The Sir Douglas Quintet - Biography
It’s 1965. A band of five guys, in era-appropriate mop tops, are posing for their publicity photo. However, they’re being photographed completely in silhouette. Their leader is called “Sir” Douglas and their single, “She’s About a Mover,” is zooming up the charts. Obviously, given the moniker, they’re English, yet another British Invasion band ready to score a hit or two before the whole rock-and-roll fad passes, right? But why the shadows and secrecy? Mood? Mystery? Myth-making?
Try Mexico. Because these boys are about as English as barbecue, burritos, or the blues. They’re Texas’ favorite sons, The Sir Douglas Quintet, and three-fifths of this group is visibly Hispanic. The Beatle-suit business and the laughably obnoxious British charade? Sure, that part’s a fad, and it passes after the first record. That delicious chunk of Tex-Mex garage rock is their biggest hit, but this band is no flash in the pan. They’ve got staying power deluxe. They’re going to be one of the most charmingly creative and stylistically diverse bands of the 1960s, and in the process, they’re going to vivify Texas as this country’s musical melting pot.
On the subject of pot, make no mistake, the band’s leader, Doug Sahm, smokes it. A lot. He’s a hippy, and the best sort: a Southern, good-ole-boy, beer-drinkin’, honky-tonkin’, flower-powerin’, cowboy-hat-and-boot-wearin’, sexin’-and-lovin’, long-haired, bead-totin’, dyed-in-the-wool, Texas kick-ass hippy. He is the Real Deal. A prototype. A journey through the Quintet’s ouvre is a journey through Doug Sahm’s life, good and bad, and he doesn’t hold back. Cheerful about his loving; frank about his partying; morose about his cheating; and proud as hell about being a Texan — Doug Sahm lets it all hang out.
In the original band, Sahm sings and plays guitar. He’s joined by Augie Meyer, whose signature organ propels much of the group’s work. Jack Barber plays bass; Frank Morin, sax; Johnny Perez, drums. From 1965 through 1972, variations on this gang ladled up an enlightened and inspired gumbo of sound: Hill Country polka, Mexican norteno, R&B, jazz, garage rock, Western swing, country, and blues — all are in the mix. The Sir Douglas Quintet broke all the rules, and while they should have been more popular, they left us a remarkable musical legacy.
At the heart of the group was Sahm. Born in 1941, he was a musical prodigy, playing guitar, steel guitar, fiddle, and mandolin; he made his first radio appearance at the age of five. Performing as Little Doug Sahm, he was a local sensation, and bringing him on stage became a must for Western swing and country stars touring through town; he sat in with the likes of Ernest Tubb, Hank Thompson, Webb Pierce, and even Hank Williams. He performed on the legendary Louisiana Hayride radio program, released his first single at 14, and as a teen he turned down a regular spot on the Grand Ole Opry, as it would have required him to leave his beloved home state.
Sahm grew up on San Antonio’s Eastide, which was the African-American side of town, and from his early teens he gigged — illegally, of course — in the clubs and bars that hosted the town’s rhythm-and-blues scene. In 1960 he scored a local hit, and soon thereafter met Meyers, with whom he performed frequently for the next few years on the R&B circuit.
Around this time, Sahm met Houston-based entrepreneur Huey P. “The Crazy Cajun” Meaux. Meaux had been a barber — a profession hurtling towards obsolescence as the 1960s advanced. Rather than be beat by the Beatles, he joined them. He took a stack of records, a bottle of whiskey, locked himself in a hotel room, figured out the songs, started a record label, and became a music producer. (It doesn’t matter if that story is apocryphal. It’s still awesome.)
Meaux figured it out. All this new stuff the kids were digging? It was, like Cajun music, a two-step beat. He came up with the name of the band and instructed his new protégée to handle the rest. Doug got Augie, then recruited some guys from the R&B scene, and The Sir Douglas Quintet was born.
“She’s About a Mover” broke the Top-20 nationally, and the follow-up ballad “The Rains Came” also had substantial sales (even though as a song, it certainly didn’t measure up its raucous predecessor); the unlikely titled debut LP, The Best of the Sir Douglas Quintet (1966 Tribe), was rushed to the shelves. However, success was short-lived.
It’s not easy being a trailblazer. Doug may have been the original cowboy hippy, but folks in Texas tended to overlook the cowboy part, and focus — with a particular degree of negativity — on the hippy side of things. In early ’66, a dope bust in Corpus accomplished what the Opry could not: It convinced Doug to decamp. Just in time for that Particular Summer, he abruptly relocated to Haight-Ashbury.
