98," included Sahm's take on the fast-paced Austin of the '90s called "Get a Life."

Arlyn Studio owner Freddy Fletcher noted Sahm never lacked for modesty. "In the words of Doug Sahm, he put Texas music on the map," Fletcher said.

He said the ever-hyper Sahm never stopped writing songs, even during recording sessions: "I remember him in our lobby, with Flaco on the accordion and Doug pounding that acoustic guitar, working up a new song while were in the middle of making a record."

A traveling man

An autopsy to determine the cause of Sahm's death was pending late Thursday. Maj. Robert Rivera with the Taos Police Department said a maid found Sahm's body at the Kochina Hotel and paramedics believed he suffered a heart attack. He was pronounced dead at 3:45 p.m.

Sahm drove himself to Taos just to travel, said his son Shawn. In 1994, Sahm described why he often kept to the road.

"I can't stand to get bored here," he said. "When you get bored here, and nothing's happening, you can get pretty weirded out. But if you keep some kind of edge going -- that's why I leave all the time. You know, jump in the car, get in my Cadillac and drive to Seattle, drive to Minneapolis, see the Dead, go to spring training. It keeps you going."

Sahm's youngest son, Shandon, who's a drummer with the Meat Puppets, said his dad had been experiencing circulation problems in his arms and fingers.

"He called me a few days ago from Santa Fe, and one of the things he said was that he was feeling his age," Shandon said. 

"He was the most amazing dad any of us could have asked for," Shandon said as he fought back tears. "He never judged, and he was always supportive. He was that way with everyone. That's why he had so many friends. We were all lucky to have him in our lives." Sahm was also survived by a daughter, Dawn, and her two children, Shealynn and Earl.

The family said memorial services will be scheduled later.

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