Listen to Stevie Ray!
Looking out the window
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He was, perhaps, the greatest blues guitarist of his generation.

Stevie Ray Vaughan, who died just 36 days short of his 36th birthday, played with blistering, note-bending intensity, a gut-wrenching vibrato and tons of soul. His all-too abbreviated legacy-five albums as a leader and a number of powerful sideman stints - ended with a longoverdue collaboration with older brother Jimmie Lee Vaughan, on the posthumously released Family Style. A well-balanced mixture of driving rock and roll, smooth r&b, earthy funk and heartfelt blues, the album took SRV full circle, back to his South Dallas days, paying tribute to the music the Vaughan boys listened to and loved in the Sixties and Seventies.

Stevie Ray Vaughan was born October 3, 1954, the son of Big Jim and Martha Vaughan. Brother Jimmie, three-and-a-half years his senior, exerted an early influence on SRV via his record collection, which included albums by such disparate guitar stylists as Jimmy Reed, Freddie, Albert and B.B. King, Kenny Burrell, Albert Collins, Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt.

Stevie first picked up the guitar in 1963, at the age of eight.
"I wanted to play drums, but I didn't have any drums," he recalled in a 1984 interview. "Then I wanted to play saxophone, but all I could get out of it was a few squeaks. "My big brother played guitar, so I figured I'd try it too. He would leave his guitars around the house, and tell me not to touch 'em. That's basically how I got started - sneaking into his room and playing his guitars. It didn't take me any time to figure out that that was what I wanted to do."

As a child with brother Jimmie with brother Jimmie
SRV with his elder brother Jimmie

srv very youngStevie's first electric guitar - a gift from Jimmie - was a hollow-body Gibson Messenger. From there he graduated to a '52 Fender Broadcaster another hand-me-down from his older brother. By then, SRV had purchased his first record, a copy of Lonnie Mack's instrumental hit. "Wham," which, alone with several Albert King records, were the prime sources from which Stevie Ray shaped his own approach to the instrument.

In 1968 he bought a '54 black Les Paul TV model and joined his first band, an r&b outfit called Blackbird, which patterned itself after two of Stevie Ray's favorite acts of the day, Hank Ballard & The Midnighters and Johnny G & The G-Men. Shortly after joining Blackbird, he purchased a '52 Les Paul Gold Top with soapbar pickups, and began playing with schoolmate Tommy Shannon in a band called The Chantones. He also occasionally played bass in brother Jimmie's band, Texas Storm.

The following year saw Stevie - perhaps owing to the towering influence of Jimi Hendrix - procure his first Stratocaster, a '63 model with a maple neck. He played the Strat as a member of Cast Of Thousands, a band he joined while in high school. A rare sample of the 16-year-old Stevie's playing exists on A New Hi, a 1971 compilation album of local Dallas bands, which includes a track by Cast of Thousands.

By late 1969 Jimmie had moved to Austin, drawn to the burgeoning blues scene centered around the Vulcan Gas Company, the nightclub where, a year earlier, Johnny Winter had recorded his Progressive Blues Experiment album. Longtime Stevie Ray-friend Mike Kendrid recalls: "In those days in Dallas, you either played the hits or you didn't play. So there was kind of a mass exodus of blues lovers from Dallas - me, Jimmie, Stevie, Paul Ray. We all eventually came to Austin, because the musical climate was so much more open to blues and originals."

srvJimmie played those "blues and originals" in Storm, a gutsy trio that included future T-Birds bassist Keith Ferguson, and was soon renowned in Austin for his guitar playing and comprehensive knowledge of blues and r&b. Stevie dropped out of school and joined the exodus to Austin in the spring of 1972. Some time later he fell in with Crackerjack, which featured Johnny Winter's rhythm section-drummer Uncle John Turner and bassist Tommy Shannon. That summer also marked the first time he saw Albert King - who was to become his single biggest influence - perform live.

"I had a gig somewhere else that night," remembered Stevie years later. "After a quick set I got on the microphone and said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, I don't know about you, but I'm gonna go see Albert King, and if you have any brains, you will too.' Then I just packed up and left...

"By the time I got to Albert's gig, there were only about 75 people left in the place. I ended up standing on a table right beside the stage, just staring at him throughout the whole set. Partway through the show he took his mic stand and walked over to where I was standing, planted it, and just stood there and sang and played to me the rest of the night. He didn't know me from Adam. I was just this skinny little kid, 98 pounds soaking wet. I guess I must've yelled, "Right!" or something. And when he finished playing, he walked over to me, handed me his guitar and shook my hand. I was stunned. I'll never forget it."

