Word just came when I was writing this post that one of the great giants of rock and roll – Little Richard – has died. Good article here in Rolling Stone. Only one left from that era is Jerry Lee Lewis.
“He seemed to come out of nowhere, a Zorro-type figure in a riverboat gambler’s hat, roaring into the ’82 Montreux festival with a ’59 Stratocaster at his hip and two flame-throwing sidekicks he called Double Trouble. He had no album, no record contract, no name, but he reduced the stage to a pile of smoking cinders and, afterward, everyone wanted to know who he was.” –People Magazine.
In early 1982, Double Trouble played the Continental Club in Austin. Jerry Wexler, legendary honcho at Atlantic Records, happened to be in town for former SRV singer Lou Ann Barton’s record release party. Wexler knew a good thing when he heard it and decided to recommend the band to “Funky Claude” who ran the Montreux Jazz Festival.*
At Montreux in July 1982, the band did some Freddie King tunes, Stevie’s own instrumental “Rude Mood,” “Texas Flood,” and a bunch of great blues and R&B stuff. And the audience loved it. Not! Unfortunately, they’d been booked at a jazz – not blues – festival on an acoustic night. And so while most of the audience was quiet and respectful – like Dylan at Newport ’65 – they got booed.
According to Vaughan: “it wasn’t the whole crowd [that booed]. It was just a few people sitting right up front. The room there was built for acoustic jazz. When five or six people boo, wow, it sounds like the whole world hates you. They thought we were too loud, but shoot, I had four army blankets folded over my amp, and the volume level was on 2. I’m used to playin’ on 10!”
Despite all that, fortunately, this show was filmed. This is the last tune of the night the (Albert) “Collins Shuffle.” At the end of you can hear the boos and see the look on Stevie’s face. I didn’t pick it so much for that reason as the fact that almost every other tune is on one of his albums.
But sometimes in the face of great despair, there is a small miracle. In this case, it was in the guise of someone from the festival who said. “David Bowie would like to meet you.” Bowie did not perform at the fest but was there in attendance. For those who think that Bowie was mostly a guy from outer space, the truth is he was every bit the R&B guy and that’s how he got into playing the sax.
Of Stevie Bowie said, “He completely floored me. I probably hadn’t been so gung-ho about a guitar player since seeing Jeff Beck with his band the Tridents.” (Late 1964, early 1965.)
Of Bowie, Vaughan said, “to tell you the truth, I was not very familiar with David’s music when he asked me to play on the sessions. … David and I talked for hours and hours about Double Trouble’s music, about funky Texas blues and its roots – I was amazed at how interested he was. At Montreux, he said something about being in touch and then tracked me down in California, months and months later.”
Later the band jammed in the bar and totally blew away the attendees including Jackson Browne’s band members who were there that night. Jackson said to his guitarist, “I have a loft studio in downtown LA, and you’re working with him and say he’s good, he is welcome to use it for free.”
Thus did Stevie’s encounters with two of the least likely people (Bowie and Browne) you can think of begin. The guys left Montreux with a possibility of recording at Browne’s studio, a potentially empty promise from the Starman himself, the sound of boos still ringing in his ears – and not much else.
Back in Austin, they were still stuck in the same grind of playing the local clubs and still opening for Jimmie or Johnny Winter. Having nothing to lose, they decided to take Jackson Browne up on his offer. Jackson didn’t really expect it but told them, “sure” and they came in over the Thanksgiving weekend in 1982. They booked a tour to make some money as collectively – as we like to say here – they didn’t have a pot to piss in. The band didn’t even have a contract.
When they got to Browne’s studio, they essentially set up and played their “live” set. Steve’s entire effects consisted of one very popular (especially with yours truly) foot pedal called a Tube Screamer. Tommy Shannon recalls of the sessions, “It really was just a big warehouse with concrete floors and some rugs thrown down. We just found a little corner, set up in a circle looking at and listening to each other, and played like a live band.”
