Legendary Texas songwriter and musician Doug Sahm -- of Sir Douglas Quintet and Texas Tornados fame -- was found dead in a Taos, New Mexico motel room Thursday afternoon. The county medical examiner determined that there was no foul play, though autopsy results will not be known until next week. His eldest son, Shawn, told the Austin American-Statesman
that his father had complained of chest pains the day before. Sahm was fifty-eight.
Sahm's bandmate in the Texas Tornados, Freddy Fender, said that Sahm had always been in robust condition. "Doug was a health nut," Fender said Friday, calling from a hotel in San Diego. "He was healthy as a bear. He always carried all kinds of weeds and stuff -- it was all legal herbs for his health. Outside of the flu and stuff like that, he was healthier than all of us."
Investigating Officer David Maggio of the Taos County Sheriff's Department said that Sahm's body was discovered by a maid around 1 p.m., and that he had most likely been dead for ten or twelve hours.
Sahm, who was born in San Antonio in 1941, wasted no time in beginning his music career. He made his Grand Ol' Opry debut as guitar prodigy "Little Doug" at age six, around the same time that he famously performed sitting on the lap of Hank Williams. By the mid-Sixties, he was a seasoned rock & roller and the leader of the Sir Douglas Quintet, who scored a minor classic in 1965 with the "She's About a Mover" (a highlight on last year's expanded box-set edition of Lenny Kaye's famous garage rock compilation, Nuggets
). The SDQ's sound and image were modeled after the British Invasion bands of the time, a charade Sahm and Co. (including keyboardist Augie Meyers) pulled off with remarkable conviction.
"When the Sir Douglas Quintet came out, I thought they were some kind of British rock & roll band -- I had no idea they were from San Antonio," recalls Joe Ely, who would cross paths with and jam with Sahm in Texas honky tonks on many occasions through the years. At the same time, though, Ely says the SDQ also defined the "big Tex-Mex sound." "That was the cornerstone for anything that came after that. If you were going to play anything that was Tex-Mex rock & roll, you went back to 'She's About a Mover.'" The band would also explore the psychedelic rock sound coming out of San Francisco.
Sahm continued to record rock, country and blues-based albums throughout the next three decades (culminating in what would be the last Sir Douglas Quintet album, S.D.Q. '98
. The Nineties also found him returning to straight-up Tex-Mex as part of the supergroup the Texas Tornados, which also featured Fender, Flaco Jimenez and Sahm's SDQ bandmate Meyers. Their 1990 self-titled debut won a Best Mexican/American Performance Grammy for the song "Soy de San Luis." Four more albums followed, including this year's Live From the Limo, Vol. 1
Although the Tornados were expected to tour Europe together in January, a spokesperson for the group said they were not currently playing together and that Sahm was in Taos travelling on his own. "He was just driving back and forth between Texas and L.A., where he had just formed an independent record label with Bill Bentley at Warner Bros."
Ely remembers Sahm as a man who always lived with an intense dedication for his music, a true embodiment of his own lyric (from "At the Crossroads"): "You can't live in Texas if you don't have a lot of soul."
"Doug was completely passionate about everything rock & roll," said Ely. "In his later years, he was so pissed off about Austin being taken over by people who wanted to destroy music -- especially the computer people who were buying up all the clubs and raising the rents. He was completely passionate, and anything that messed with music just got under his skin. He started spending less and less and less time in Austin and trying to find some music Mecca outside of Austin. I don't think he ever successfully found it."
Fender said that the remaining Tornados are due to meet in the near future to discuss the future of the group. "I don't know for sure what we're going to do, but we're certainly going to have to get another gringo in place because we want to have balance. We have me and Flaco, but we need to even out somebody with Augie and keep the name going."
But he was quick to stress that "nobody could ever replace Doug Sahm. You can't scrape him off -- he's going to be there as long as there's a Texas and as long as there's people who want to hear something different. He liked to tell everybody that he was just an old hippie. So I would like to say, Good bye my friend, good bye old hippie, be blessed, and wherever you're at, be always in peace."
Written by RICHARD SKANSE for RollingStone.com News