Stevie Ray Vaughan is an American singer-songwriter and blues guitarist, born in Dallas, Texas, who died on August 27, 31 years ago in East Troy, Wisconsin, in a helicopter crash. Despite a career sometimes little known to the general public, he is widely regarded as one of the most brilliant guitarists in the history of music and as one of the pioneers of the blues revival of the 80s.
I personally found out who he was about ten years ago during a trip to Las Vegas. In fact, at the entrance to the Hard Rock Hotel there is this giant sign.
When this house is rocking, don’t bother knocking, come on in.
Here is the story of his, unfortunately short, life.
Youth of Stevie Ray Vaughan
Stephen Ray Vaughan, second son of Martha and Jackson Lee Vaughan, was born on October 3, 1954 at Methodist Hospital in Dallas, Texas, three years after his older brother, Jimmie Vaughan.
His father, nicknamed Big Jim, worked in the asbestos industry and led a life marked by frequent trips to different cities in Texas, according to the opening of various mining activities. Eventually, he took the whole family to a small house in Dallas.
A memory of young Stevie is to watch his parents dance western swing and often listen to a country band: the Texas Boys. When his brother Jimmie broke his shoulder playing American football at the age of 12, family friend Michael Quinn gave him his first guitar.
Shortly afterwards Stevie was presented with a toy guitar with only three strings, made of plastic, by Roy Rogers, purchased in the Sears chain of stores. The two brothers picked up the guitars without ever taking lessons, learning by themselves thanks to the records of Jimi Hendrix, degli Yardbirds and The Beatles, and immersing himself in the music playing the pieces of great blues guitarists like Albert King, BB King, Otis Rush and Buddy Guy.
Inizi nel mondo della musica
In 1967, Stevie Ray Vaughan joined The Brooklyn Underground. The group performed at dance parties in surrounding high schools. He had the opportunity to attend a concert of The Jimi Hendrix Experience during which The Chessmen, formed by his brother Jimmie, played as a shoulder group
The young Stevie was able to meet other blues guitarists, such as T-Bone Walker and Freddie King, who convinced him to devote himself to music. His mastery of the guitar led to a cover band, The Southern Distributor, to hire him.
Stevie then bought his first Fender Stratocaster in Austin (Texas). In his early days as a musician, Stevie Ray Vaughan played on a Gibson Messenger, a Fender Broadcaster, a Gibson Les Paul TV Model, a Les Paul Barney Kessel and then a Les Paul Gold Top with his first band, the BlackBirds.
In 1970, Vaughan was recruited by Liberation, a cover band playing pop hits. He also recorded two tracks with A Cast of Thousands, a group of classmates from Justin F. Kennedy High School, for the A New Hi compilation, which includes young bands from Dallas. Soon after, Vaughan dropped out of school to become a professional musician.
In 1971, Stevie Ray Vaughan left Liberation and formed Blackbird. The group settled in Austin and underwent numerous lineup changes. After a few months, Vaughan founded Krackerjack, a group inspired by Led Zeppelin.
Then he joined Marc Benno and the Nightcrawlers. He composed some songs, took part in sessions organized at the Sunset Sound studio in Hollywood, and went on tour with the group.
From 1975 he played with Paul Ray and the Cobras and frequently performed at Antone’s, an Austin club dedicated to the blues. The group recorded a single in 1976. In 1978 they renamed the group Double Trouble and recruited drummer Chris Layton and bassist Tommy Shannon, who had played a few years earlier with Johnny Winter.
In 1982, Double Trouble performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival. On that occasion David Bowie noticed Stevie Ray Vaughan and invited him to play on his album Let’s Dance, released in 1983. Jackson Browne supported the guitarist by offering him hours of study.
Stevie Ray Vaughan was famous for his stage performance: he appeared in cowboy gear, with boots and hat, and picked up rhetorical figures made famous by Jimi Hendrix such as, for example, playing the guitar behind the head. In this theatricality he remembers Alice Cooper!
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s first album, titled Texas Flood, was released in 1983.
The song Pride and Joy, which was taken from it, entered the top 20 in America at the time. Texas Flood, as well as the subsequent albums Couldn’t Stand the Weather (1984) and Soul to Soul (1985), are certified “platinum”.