Three-and-a-half years later, on stage at Antone's, Little Stevie Vaughan (as he had come to be known) realized the thrill of jamming with the great man himself.
"First thing he did was walk up to me and point his finger, saying, 'I remember you -we met about three-and- a-half years ago.' It's amazing, but he never forgets peo- ple. And later that night, he called me up on stage to play. I thought I was going to do one song with him, but I ended up playing the rest of the night."


Writer Brad Buchholz recalled that magical night at Antone's in his Dallas Morning News tribute to SRV: "The skinny kid in hip-hugger bell-bottoms and downcast eyes blew away gruff old Albert King that night. At one point, Mr. King stepped away from Little Stevie and hid his guitar behind the stage curtains, as if to say, 'This little kid is scaring my guitar."

In the spring of 1973 Little Stevie left Crackejack to join The Nightcrawlers, a popular local r&b outfit. By then, blues and r&b had supplanted the outlaw country rock of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings as Austin's reigning sound. One of the most happening nightspots at the time was the One Knite, a cramped bar which, as a club t-shirt proclaimed, was "the dive where all your dreams come true." The Knite showcased the best local bands on weeknights, among them Jimmie Vaughan and Texas Storm (Mondays) and Mark Benno And The NightcrawIers, with Little Stevie Vaughan (Wednesdays).

Longtime SRV fan Margaret Moser-Malone wrote in her Austin Chronicle appraisal of those days: "The NightcrawIers looked like their name sounded - a motley, surly crew of musicians that included Drew Pennington on harp and vocals, Keith Ferguson on bass, Doyle Bramhall on drums, Stevie on guitar and assorted others who drifted in and out of the band. I must have been 19 or 20; Stevie would have been around 19 too. It was a good time to be young- and in love with the blues. I lived for nights at the One Knite. And I especially lived for seeing Stevie Vaughan in the Nightcrawlers. I was absolutely galvanized by his performances on that tiny stage..."


By 1973 Stevie had traded his '63 maple neck Strat for a '59 rosewood fingerboard model, which remained his number one guitar for the rest of his career. (In a bizarrely portentous accident, the neck of his beloved '59 was snapped in two pieces on July 9 of this year, when a huge piece of scenery at the Garden State Arts Center in New Jersey crashed onto a number of SRV's guitars.) Little Stevie left the Nightcrawlers at the end of 1974, and became the second guitarist, along side Denny Freeman, with The Cobras.

"Stevie' s first gig with the band was New Year's Eve of '75," recalls Cobra vocalist and leader Paul Ray. "I had known him and Jimmie from back in Dallas when they were just kids. I remember seeing Stevie play bass in Jimmie's band when he was 14 years old. Then when Stevie came to town, it didn't take long before everybody was talking about this skinny little guitar player. I was glad to get him in my band, and lucky that he stayed for two years. What can you say? He was great."

During SRV's tenure with The Cobras, the band cut a 45 that was released regionally. One side, "Texas Clover," featured Denny Freerhan on lead guitar, while the flip side, "Other Days," showcased Stevie's lightning Strat work. The smoking guitar tandem helped The Cohras gain a fanatical following around Austin. It was with this band that Stevie Ray began his singing career.


"I was sitting in the audience at a little club downtown on Congress Avenue called After Hours," recalls Austin guitarist Van Wilks. "I was checking out Stevie with The Cobras. Then, all of a sudden, Stevie starts singing that Freddie King song, 'Goin' Down,' and I nearly fell off my chair. Everybody knew he was a great guitar player, but nobody had ever heard him sing before. Later, he developed his voice into a phenomenal instrument, even though he remained kind of shy about it. Hendrix said he didn't like his own voice, either, and I always felt he had an incredible singing voice. I thought the same thing about Stevie. I mean, there was more to him than just playing single notes on the guitar."

Two significant events jolted the Austin scene almost simultaneously: Jimmie Vaughan formed the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and Clifford Antone opened a blues haven on 6th Street. As the club owner recently recalled, "I had an import clothing store, and in a big ol' room in back we had amps and drums and a PA set up for late-night jam sessions. I'd play bass, Jimmie and Stevie played guitar, Doyle Bramhall played drums - just a bunch of friends jamming the blues from seven in the evening 'til four, five in the morning. When the city passed the 2 a.m. drinking bill (bars had previously been forced by law to close by midnight) we just found a building and opened up the nicest club this town's ever seen."

srvBy the summer of 1977 Stevie had left The Cobras to form Triple Threat Revue, a versatile outfit featuring Mike Kendrid (composer of "Cold Shot") on piano, W.C. Clark on vocals and bass, Dallas drummer Freddie Pharaoh and the fiery Fort Worth vocalist Lou Ann Barton, who left the T-Birds to join Stevie's new band. What with Stevie's Hendrix covers, Lou Ann's torch ballads and Janis Joplin covers, and W. C.'s Freddie King covers, the band was indeed a Triple Threat. Ultimately, however, egos clashed. As the Austin American Statesman's blues maven Michael Point put it, "Lou Ann... really wanted a guy to back her up on guitar, and not show her up with guitar hero tricks. And Stevie wanted a backup vocalist, not a star. That tension was often visible on stage."

