As an amateur blues guitarist, this is – for me – one of the most meaningful, important posts I have ever done. In 4 1/2 years of blogging, I’ve featured a few SRV tunes but never done a series. Why did I wait so long? Don’t know. I think I just wanted to wait for the right time, savor the moment. Stevie Ray came along in the early 1980s, long after I’d started listening to blues but exactly at the time I was playing in bands. His impact was – and is to this day – immense.
Kat’s Karavan was a rhythm-and-blues radio program broadcast from Dallas from 1953 to 1967 on WRR-AM. The program aired R&B music to a primarily white teenage audience with burgeoning interests in music previously off-limits to them because of contemporary race relations.
Kat’s Karavan showed strong support for local music acts such as the Nightcaps, who recorded their only album (Wine, Wine, Wine) at the WRR studio in 1959. While promoting local music, Kat’s Karavan also exposed its listeners to musicians from outside Texas, including such legendary blues figures as John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. Thus the show intended to expand the horizons of its listeners and inform them of the musical styles being created by black musicians.
Wikipedia: “Stephen “Stevie” Ray Vaughan was an American musician, singer, songwriter, and record producer, best known as the guitarist and frontman of the blues-rock band Double Trouble. Although his mainstream career only spanned seven years, he is considered to be one of the most iconic and influential musicians in the history of blues music.”
Stevie’s father, Jimmie Lee Vaughan, and mother Martha Jean Cook met in Dallas when Big Jim was at attendant working at a 7-Eleven and she was a customer. They loved music, .loved to dance got married and settled down, Big Jim taking a job as an asbestos installer. Their son Jimmie was born in March of 1951. Stevie was born three years later in October of 1954.
Influenced in part by their guitar-playing uncles, the brothers took up guitar fairly early, Jimmie at 10, Stevie at 7. While a lot of their early musical influences were in country, Jimmie found himself drawn to the blues. “I went straight for the blues because that’s what sounded best to me, and I can’t tell you why,” says Jimmie.
SRV: “Jimmie turned me on to a lot of different stuff and I just watched him play. I remember him bringing home Hendrix, Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, and B.B. King.” Unfortunately, Big Jim was a violent drunk and would scare the shit out of his kids. The music was their escape out of the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas.*
Being the older brother and by now heavily steeped in the blues, by the age of thirteen, Jimmie was already playing in bands. (For perspective, this would be in 1964 when the Beatles first came to America.) Jimmie was so young his father would have to drive him to gigs and Stevie would often join in. Stevie played his first gig in 1965 when he was 10. (I literally can’t imagine playing anything on any kind of stage in front of anybody at that age – ME.)
Both brothers (and the ZZ Top guys) were heavily influenced by a Dallas-based band called The Nightcaps. They loved a song called “Thunderbird.” (ZZ Top later covered it on their Fandango! album but took credit for it. This held because the Nightcaps never copyrighted it.)
SRV: “The first record I ever bought was Lonnie Mack’s “Wham!” I played it over and over and over and over and over so many times, my dad got mad and broke it! Every time he broke it, I just went and got another one.”
If you listen to this carefully you will hear exactly where SRV got much of his style. Lonnie wasn’t a Texas guy – he was from Indiana! (But a Texas uncle introduced him to the blues):
Jimmie got the hell out first, joining a local hot band called the Chessmen when he was 15 (with drummer Doyle Bramhall) and it wasn’t too long before he was cock of the walk. One local musician said, “Jimmie Vaughan was the king of the mountain, the god of Oak Cliff guitar players. Everyone knew his name.” He moved out and didn’t come back for a while.
Meanwhile, his little brother wasn’t wasting any time either. Whereas Jimmie was about as pure a bluesman as you could get, Stevie was also into rock and absolutely, positively fucking loved Hendrix. (To these ears, Lonnie Mack + Hendrix + Albert King equals Stevie Ray Vaughan.)
Stevie had an ephipany of sorts when, while working in some greasepit restaurant, he fell over onto a (fortunately covered) vat of hot grease. Realizing the owner cared more about the vat of hot grease than she did our hero, Stevie quit the only “real” job he ever had and set his sights on a musical career.
From Stevie’s website: “At 17 he dropped out of high school to concentrate on playing music. In 1970 Stevie was playing in a nine-piece horn band and then formed his first blues band, Blackbird, a year later. Blackbird moved to Austin and after a few more stints in various bands, Vaughan joined Paul Ray and the Cobras in 1975.”
One of those “various bands” was called the Nightcrawlers which again featured Doyle Bramhall on vocals. The Nightcrawlers recorded an album which included Stevie’s songs “Dirty Pool.” and “Crawlin.'”
If you have about a half-hour to spare, these are the earliest recordings of Stevie that I could find, some live, some studio. He would be around 15 or 16 at the time.
“The Cobras were Austin’s Band of the Year in 1976. After paying his dues as a sideman Stevie formed Triple Threat Revue in 1977. Triple Threat also featured bassist W.C. Clark and vocalist Lou Ann Barton. Barton left the band in 1979 and the group became Double Trouble, the name inspired by the Otis Rush song. Double Trouble featured Jack Newhouse on bass, Chris Layton on drums and Vaughan became the band’s lead singer. In 1981 Tommy Shannon (who played with Johnny Winter at Woodstock) joined on bass and the power trio was set.”
Now if you know of Stevie but don’t know his history, bear in mind that in 1981 he was pretty well unknown outside of Texas. The fact that a great blues scene was forming in Austin was largely overlooked by the world. The great nightclub Antone’s – which I once visited well past its prime – was a focal point for all this blues activity. A little history from their site:
“Antone’s on Sixth Street opened on July 15, 1975, with a weekend stint from zydeco king Clifton Chenier & His Red Hot Louisiana Band. That weekend also served notice that a different universe had arrived in Austin, one that would change the city forever. Before long the large room, formerly a furniture store, also became a clubhouse for just-beginning Austin bands like the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Triple Threat Revue.
Antone’s changed everything in Austin and pointed a way forward in spreading the blues. Before long, blues musicians all around the country were talking about the club and hoping to find a way to play there. It ran on the premise that if Clifford Antone said something, you could believe it. There was never any doubt.”
Jimmie had already started to develop a national reputation as guitarist for the great, great band The Fabulous Thunderbirds. And while It was pretty clear to everyone by this point that Stevie was a great player and Double Trouble a great band, it was less clear that the band would ever escape the gravitational pull of Austin. Or for that matter, the vortex of drugs and alcohol that the band in general -and Stevie in particular – were falling prey to.
Next – Montreux, David Bowie and on
*Oak Cliff is the home of the Texas Theatre where former resident Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who was accused of killing U.S. President John F. Kennedy and of shooting Dallas Police officer JD Tippit a was arrested. Jimmie said it was a rough neighborhood. Everybody they grew up with was either dead or in jail.
Sources: Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Wikipedia, Antone’s web site, SRV website; Texas State Historical Association