Despite the fame and success, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s personal life was falling apart. The group relied heavily on cocaine to overcome the immense pressure and tight schedule of their tours and work.
Let’s go back a few years. Vaughan married Lenora “Lenny” Bailey in 1979, after he first met her at one of her Nightcrawlers’ performances in La Cucaracha, Austin. Stevie called his instrument “Lenny” after his wife Lenora.
Vaughan meanwhile had developed an alcohol and cocaine problem and had started consuming up to seven grams of cocaine each day. His stomach was devastated from mixing alcohol with cocaine and he nearly died in Germany: he collapsed and was hospitalized for extreme dehydration. After that, he decided to stay away from drugs and went to Peachford Hospital in Georgia. a rehabilitation center and he began to lead a spiritual life. He stayed off drugs for the rest of his life and lived soberly.
In the same year of rehab, 1986, Vaughan’s father suddenly died of complications due to asbestosis. In addition, his relationship with his wife Lenora Darlene Bailey was crumbling. The marriage was to last for six and a half years. The two divorced after Lenny squandered his money on drugs and other men.
In 1986, Vaughan met Janna Lapidus in New Zealand and started seeing her right after her. When he was in London to seek treatment for his substance abuse problem, she visited him and he referred to her as her girlfriend.
For his return after rehabilitation, in 1989, he recorded the album In Step, which won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Record.
Death of Stevie Ray Vaughan
On August 27, 1990, Stevie Ray Vaughan, at the end of the concert at the Alpine Valley Music Center, was behind the scenes with his brother Jimmie and his wife. On that occasion they had learned of a free seat on one of the helicopters. By pure chance Stevie had asked to be allowed to take the only vacant seat, that of Eric Clapton. They all died shortly after take-off, when the aircraft crashed into a hill. The cause was attributed to the fog and the inexperience of the pilot in similar conditions of poor visibility.
The news was reported only the next day when everyone realized that the vehicle had not arrived at its destination.
It is undeniable that this story is reminiscent of Metallica, with Cliff Burton taking the place on the bus destined for Kirk Hammett, saving his life.
Stevie Ray Vaughan was buried on August 31, 1990 at Laurel Land Memorial Park in Dallas next to his father, who died the same day four years earlier.
A month after Stevie’s death, in September 1990, Family Style was released, a duet album with his brother Jimmie Vaughan. Jimmie Vaughan later co-wrote and recorded a song in tribute to his brother and other fallen blues guitarists called Six Strings Down.
What Stevie Ray Vaughan left to posterity
In 1991, Jimmie also released The Sky Is Crying, the first of a series of successful posthumous albums. Also in the same year, Texas Governor Ann Richards declared Stevie’s birthday October 3 “Stevie Ray Vaughan Day”.
In 1992, Fender released the “Stevie Ray Vaughan Signature Stratocaster” (buy it here), a guitar designed with Stevie before her death. This model is currently in production. It features a single coil pickup kit called the Texas Special, also developed by Fender with the help of Stevie.
Two years later, in 1994, a statue, the Stevie Ray Vaughan Memorial Statue, was erected at the Shores Auditorium on the edge of Town Lake in Austin, Texas.
In 2004, Fender released the “Stevie Ray Vaughan Tribute Model Number One Stratocaster Guitar“, a replica of Stevie’s original guitar.
In 2010, Rolling Stone magazine placed him on its list of the best guitarists of all time. Most recently, in April 2015, Stevie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
And let’s not forget the huge “social” contribution established after Stevie’s death. In 1993, Martha Vaughan established the Stevie Ray Vaughan Memorial Scholarship Fund, awarded to students of the W.E. Greiner Middle School who intend to attend college and pursue musical arts as a profession.
In 1999, the Musicians’ Assistance Program created the “Stevie Ray Vaughan Award” to honor Vaughan’s memory and recognize musicians for their devotion to helping other addicts struggling with the recovery process. List includes Eric Clapton, David Crosby , Steven Tyler, Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, Pete Townshend, Chris Cornell, Jerry Cantrell, Mike McCready, among others.
Doing good to honor someone’s memory is the best way to consecrate them to posterity.