It took a while, but he rebuilt the band, mostly with Texas transplants (getting out of Texas, and fast, was probably in vogue with a lot of young people then), as well as Frank Morin, and was signed to Mercury. Their first LP (this time the title is just plain bizarre), Sir Douglas Quintet +2 = Honkey Blues (1968 Smash), is all over the place. It flies its Freak flag high, with a soul-inspired horn section, weird avant flourishes, and nods to psychedelia. “Sell a Song” is a slow blues number; “I’m Glad for Your Sake (But I’m Sorry for Mine)” is the biggest nod to Tejas, with its spoken Spanish intro.
The final track is (deep breath) “You Never Get Too Big and You Sure Don't Get Too Heavy, That You Don't Have to Stop and Pay Some Dues Sometime.” It starts as a swaggering boogie, then three-quarters of the way through abruptly stops for a saxophone freakout; Doug then tells everyone they’re leaving and they kick over some cymbal stands. Honkey Blues did well in San Francisco, not so well elsewhere.
Doug decided to get back to basics for the next record, bringing in Augie Meyers and Johnny Perez, effectively recreating four-fifths of the original band; for bass they tagged fellow San Antone native Harvey Kagan. The result, 1969’s Mendocino (Smash), is an ebullient, Tex-Mex classic — not just here and there, but every single track. Doug knows it, too: As they launch into the jaunty, irresistible title track, he proudly introduces the band and thanks the listener. Augie is back, and his unmistakable organ was sorely missed. That first song hit Number 27 as a single, but the record is full of gems.
“Crossroads” is heartbreaking; a gorgeous, melancholic classic. On “Lawd I’m Just a Country Boy in This Great Big Freaky City,” Doug bemoans his self-imposed exile and plays the naif, but he does it within a quick, upbeat tempo; a big, knowing grin on his face and a bottle of Lone Star in his hand; and when the band harmonizes with him — rough, loose, and totally sincere — it’s apparent these guys could create a good time anywhere. “Texas Me” is another career standout, with Sahm again wondering how he came to be a stranger in an exceptionally strange land; but this time with a sorrowful, reverb-soaked country fiddle, as big in the mix as, well, Texas. You can tell he really means it this time. Mendocino was a hit here and abroad, spreading the Texas vibe worldwide.
Huey P. Meaux came back to produce the immediate follow-up, Together After Five (Smash), released at the beginning of 1970. A slight letdown after Mendocino, it still has some crucial, amazing tracks. Lightning strikes twice with the LP opener, “Nuevo Laredo,” an upbeat number very much in the style of “Mendocino,” yet even catchier; mariachi trumpets, steel guitar, Augie’s rock-steady Farfisa, and middle verse and chorus in two-part harmony — in Spanish — are impossible to resist. “Dallas Alice” is a slow-tempo, wistful ballad, with a chorus full of rousing, stirring chord changes. Sahm uses the hard-rocking “Revolutionary Ways” to indulge in a bit of well-deserved braggadocio; “I Don’t Want to Go Home” is another heartbreaker along the lines of “Crossroads.”
Also in 1970, the band expanded its line-up and released 1+1+1=4 (Philips). Country pop infuses “Yesterday Got in the Way,” with its warbling, leslie-fed guitar licks; “Catch a Man on the Rise” nails hardcore boogie-rock. They exit on a fine, funky note, a convincing version of the Hayes/Porter Stax classic, “Sixty Minutes of Your Love.” Overall, the focus of the group is a bit off (the LP contains a suspicious number of covers), but the next effort, SDQ’s last official release, would make amends.
With Ccrtain legal troubles resolved, Doug and the band returned to Texas in 1971, and for a homecoming, they went back to where it all started, Huey Meaux’s studio in Houston. Released that year, The Return of Doug Saldana (1971 Philips) is a mature work that strides firmly on to home soil. The classic “Stoned Faces Don’t Lie” reveals some post-60s weariness. “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” had been a minor, regional hit for Freddie Fender, and the SDQ homage acknowledged the respect felt for him within the Latino community. As the album winds down, it presents a startling moment. Doug, alone, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, singing the plaintive, gospel-tinged “Oh Lord, Please Let it Rain in Texas.” He’s moving on.
The Sir Douglas Quintet would reunite for tours in the 80s and 90s, and Doug Sahm and Augie Meyers would collaborate repeatedly. Doug’s next record would feature appearances by Bob Dylan, Dr. John, and Flaco Jimenez; in the 1990s, Jimenez, Meyers, Sahm, and Freddie Fender (whose career Sahm helped re-launch in the 1970s) formed the Texas Tornadoes, and performed together until Doug Sahm’s untimely death in 1999.
After he returned to Texas, Sahm settled in Austin. Mainstream success eluded him; despite some excellent straight-ahead country recordings, Nashville shunned him. However his cult status, tireless effort, and winning, enthusiastic personality helped inspire the genre of outlaw country and make Austin the music capital it is today.
As for The Sir Douglas Quintet, and their rich creative outpouring, a line from the chorus of “Crossroads” says it all:
“You just can’t live in Texas if you don’t have a lot of soul.”