Graded on a Curve:
Doug Sahm and Band, (s/t)

Hank Williams’ very last performance in this life was at the Skyline Club in Austin, Texas in December 1953. On stage with him was an unusual figure; the 11-year-old Douglas Wayne Sahm, a prodigy who had made his radio debut at the age of five. Come 1965, Sahm became the front man of The Sir Douglas Quintet, whose “She’s About a Mover” is nothing less than one of the greatest songs ever. (Yeah, that’s right.) Now jump forward to 1973 and Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, who produced Sahm’s debut solo LP, Doug Sahm and Band.

That “band” was misleading; the folks in that studio were nothing less than a supergroup, and had no intention of hitting the road together. Bob Dylan, Dr. John, David Bromberg, and the Tejano Mexican accordionist Flaco Jiménez were all involved, as was famed saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman and ex-Sir Douglas Quintet keyboardist Augie Meyers, who produced that great organ sound on “She’s About a Mover.”

It could have turned into a self-indulgent fiasco, as so many sessions crowded with big names do, but instead it was an instant classic—energetic, ecstatic, and in general the kind of LP guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Its mix of Tex-Mex, blues, and rock’n’roll means it’s all over the place, but the band put their magic touch on whatever genre they turned their heads to. Sahm wrote only 3 of the LP’s 12 songs—other contributors included Dylan, Willie Nelson, and T-Bone Walker, amongst others—but he managed to make them his own.

This is one of those LPs that, if you don’t own it, when you die and go to Heaven the good Lord is going to ask you why. He’s going to say, “’Wallflower’ was the best Dylan tune since The Basement Tapes, and you missed it. Doug and Bob kick ass on the hillbilly vocals, and David Bromberg plays one hot dobro. This one’s a better vocal collaboration than Dylan and Johnny Cash, although I give them kudos for being drunk off their asses when they recorded it.” “(Is Anybody Going to) San Antone” is catchy as all hell, and the twin fiddles of Sahm and Ken Kosek, combined with the steel guitar of Charlie Owens, will make you think you’re at the Grand Ole Opry. Meanwhile Dylan joins Sahm on vocals, although I be damned if I can hear him. “It’s Gonna Be Easy,” a tune written by former Sir Douglas Quintet member Atwood Allen, is a bona fide triumph, a Byrds-like number that features Allen and Sahm on lead vocals and Owens on steel guitar. It’s one groovy tune, with great backing vocals, and Owens playing one perty solo on the steel guitar. It’s should’ve been hit somewhere, just like it is in my head.

“Your Friends” is a slow horns-based blues number; Newman blows on the tenor while Willie Bridges plays the baritone sax and Wayne Jackson throws in on trumpet. But it’s Sahm’s hot solos that threaten to burn the song down, while the horns provide punctuation and form a unified front on the choruses. Sahm also demonstrates he has what it takes to sing the blues as well as play them, which is also the case with the juiced-up “Dealer’s Blues,” a Sahm contribution that name-checks cocaine and magic mushrooms while Jack Walrath, Martin Fierro, and Mel Martin provide the horn section and Newman tosses off one swinging tenor sax solo. Once again Sahm plays a killer solo, while on “Blues Stay Away From Me”—another tune that sounds like it could have come straight off The Basement Tapes—Dylan and Douglas duet on vocals while Bromberg plays great dobro, Dylan plays some raw-boned guitar, and Jiménez tosses off one very copacetic accordion solo. Loosy goosy, that’s the way I like my blues, and that’s the way they play them here, Amen.

“Faded Love,” an old Texas Playboys chestnut, will make you miss the old family farm, and the barn dances where you first smoked marijuana in the hayloft. Once again Sahm and Kosek double up on fiddles, Charlie Owens plays a nifty steel guitar solo, and Atwood joins Sahm on the vocals. This is tears in your beer country, and Atwood and Sahm throw everything they’ve got into those heartbreak vocals. Meanwhile, “Poison Love” takes you south of the border, and it takes you there in a hurry. Jiménez and pianist Augie Meyers shine, while Bromberg on dobro and Andy Statman on mandolin also contribute. But this one is Jiménez’s showcase, despite Sahm’s impassioned vocals.

“Papa Ain’t Salty” opens with Sahm counting off and then goes straight to the blues, with Augie Meyers playing some cool piano and Sahm demonstrating, once again, his knack for blues guitar. Meanwhile, those horns kick back in at around the halfway point, somebody shouts, “Yeah!”, and Fathead plays one very soulful tenor sax solo. I don’t pretend to know what “salty” means, and bottom line is I don’t care, because the band follows “Papa Ain’t Salty” with the Willie Nelson tune “Me and Paul.” It moves and it grooves, propelled by Dylan’s harmonica, a neat piano solo by Meyers, and Bromberg’s ever-present dobro, and reminds me a lot of “Me and Bobby McGee,” though different ears may disagree.

“Don’t Turn Around” is another blues number, big on the horns and piano, and it features Sahm singing, “Don’t turn around/something’s gaining on you.” Sahm plays just about everything on this one but the horns, and I especially like his piano playing and tasty guitar fills. This one has a fifties feel, and sounds like something Richard Manuel might have sung—and sung better—on The Band’s Moondog Matinee. But that’s not a gripe at Sahm—he acquits himself well on vocals, while Fathead Newman lays down a big sax sound behind him. As for “I Get Off,” it’s a great rock tune, funky as The Band at their funkiest and featuring cool horns and a furious guitar solo, to say nothing of some perfectly arranged horns. Sahm’s guitar in particular wins the day, and the song goes out on a solo I wish he’d kept playing for at least 5 more minutes. This one may be the best tune on the LP, although I’m also partial to “Wallflower” and “It’s Gonna Be Easy.”

Doug Sahm went on to make plenty more great records, mining all kinds of styles and genres and mixing and matching them to suit his whims. He was the whiz kid who grew up to fulfill his very early promise, and I like to think that Hank Williams know he was in the presence of somebody special at his last show. Then again, he might have been just plain drunk, and never ever noticed the presence of the little kid playing behind him. We’ll never know because Hank died on the road, in the back seat of a Cadillac, on his way to his next gig. As for Sahm, he died in his bed, at too young an age just like Williams. That’s the way it goes sometimes. Drunkards and long-haired hippie musicians all die, and you can find all their best songs on that atomic juke box in that roadhouse called Heaven, where the drinks are free and Williams and Sahm are sharing the stage, playing beautiful music together.


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