"Let the white guys sing!"

Doug Sahm played a cosmic and unmistakable Tex-Mex blues for more than 40 years.

Published November 24, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Doug Sahm at Tipitina's, 1991? After two and a half hours, we were just about to call it a night. Supported by longtime running partner Flaco Jimenez and an as-always stellar band, Sahm had been fine. All over the map as usual -- straight blues, conjunto, swamp-rock lovers' waltzes. The whole trick bag. Sahm was sipping Jack Daniel's and Coke out of plastic cups the whole time. The band finally departed the stage, and we slapped our hands together appreciatively, a little beat -- it can be a hard day's night just watching Doug Sahm perform. About five minutes later, just as the last fans were shuffling out past Professor Longhair's bust, the band began to come back onto the stage, Sahm close behind.

They broke into a T-Bone Walker shuffle and played another hour and a half. The first set had just been a warm-up.

Max's Kansas City, 1973. My introduction to live Doug Sahm. Jack Barber, a real barber, on bass. As (almost) always, Augie Meyers on Vox organ. Bobbie Neuwirth opens up all lonesome on an acoustic guitar. Sahm's players wander onstage like a bar band you'd think twice about throwing a bottle at. Rocky Morales on tenor sax is large, swaying in a deeply hypnotic state, a nasty tone to his playing, biting the reed. Wasted days, perhaps. But the night is not being wasted.

The kicker is the older-than-ancient fiddle player, old Texas swing-band veteran J.R Chatwell. Sahm calls him to the mike, and it takes J.R. about three minutes to cross the stage. Everyone's cool with this. This is not show business, it's about playing music, and having the patience to wait for it to happen. J.R. takes the mike. It happens. The band is beside itself. Doug's standing back behind the drums. I imagine Sahm himself, old and arthritic, painfully negotiating his way to the mike 50 years hence, me creaking in my seat, watching, grinning, slapping my hand on a filthy tablecloth.

I recorded Doug Sahm's "Texas Me" in Berlin in 1987, and it is easily one of the most embarrassing byproducts of my illustrious career as a below-the-radar indie rocker. For a while I blamed others -- the swingless German drummer, the producer who let it out of the building -- but eventually I had to face the fact: I couldn't do it. The song sounds as simple and straightforward as a song can get. Wrong. Playing time that straight and loose is as tricky as it gets. My only consolation is that I can't recall anyone else who's ever covered a Doug Sahm song credibly, either.

Jimmie's New Orleans, 1992? The last time I saw Sahm play, a gig with the Texas Tornados. An unanticipated second commercial coming, shades of the early Sir Douglas Quintet days, when Sahm had a handful of Tex-Mex hits dressed absurdly like a British fop. He was sharing a stage with Meyers, the incomparably psychedelic accordion stylings of Jimenez and the man he called "the great Rio Grande Valley bluesman," Freddy Fender. I was playing with the opening band and hanging backstage. All four principals were forthcoming, patient, courtly, in a way that simply never happens in such circumstances.

Onstage was a different matter. Poking, digging at each other. An accumulation of close to 200 years of one-night stands among them. "Let the white boys sing!" you could hear Sahm yell between songs. The guy was no saint -- he loved to lead the band, and left dozens of bands in his wake as testimony. But I still couldn't figure out who he was talking about. There weren't any white guys onstage I could see.

Doug Sahm, hardcore troubadour, Chicano by force of will, metaphysician without boundaries, dead at 58 in Taos, N.M.? The place sounds right. The timing, though, is way off.

By Tracy Santa

Tracy Santa is a writer and musician who lives in Bulgaria.

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