Though the Mississippi Delta was the birthplace of the blues, Texas has a fair claim to being the best state for blues music. From the acoustic gospel of Blind Willie Johnson to the electric rock-and-roll boogie of Billy Gibbons, a wide variety of blues sounds and players have sprung from the Texas soil. Yet one bluesman more than any other defines Texas blues: Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Vaughan’s life itself seems like the lyrics of a blues song—the story of a young man who triumphed over a negative background through the power of music, only to be cut down in his prime. It only seems appropriate to divide this article up into verses.
Vaughan’s early life seemed ripped from the lyrics of a blues song. Born in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas on October 3, 1954, Vaughan grew up with an abusive and alcoholic father. As a child, Vaughan would steal drinks from guests when his parents had parties at their house. This rough background contributed to his many struggles with alcohol and drug usage.
His brother Jimmie Vaughan was a more positive influence on his life, bringing blues and rock-and-roll records that young Stevie Ray listened to. By combining the sounds of classic blues artists like T-Bone Walker with the psychedelic guitar rock of Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, Vaughan was able to revolutionize blues music during his career.
Stevie Ray Vaughan didn’t do well in school—he hung out with the wrong crowd, abused drugs and alcohol, and got in trouble for being poorly groomed. He took a music theory class, but he failed it because he couldn’t read music. Although he seemed destined for failure, his love of music ended up saving him. He had started playing guitar at seven; at thirteen, he joined a cover band called Brooklyn Underground, but was later dismissed because he was too young to play venues that served alcohol.
Throughout his teenage and young adult years, he continued to hone his skills in a variety of different bands, but his love for blues music put him at odds with band members who wanted to play crowd-friendly pop. Even though Vaughan didn’t hit it big during this time, he continually honed his skills playing in bands and jamming in blues clubs. He also cultivated his unique image, with loud shirts, cowboy hats, and a beat-up Strat he called “Number One,” which originally belonged to soft-rocker Christopher Cross.
All of Vaughan’s hard work finally paid off in 1982. His latest band, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, had completed its transformation from a female-fronted quintet into its defining power-trio lineup, with Tommy Shannon on bass and Chris Layton on drums. The band’s manager, Chesley Millikin, gave a tape of Stevie Ray Vaughan to Mick Jagger. Jagger liked the tape so much he hired Vaughan and Double Trouble to play a private party for the Stones.
That same year, Milikin helped land Double Trouble a spot on the Blues Night of the Montreux Jazz Festival, a miracle for an unsigned act. Although the band was booed by blues purists who expected acoustic music, Vaughan gained two important fans—Jackson Browne, who offered the group free studio time, and David Bowie, who hired Stevie to play on his Let’s Dance album. The album Double Trouble recorded at Browne’s studio, Texas Flood, became a surprise smash, propelling the band to national stardom and bringing blues back to public attention.
The band continued their winning streak with Couldn’t Stand the Weather, which was produced by the legendary John Hammond. The sessions for the album produced gems such as the frenetic instrumental “Scuttle Buttin’,” the bluesy Hendrix remake “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” and the ultra-cool “Tin Pan Alley (AKA Roughest Place In Town),” which was recorded in one take while engineer Richard Mullen was adjusting sound levels. Hammond’s straitlaced personality—he would read the New York Times while the band was playing—clashed with the band’s rock-and-roll lifestyle.
Cocaine and alcohol abuse gradually took its toll on the band, and after Couldn’t Stand the Weather the group’s albums and live performances decreased in quality. Eventually, Vaughan himself realized that he could not keep up the drinking and drugs. He had a nervous breakdown while on tour in Europe in 1986, went into rehab, went back to Texas, and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. He successfully conquered drug addiction, and released In Step in 1989. It contained his only #1 single, “Crossfire.” He also recorded an album with his brother Jimmie Vaughan, called Family Style.
Unfortunately, just as his life and career were turning around, Stevie Ray Vaughan was killed in a helicopter crash in Wisconsin. He was heading to Chicago with members of Eric Clapton’s entourage to play the next show on his tour with Clapton, who was one of Vaughan’s heroes. The last song Vaughan performed was the Robert Johnson standard “Sweet Home Chicago,” along with Clapton, Jimmie Vaughan, Robert Cray, and Buddy Guy. Due to poor visibility, Vaughan’s helicopter crashed into an artificial ski slope, killing everyone inside it, and robbing America of one of its music legends.
Although he died before his time, Stevie Ray Vaughan was lucky enough to live music in a way that few other musicians do, to the point of constantly “fretting” with his left hand even when he wasn’t playing guitar. He was an iconoclast, doggedly sticking with the blues even though it wasn’t popular. It’s hard to believe that Texas Flood was a hit during the same year as Michael Jackson’s Thriller, The Police’s Synchronicity, and Madonna’s Madonna.Vaughan’s raw, guitar-centric sound was a rebuke to the slick, polished mainstream music of the ’80’s. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s tone—clean and pure, with a touch of grit—is the holy grail of blues-rock guitarists, and Kenny Wayne Shephard, Gary Clark, Jr., and even Kirk Hammett of Metallica are die-hard Stevie Ray Vaughan fans. Jackson Browne sums up the Stevie Ray Vaughan legend best in a Guitar World interview: “[Stevie Ray] resurrected the really deep blues and roots music, took it to the altar, and made it a serious thing. He introduced the blues to a whole new generation, and that was quite a stunning development.”
WATCH STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN AND DOUBLE TROUBLE PLAY “TEXAS FLOOD” AT FELLOW TEXAN GEORGE H. W. BUSH’S PRESIDENTIAL INAUGURATION CELEBRATION IN 1989