Vaughan, Stevie Ray (1954-1990)

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Vaughan, Stevie Ray (1954-1990)

The most influential guitarist of his generation, Stevie Ray Vaughan's power and soul brought blues into mainstream rock and helped spark the blues revival of the 1980s. He combined the power of Albert King with the flamboyance of Jimi Hendrix to create a style easily accessible to a generation of young fans and copycat guitar players.

Vaughan was born in Dallas, Texas, into a family that included brother Jimmie, three and a half years his senior. Jimmie, who would later gain fame as the founder and guitarist of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, was Stevie Ray's earliest influence through his record collection. The brothers soaked up Albert, B. B., and Freddie King; Kenny Burrell; Albert Collins; Lonnie Mack; and Jimmy Reed. By the age of eight, Stevie Ray was playing hand-me-down guitars from his brother.

As a teenager, Vaughan fell under the spell of Jimi Hendrix. Vaughan would later take his 1960s psychedelic twist on blues and reinterpret it for the youth of the 1980s. Vaughan's cover of the Hendrix song "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" became a high point of his live shows.

After playing in several Dallas bands, Vaughan dropped out of school and moved to Austin in 1972, where a large blues scene was developing. Vaughan continued to play in various bands until forming his own group, Double Trouble, named for an Otis Rush song, in 1979. The original lineup included singer Lou Ann Barton, but as Vaughan gained confidence, the group was pared down to a power trio including Tommy Shannon on bass and Chris Layton on drums. Double Trouble quickly rose to the top of the Austin music scene.

Vaughan's reputation spread to R & B producer Jerry Wexler, who viewed a performance in 1982. Wexler, considerably impressed, used his pull to get Vaughan booked at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, a feat almost unheard of for an unsigned artist. One member of the Montreux audience was British rocker David Bowie, who asked Vaughan to play on his Let's Dance album and join his 1983 world tour. Vaughan added some stunning Albert King-tinged licks to the album, but pulled out of the tour due to money and other disputes. Vaughan returned to Austin and resumed playing the club circuit.

Another audience member at Montreux was Jackson Browne, who offered the use of his studio for the band to record a demo tape. The tape eventually found its way to John Hammond, Sr., the legendary talent scout and producer who had discovered Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin, and Billie Holiday.

"He brought back a style that had died, and he brought it back at exactly the right time," Hammond said in Stevie Ray Vaughan: Caught in the Crossfire. "The young ears hadn't heard anything with this kind of sound."

Hammond produced the band's first album, Texas Flood, re-leased by Epic Records in 1983. Although only peaking at No. 38 on the Billboard album charts, the record went gold with over 500,000 copies sold. Vaughan's 1984 follow up, Couldn't Stand the Weather, sold over one million copies and spent 38 weeks on the Billboard top 200 album chart. Organist Reese Wynans joined Double Trouble for the 1985 release Soul to Soul.

Vaughan had always boosted his performances by using cocaine and alcohol, but his newfound success exacerbated the problem. "Whereas his cocaine habit had always previously been kept in check by his bank account, that constraint vanished with sold-out concerts," Joe Nick Patoski and Bill Crawford said in their biography Stevie Ray Vaughan: Caught in the Crossfire. "He was rock royalty, a gentleman of privilege, who could have anything he wanted, before, during and after a show, as long as he gave the customers their money's worth." In 1986, all-night mixing sessions for the Live Alive double live album coupled with constant touring pushed Vaughan's drug abuse over the edge. After collapsing on stage during a London concert in October, it seemed Vaughan was headed for an early death like his idol, Jimi Hendrix.

Vaughan was determined to survive his addictions, entering a rehabilitation clinic and joining Alcoholics Anonymous. After four months of treatment, Vaughan emerged a new man. Double Trouble's 1989 album In Step was the band's most focused and critically acclaimed release, selling over one million copies and winning a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album. Days after winning the award, Vaughan appeared on MTV's Unplugged pro-gram, showcasing his acoustic guitar mastery.

Vaughan's live performances were infused with a new vigor, and he was at the top of his game. His next project was an album with his older brother, Jimmie, called Family Style, recorded during the summer of 1990. The brothers planned to tour together in support of the album. Before the release of Family Style, Vaughan began a tour with Eric Clapton and Robert Cray. Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, Jeff Healey, and brother Jimmie joined in for an appearance at Alpine Valley Music Theater in East Troy, Wisconsin, on August 25 and 26. The concert on the 26th concluded with Stevie Ray, Jimmie, Clapton, and Guy dazzling the crowd of 35,000 with "Sweet Home Chicago." Afterwards, a helicopter carrying Vaughan and three members of Clapton's entourage to Chicago crashed into a fog-shrouded hillside near the theater. All aboard were killed. The accident was blamed on pilot error.

Family Style was released on September 25 and broke the top ten on Billboard's album chart. The album was a departure for Vaughan, who showed more restraint than on his solo efforts. Vaughan's career appeared to be moving into a more mature phase, demonstrated in songs like "Tick Tock," which showcased Vaughan's vocals rather than his guitar. Family Style won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album, and the instrumental "D/FW" won for Best Rock Instrumental.

Vaughan's death sparked interest in his earlier albums as well, and each quickly shot over one million in sales. The Sky is Crying, an album of previously unreleased out-takes and masters, was released in 1991 and won two more Grammy Awards. Several live recordings of varying quality were released in later years, proving Vaughan's enduring legacy.

—Jon Klinkowitz

Further Reading:

Kitts, Jeff, Brad Tolinski, and Harold Steinblatt. Guitar World Presents Stevie Ray Vaughan. Wayne, New Jersey, Music Content Developers, 1997.

Leigh, Keri. Stevie Ray: Soul to Soul. Dallas, Taylor Publishing Company, 1993.

Patoski, Joe Nick and Bill Crawford. Stevie Ray Vaughan: Caught in the Crossfire. Boston, Little, Brown and Company, 1993.

Rhodes, Joe. "Stevie Ray Vaughan: A White Boy Revives the Blues." Rolling Stone. September 29, 1983, 57-59.

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Vaughan, Stevie Ray (1954-1990)

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