While still in LA, Stevie got a phone call. It was the Thin White Duke himself. Bowie wanted to know if SRV wanted to cut some tracks for his new album, maybe join him on his world tour. (Can you even fucking imagine getting a call like this? – ME). So two big things were now happening which were A) trying to get something going with this new album of songs they created and B) Stevie flying to New York to work with Bowie.**
Bowie’s album, Let’s Dance, had largely been already recorded. Nile Rodgers was the producer. “It didn’t take me long,” he says, “to realize we had something special.” Asked later by another musician friend what his contribution was to the album, Stevie said, “I just sprayed Albert King all over the fucker.”
Let’s Dance was released in April of 1983 and was a massive album for Bowie. It got shitloads of play on MTV. The record lost album of the year to Thriller and is, to date, his biggest-selling album ever. Here’s the title tune with Stevie spraying Albert King all OVER this fucker. (The video is hilarious as it shows Bowie faking the guitar parts.)
Eric Clapton famously heard Wilson Pickett’s version of “Hey Jude” with Duane Allman playing and said, “I have to know who this guitarist is right now!” That is exactly how I felt when I heard the Bowie album. Liked it a lot but I thought, “Who the fuck is THAT guy?” That album, like much of the world outside of Texas, was my introduction to Stevie Ray Vaughan.
I was playing in blues bands at that time and on hearing him I was torn between great inspiration and utter guitar-burning despair. At one point I stood on a bridge my guitar in hand, ready to leap off and end it all.
Actually that last thing I just said? Never happened. I just thought it might make the story a little more dramatic. Truthfully I was pretty inspired. I immediately tried to learn the instrumental “Testify,” utterly failed as I didn’t have the chops and so would fake my way through it. And I’d forgotten this but we did ‘Pride and Joy,” with me singing. I’d completely forgotten that until I recently recalled the sight of women being violently sick in the audience. Ah, memory
Needless to say, while this album was a major success for Bowie, it put the almost utterly (outside of Texas) unknown Stevie Ray Vaughan on the map big time. While his brother Jimmie had had good success with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, it was nothing like this, and – good as he was – Jimmie never quite became a household name.
By this time, the yet-unnamed album recorded at Jackson Browne’s studio had made its way to none other than John Hammond, discoverer of everyone from Billie Holiday to Bruce Springsteen to Bob Dylan. In this era of synthesizers and bands like Devo and Duran Duran, Stevie’s blues were still a very hard sell. And so it took someone like Hammond to give this thing the final push.
Double Trouble were signed to Epic Records and so finally in June of 1983, after all those years of slogging, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s debut album – now called Texas Flood – was released. And boy it did not disappoint. Track for track, this is one great blues album.
Blues was still very much of a niche thing as it always had been, dipping into and out of mainstream popularity. But given the push from Stevie’s management, some great tunes and a bunch of videos in rotation on MTV, this thing took off so fast and people talked about it so much well, all the telephone lines were down.
The title tune had been a signature song for Stevie’s chum Texas blues singer Angela Strehli. But when Stevie took it over it became his song. Not only did she no longer sing it, I’m not sure if anybody has the balls to take it on anymore. It would be like some dude getting up and saying, “Gee, let me whip through ‘All Along the Watchtower.’
Let me end this post by jumping ahead to Stevie’s legendary late 1983 performance on the great Austin City Limits. I still recall to this day my stepmother – no fan of rock but a great blues lover – calling me on the phone and saying, “Did you see this guy on TV?” How she knew about it I’ll never know.
If you click on those horizontal bars on the top right of the video, you’ll be able to jump from tune to tune. The last song, “Don’t Fall For Me Baby,” has both Strehli singing and Kim Wilson (harp in Fabulous Thunderbirds) sitting in:
*The band auditioned for Rolling Stone records but Mick Jagger – a bluesman himself – didn’t sign them because “blues doesn’t sell.” They also opened for the Clash but the calls of “Fuck You!” from the punk crowd caused them to bail out of that situation.
**While in New York, Stevie cut a couple of tunes with bluesman Johnny Copeland for his Texas Twister album.
Part Three coming up. Stevie reaches fame and fortune, gets fucked up on drugs, rehabs and, well, you know how the story ends.
Sources: Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Wikipedia, Antone’s web site, SRV website; Rise of a Texas Bluesman documentary