Aces High

The Return of the Texas Tornados

You heard of the New Kids on the Block?" asks 56-year-old Vox organ tamer August "Augie" Meyers. "We're the Old Farts in the Neighborhood!" Everyone's reuniting this year: KISS, the Sex Pistols, the Misfits, Radio Birdman, the Bay City Rollers. There's so many damned corpses getting out of their graves and walking around nowadays, you fully expect George Romero to walk out with his clapper at year's end and announce, "Cut! That's a wrap!"

So, why not the Texas Tornados? It's been awhile since their presence was felt, crankin' out infectious, Anglicized Latino party hits like "Who Were You Thinkin' Of." It's a fusion which could have only resulted from 120 years of collective history: The post-"She's a Woman" roller-rink & roll Meyers and Doug Sahm pioneered in the Sir Douglas Quintet; the countrified Latin lover R&B of Freddy Fender hits like "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights"; and Leonardo "Flaco" Jimenez's distinctive, driving accordion, as idiosyncratic and instantly familiar as Keith Richards' rhythm guitar. Why not the Return of the Texas Tornados? It'll certainly be less of a cartoon spectacle than the return of the aged Sex Pistols.

Well, for one thing, there was nothing to "reunite." The Tornados' fade to black was less a dissolution and more a vacation, a chance to reshift priorities, recharge batteries, and explore other options: Meyers and Sahm issued solo albums, both steeped to the eyeballs in the blues, both nominated for Grammys. ("They put me in a category with Babyface," Meyers notes, wryly. "'Course, I didn't win.") Fender went through an aborted solo deal with Arista Texas, and continued selling out houses in Vegas and Tahoe; and ("The chicks were screamin' at Freddy when he was 20," says Sahm. "He's almost 60, and they're still screamin'!") Jimenez released a few albums through his own Arista Texas deal (including his brand-new Buena Suerta, Senorita), continuing the covert guest forays into white-boy territory he began with Ry Cooder in the Seventies -- most recently with the Mavericks.

Besides, the label, Reprise/Nashville, wasn't happy. "The second album, they wanted it to be less Tex-Mex and more country," recalls Meyers. "We told them that we do country, but we didn't get this band together to do country."

"I remember by '93 or '94, we were pretty tired already," says Sahm, who's usually so 12-year-old-on-a-candy-and-soda-diet manic, it's hard to picture him being tired. "But that was [from] really hard touring. `Who Were You Thinkin' Of' was a single, and it did get some of them funky country stations. But at the same time, so much of country is based on radio and young guys, let's face it. Some are good, some are manufactured. I try not to bad-rap nobody, but the truth's the truth." And when Sahm's and Meyers' cowboy hats couldn't sell the Tornado's Tex-Mex juju to the line-dancing crowd, a loss of faith resulted with the label. After four year's hard work, the Texas Tornados took a break.

Once Sahm had written a batch of tunes that gave him a creative woody, he and Reprise's National V.P. of Publicity Bill Bentley (a man who by law has to have his name printed in these pages at least once per week) began hatching a plan with maverick Reprise A&R Director David Katznelson (the evil genius responsible for making Warner Bros. the home of the Boredoms and Mudhoney) to shift the Tornados' home base away from Nashville and into Reprise's Burbank office. The hook ended up being a stunt straight out of every apocryphal tale of rock & roll auditions you've ever heard: Doug Sahm sang his new tune "A Little Bit Is Better Than Nada" to Reprise President Howie Klein from right across the executive's desk. American Hot Wax, anyone?

Sessions began in Austin this past December with veteran Memphis iconoclast Jim Dickinson, as notorious a character as they come, one who has played sessions with the Rolling Stones, the Cramps, and innumerable Memphis R&B artists, and produced acts ranging from Alex Chilton to the Replacements. Needless to say, the results were occasionally volatile.

"I don't think he did us any favors," Meyers remarks curtly.

"Dickinson, we're both a couple of hippies," says Sahm. "He and I got it. Him and Augie didn't get it! They damn near clashed. He criticized Augie a few times. He's one of them old guys that makes profound statements. Jim's out there."

"I knew Jim since when I started recording with Ry Cooder, man," says Jimenez. "I would say he did a real good job. I think he's a real good producer, and he's got real good ideas, and whoever helped besides Jim, I think they did it right, man."

"Our third album, I was not happy with," reflects Fender, echoing a sentiment he apparently shares with the other Tornados. "The second album, I was not happy. The first one is my favorite. This one is very close, or maybe even with, the first one."

They have reason to be proud. 4 Aces rocks and swings with a verve the Tornados haven't displayed since the "Who Were You Thinkin' Of" days. The Tex-Mex elements are prominent, "but it still has an edge to it," Sahm explains. "You hear `4 Aces'" -- a humorous bit of self-mythologizing Sahm claims sprang out of a long-standing joke shared with Bob Dylan that Dylan should "cut a Tex-Mex record" ("And since he didn't, I did!") -- "and it's got that good drum sound, there's some good rock & roll stuff to it. It's not totally conjunto, where it turns off the white world."

There's also a particularly strong brace of Sahm originals present. "I'm really on a roll, right now," he says. "I'm really proud of what I wrote on this album. We really stuck in that Mexican groove on this one." Especially catchy is the album's lead-off song/single, "A Little Bit Is Better Than Nada," which is also seeing some mass exposure through the new Kevin Costner film Tin Cup, which Bill Bentley jokes is sure to become "the Bull Durham of the golf set."

"`...Nada' is really commercial," says Sahm. "Commercial is not a dirty word, to me." He starts singing. "`A little bit is better than nada': You hear that one time, it's in your head. It's got that hook."

Fender even chipped in with his first writing in many years, the buckle-polishing ballad "In My Mind," which he's hoping will resuscitate his long-dormant career as a country music hard-hitter. Sahm echoes that the entire band, despite having gold records, chart hits, and Grammys in their past, would like 'em in their present too. And who knows? The band certainly draws large enough crowds for Sahm to joke that they're "the Tex-Mex Grateful Dead." ("I don't know why he says that!" huffs a clearly exasperated Freddy Fender. "We're not the Grateful Dead or the Beatles or whatever! We're the Texas Tornados, man!") If they could translate those crowds and movie tie-ins and whatnot into record sales, they could possibly break in the same fashion as Metallica: not bowing to commercial pressures, but bending the commercial world to their whims via sheer, overwhelming sales.

Still, as Freddy Fender puts it, "I think we already had the respect of the music world before we were the Texas Tornados. We already had individual reputations. I think the union of the Texas Tornados has given us a solidarity that we might not have had before, or maybe enough to have what we have now.

"Maybe we can all get together, go to the bank, and get a loan!" he laughs. "`We're the Texas Tornados, and we have solidarity! We're solid, man!' `Well, all of you can get real solid and walk out of here, right now!'" n

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