When I heard “Pride and Joy” on the radio, I said, Hallelujah! Stevie Ray Vaughan single-handedly brought guitar- and blues-oriented music back to the marketplace. He was just so good and so strong that he would not be denied. No one was interested in this stuff until they heard Stevie Ray and I think it reminded them of what they had been missing.- Dickey Betts.
There had been some talk about Double Trouble opening for Bowie on his 1983 Serious Moonlight tour. This did not happen and depending on whose version you listen to it seemed to be for a combination of reasons. Some of them involved Stevie’s cocaine usage (which Bowie had kicked), some involved Stevie’s wife Lenny being a pain in the ass, some of them involved SRV trying to renegotiate his contract.
But a lot of it was just business, i.e, is Stevie better off touring with his band to support his own album or as the (possibly overlooked) opening act to the world’s biggest superstar? Whichever way it went, Stevie pulled out and Double Trouble embarked on their own tour.
There were a few interesting gigs during this time. This show – that by all rights I should have been at – happened in Montreal in August of 1983.
The band also opened up for the Moody Blues on a few shows. There was concern expressed that this might have been a mismatch of bands. Personally, while on the one hand, I think it would have been perfect if they’d been aligned with someone like the J. Geils band, a tour with the Moody Blues made sense. The Moodys were not and are not a blues band. But the average rock audience in that day had a diverse set of tastes and I bet a good number of them were blues fans.
In any event, this went over well, definitely better than the Clash, probably even better than a Bowie tour would have. Tommy Shannon described the tour as “glorious”: “Our record hadn’t become that successful yet, but we were playing in front of coliseums full of people. We just went out and played, and it fit like a glove. The sound rang through those big coliseums like a monster. People were going crazy, and they had no idea who we were!”
What continues to amaze me after all these years is how many industry people up and down the line from record company execs to disc jockeys to musicians (Hey, Mick!) said that nobody wants to hear a blues guitarist. Well, fuck, yeah we do wanna hear SRV and the band tear it up on “Testify” from the El Mocambo in Toronto (Spotify from Carnegie Hall):
Now, I wish I could say it was all sweetness and light. But Stevie and the boys had always enjoyed the good life by which I mean the musician’s usual habit of “Woke up this morning and I got myself a beer.”
Stevie had been drinking ever since he was a kid and now he had a powerful cocaine and booze habit. He was able to sustain on this mixture for a while but contrary to what many musicians seem to think, being on champagne and reefer on a consistent basis does not make your playing any better.
Late in 1983 – around the time the band played Austin City Limits – Guitar Player magazine awarded him Best New Talent, Best New Electric Blues Guitar Player, and Best Guitar Album. Right after that he went and taped a show with his old pal Albert King:
In May of 1984, the band released their second album, Couldn’t Stand the Weather. It was another mixture of originals and covers including Stevie’s version of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” and his Kenny Burrell/Wes Montgomery inspired jazzy number, “Stang’s Swang.” (Clapton, for all we love his playing, never did anything like this):
Shannon: “We were becoming successful so dealers found us. The drug intake had increased dramatically, though the real negative effects hadn’t taken over yet.”
Buddy Guy: “I cussed Stevie out ’cause I saw him and Johnny Winter once and he didn’t even know who I was. I got in his face about the drugs.”
Stevie and the guys opened for Huey Lewis who was absolutely a huge fucking fan. It did not go well as the audience just clamored for Huey. Why the fuck are they even putting Stevie out there opening for other people at this point?
“On October 4, 1984, Vaughan headlined a performance at Carnegie Hall that included many guest musicians. For the second half of the concert, he added Jimmie as rhythm guitarist, drummer George Rains, keyboardist Dr. John, Roomful of Blues horn section, and featured vocalist Angela Strehli.”
And two days later – fully 1 1/2 years after hearing “Let’s Dance” – yours truly got to see SRV at the Orpheum Theater in Boston. Outside of a small club, you can’t beat the Orpheum. It’s a Fillmore-like theater where I cut my teeth going to shows in my misspent youth.
Needless to say, I was blown away. He did everything from “Scuttle Buttin'” to “Texas Flood” to three (!) Hendrix covers – “Voodoo Child,” “Little Wing,” and “Third Stone from the Sun,” ending with “Rude Mood.”
Around this time, Stevie played on his hero Lonnie Mack’s Strike Like Lightning album. Ironically, Mack – a white artist – was now recording for Alligator Records which had rejected SRV as being too derivative of Albert King. This is basically a remake of “Wham!” called “Double Whammy.” Live at the Orpheum (in Memphis):
When it came time to record his next album, Stevie wanted to add more flavor and so keyboardist Reese Wynans joined. I’ve written about Reese before but his main claim to fame at this point was that he was at the initial jam in 1969 where the Allman Brothers formed. But Duane had other ideas about a keyboardist. (Stevie loved the Allmans and saw the original band perform in Austin about two weeks before Duane died. He opened for Gregg on more than one occasion.)
Sout to Soul was a good album but didn’t break any new ground. (I’ve always been fond of saying that Stevie basically made the same album over and over again but it was a good one.) We saw SRV again at the Boston Opera House in March 1985 at what I would swear was a Boston Globe Jazz Festival. (Or it might have been Newport which he also played that year.) Stevie was by this point pretty fucked up on drugs but not only did we not know that but his playing was again, flawless.
