AUSTIN, Texas -- In the '50s he was photographed sitting on Hank Williams' lap, already a country star in his hometown of San Antonio.
In the '60s, his rock ‘n’ roll band had an international top 10 hit, and a couple of years later, he was in San Francisco, bringing a Texas flavor to the psychedelia.
In the '70s, he was back home in Texas, founding, in a sense, the Austin music scene.
In the '80s, he knocked Michael Jackson and Abba off the top of the charts in Sweden.
In the ‘90s, he led the band that popularized Tex-Mex music across the country.
He is Doug Sahm, the leader of the Sir Douglas Quintet and the Texas Tornados, a should-have-been star, who in the view of Joe Nick Patoski is “the untold story of Texas music and all that’s good and great about who we are.”
A writer of Texas culture by trade, Patoski has penned biographies of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Selena, the Dallas Cowboys and Willie Nelson. But he took to film to tell the story of Sahm, who died in a Taos, New Mexico, motel in 1999 at age 58.
“Willie is the icon he should be and represents all that is good and independent and different about us,” Patoski said. “But I’m frustrated that Doug’s story is being forgotten. And the only way to tell his story is not in words and relying on your imagination; you’ve got to hear him, you’ve got to see him, you’ve got to hear him talk about his music, and you’ve got to hear his music, and you’ve got to hear people talking about his music.
“For a guy who’s been dead 15 years and gone from Austin, I’m proud to say, my old friend has come back for an hour and 20 minutes, and he’s alive and more in your face than he’s ever been.”
The 80-minute film, “Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Groove,” had its premiere during South By Southwest last week and, as someone who knew Doug, I can attest that it does indeed bring him back through interviews with his band members, other musicians, friends and family, and performance footage.
Patoski found plenty of good archival audio of the motormouth Sahm, including the first interview Sahm gave, to Rolling Stone’s Chet Flippo in 1971.
“I didn’t find near enough film,” Patoski said. “It’s very frustrating to realize there’s very little film, period, except for these network TV shows in the ‘60s. No one was filming San Francisco except for 'Monterey (Pop).' Even in the early '70s, no one was filming Doug. So 'Austin City Limits,' from the very first season, was some of our first good video.
“So it was finding photos and not trying to be dull and Ken Burns-like, and trying to jam way too much in. People have said it’s too busy. There’s too much in it. That was Doug.”
It most certainly was. And the documentary still doesn’t cover everything about Sahm, like his love of baseball, or go into great depth about, for example, his revival of Freddy Fender’s career, introduction of accordion master Flaco Jimenez to the world outside the San Antonio barrio, or any of the 50 or so albums he made in the U.S., Canada and Sweden.
“If I was Ken Burns, I would have made this four hours long,” said Patoski, who with his crew put the movie together in two years, a fast turnaround for a documentary.
That 1975 Austin City Limits performance, which was released as a CD “Live from Austin, Tx” in 2007, captures Sahm’s versatility, moving from the traditional country fiddle tune “Cotton Eyed Joe” to T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday” to his San Francisco-era “Mendocino” and the Tex-Mex-meets-the-Beatles rock ‘n’ roll of “She’s About a Mover.”
“No single individual besides Doug could articulate all the indigenous forms of Texas music, of which there are many, and do every form authentically,” Patoski said. “Country western, he sits on the lap and is encouraged by the father of country music, Hank Williams. Rhythm and blues, as a teenager he grows up across the street from a chitlin circuit joint, the Eastwood Country Club, through direct transmission he watches T-Bone Walker, Gatemouth Brown and all these road stars and can ask them questions ...
“Bob Dylan was this cultural thief, and when Doug did his great artificial turn, passing for British as the Sir Douglas Quintet in order to get a hit, and it worked, Dylan saw right through it and said he was the most authentic guy he ever saw.
"Country western, western swing, rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues, swamp pop, Tex-Mex ... this one person could play them all. Plus he was the encyclopedia of all great music from this part of the world.”
Sahm’s versatility, both in the styles he played and as a singer, songwriter and arranger, worked against his popular success.
“If he was good at only one of those things, we’d be talking about him. He would have been famous,” Patoski said. “If he could ever have done a set list and stayed on message like a politician, just repeat the same stuff over and over, he’d have been famous.
“Instead he was this Forrest Gump character. Dylan calls the Sir Douglas Quintet the best rock band going in 1965. He’s got the Hank Williams connection, the T-Bone Walker connection. All his life he knows all these heavy cats. Musicians knew him and the musicians that knew him respected him. But everyone else you talk to about Doug Sahm, and they go, who is Doug Sham?” It's really about this guy and his quest to satisfy his soul musically.”
"Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove" got rave reviews from those who were close to Doug -- his family and, notably, his longtime musical partner, the Vox organist/accordion player Augie Meyers, who asked, "How did you like the movie? I thought it was great."
So did the crowd of Sahm friends, admirers and bandmates who gathered outside the Paramount Theatre following the premiere.
"I wanted to come see it here, where Bugs Bunny and Clark Gable were on the screen," said Texas Tornados bassist Speedy Sparks, who appears in the film. "I thought it was great. It was real."
“Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove” will make the film festival rounds over the next few months before it, hopefully, gets distribution -- theatrical and home viewing.
“This isn’t just the launch of a documentary film on Doug Sahm, and it’s not just a tribute show,” SXSW director Louis Black said from the stage of a multi-artist tribute concert at the Paramount a couple of nights after the movie’s premiere.
“It’s the beginning of a campaign. I never want to be in L.A. or New York again and say, ‘I’m working on a film about Doug Sahm’ and hear people say ‘Who?’ And they’re usually in bands whose music was completely influenced by Doug Sahm. This is reclaiming one of the great and most important Texas and American music legacies.”