By 1986, things were pretty bad drug-wise. The band put out an album called Live Alive but it might just as well have been called Live Half-Dead.
Wikipedia: “At the height of Vaughan’s substance abuse, he drank 1 US quart (0.95 L) of whiskey and used one-quarter of an ounce (7 g) of cocaine each day. Personal assistant Tim Duckworth explained: “I would make sure he would eat breakfast instead of waking up drinking every morning, which was probably the worst thing he was doing.” According to Vaughan: “it got to the point where if I’d try to say “hi” to somebody, I would just fall apart crying. It was like solid doom.”
In September 1986, Double Trouble traveled to Denmark for a one-month tour of Europe. During the late night hours of September 28, Vaughan became ill after a performance in Ludwigshafen, Germany, suffering from near-death dehydration, for which he received medical treatment.
The incident resulted in his checking into The London Clinic under the care of Dr. Victor Bloom, who warned him that he was a month away from death. After staying in London for more than a week, he returned to the United States and entered Peachford Hospital in Atlanta, where he spent four weeks in rehabilitation; Shannon checked into rehab in Austin.”
After Stevie got out of rehab in late 1986, he went to live in his mother’s house back in Dallas. He got divorced from Lenny and legal and other entanglements prevented him from recording for a while.
When he did record, the album was called In Step because, “I’m finally in step with life, in step with myself, in step with my music. The album’s liner notes include the quote “Thank God the elevator’s broken,” a reference to the twelve-step program proposed by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Several of the songs were inspirational and were about overcoming addiction without being preachy.
The song “Tightrope” was co-written with his old buddy Doyle Bramhall:
Jeff Beck and SRV had met some years prior at some Epic Records industry affair. By all accounts, they were like two cats arching their backs and checking each other out. Somehow – as part of the In Step tour – somebody came up with the idea of pairing the two bands and calling it The Fire Meets The Fury Tour.
Did I go to this? Are you fucking kidding me? Does the Pope wear a funny hat? We saw him at a place in Worcester and I will tell you what, this should have been called the Loud and Even Louder tour. I’m still friends with one of the guys I went with and we talked about it not too long ago. I’m not sure if either of us has our hearing back. While it was fun to see these gunslingers together, I’ve seen them both on separate occasions and much preferred it when they weren’t going head to head, trying to outdo each other.
This is from the Chicago show:
By 1990, Stevie was in a good place, clean and sober and in a relationship with a woman he had met in Australia. He finally made an album with brother Jimmie called Family Style. It’s a good album but is more laid-back Jimmie style than balls-to-the-wall SRV style. It was released in November of 1990. He never got to hear it.
As part of a tour, Double Trouble played with Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Buddy Guy and Jimmie at Alpine Valley, an amphitheater in East Troy, Wisconsin. Here they all are doing “Sweet Home Chicago” on the night of Stevie’s last performance:
The problem with the place is that you have limited access in and out and the best way to travel is by helicopter. After what was by all accounts a great show, all the bands took off. Stevie wanted to get back to Chicago ASAP, He never made it.
“Vaughan and the other three passengers (Clapton’s booking agent Bobby Brooks, bodyguard Nigel Browne, assistant tour manager Colin Smythe) departed aboard the third helicopter in dense fog at 1 a.m. Jeff Brown piloted the helicopter off the golf course, at a higher speed and slightly lower altitude than the others.
It banked sharply to the left and crashed into the side of a 300-foot ski slope, about 0.6 miles (1 km) from takeoff. All on board were killed instantly. There was no fire or explosion, and the bodies and debris were scattered over 200 feet (60 m). No one was aware of the crash until the helicopter failed to arrive at its destination the next morning.”
I remember exactly where I was that day, August 27, 1990. I was involved in a computer business (long gone) with a couple of guys and driving to a customer. I heard the news on the radio and nobody was sure who had died. I didn’t know if it was Clapton or SRV but frankly, either one seemed unimaginable.
“A two-year probe by the National Transportation Safety Board found that improper planning/decision by the pilot was the main probable cause of the crash. Darkness, fog, haze and rising terrain were contributing factors.”
And so, like that, one of the greatest blues guitarists to ever walk the face of the earth was gone. Thirty years ago this year. Imagine.
In the year that I’m writing this, 2020, blues is still alive and well although not even remotely in the mainstream. It’s back down the alley, back with the voodoo and the hoodoo and the “booze and the broads” and the gamblers, wild ramblers, and the backdoor men. It’s outsider music and so maybe that’s where it should be. But I can turn on Sirius XM’s B.B. King channel 24/7 and listen to the blues all day long if I want.
As to Stevie, his legacy is huge. He was one-of-a-kind and we won’t see his like again any time soon. Let us mourn his death but let us be glad for what he gave us in his 35 years on earth.
In 1994 a bronze statue of SRV was erected to downtown Austin on the banks of Lady Bird Lake where he had performed his final Austin show on May 4, 1990. I was in Dallas years ago and actually visited his (and his father’s) grave. There wasn’t a soul around.
R.I.P Stevie. Joe Bonamassa, Robert Cray, Samantha Fish, Eric Clapton. Gary Clark, Jr., Tab Benoit, Ana Popovic, Warren Haynes, Toronzo Cannon, Buddy Guy, and even yours truly are still layin’ it down and playing the blues. Which will never, ever die.
Sources: Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Wikipedia, Antone’s web site, SRV website; Rise of a Texas Bluesman documentary