The conflict didn't prevent Stevie from including Lou Ann in the original lineup of Double Trouble (named after his favorite Otis Rush song), which he formed in May of 1979. Cleve Hattersley, an Austin musician who moved to New York in 1978, recalls booking that first edition of Double Trouble in 1980, at the old Lone Star in Manhattan. "We booked them for $100. They drove all the way up from Austin and crashed on friends' couches. The gig went all right, but afterward, Lou Ann kind of got out of hand. She was real drunk, and threw beer glasses and screamed at the waitresses. And Stevie, of course, was upset.

That was the final gig that band ever had together." By 1981 Stevie had streamlined Double Trouble down to a Power trio that featured Crackerjack bandmate Tommy Shannon on bass and Chris Layton on drums. It was also right around this time that he began calling himself Stevie Ray. The revamped group, with its clear emphasis on Stevie Ray's toe-curling, Albert King-style blues-power and Hendrixian histrionics, was a big hit back home at Austin blues joints like the Rome Inn, Antone's and The Continental Club. SRV was, perhaps, at the peak of his guitar powers, and was locked in a friendly, unofficial competition with Eric John son for rights to the title, "Austin Guitar God.


Word of Austin's hometown hero eventually reached the great r&b producer Jerry Wexler, who flew to Texas in 1982 to catch Stevie Ray on his home turf. Considerably impressed with the guitarist's talents, Wexler used his influence to place Double Trouble on the bill at the 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland - a coup almost unheard of for an unsigned act. Stevie Ray's stinging Strat licks were well-received by his European audience. Particularly impressed by the Texan's fiery fretboard work was David Bowie. After Double Trouble's set, Bowie met with Stevie Ray to raise the possibility of the guitarist appearing on his next album. Bowie eventually hired Stevie Ray to play on Let's Dance and appear on his 1983 world tour.

SRV cut the tracks, layering the funky, Nile-Rodgers-produced grooves with some fine Albert King-style licks. But he didn't make the tour. Apparently, one stipulation of the deal was that while Double Trouble would open the Bowie shows, Stevie Ray could discuss his playing with the press only in the context of the David Bowie show - not his own band's. There were also rumors of a financial dispute between the two parties. SRV pulled out of the tour and returned to Austin to play the bars with Double Trouble.

"It was a real Texas thing to do," said Michael Point of the Austin American Staresman. "Basically, Stevie Ray said, 'Fuck you, Mr. Bowie. We're stickin' to our guns.' And that individualistic stance earned Stevie Ray big points with the Texans. They were proud of him for standing up for his music, and not being pushed around by some British rock star."

Double Trouble

It wasn't long before opportunity came knocking once more on Stevie Ray's door. Jackson Browne, a fan since his own encounter with Vaughan at the '82 Montreux Festival, offered him the use of his Down Town studio, to record a demo that hopefully would land Double Trouble a record contract. The taped results of Double Trouble's labors in Browne's studio made their way to John Hammend Sr., the legendary talent scout and producer, who counted Charlie Christian, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and Bruce Springsteen among his many discoveries. Excited by Stevie Ray's fresh take on an old formula, Hammond purchased the demo and used his industry clout to secure a deal for Double Trouble with Epic.

In an interview conducted with Hammond soon after Stevie Ray was signed, the producer spoke glowingly of his find. "The first great Texas guitar player I ever saw in the flesh was T-Bone Walker, back in 1936. And Stevie Ray is in that great tradition. He has such a direct quality. And he's a great showman too, just like T-Bone was."

The music on Stevie Ray's first album, Texas Flood, was full of fire. The rough-hewn texture to the rhythm guitar parts on "Pride And Joy" and "I'm Crying," two Vaughan originals, established the thick-toned Texas shuffle as an SRV trademark. His solos were laced with an intensity and sense of abandon that often triggered visceral responses from audiences. And there was the flam boyance: silk scarves and leopard coats, ponchos, Indian headdresses and cowboy boots, not to mention his penchant for playing the guitar behind his neck and with his teeth. This was Stevie Ray Vaughan, the quintessential Texas Strat burner. It was clear from the outset that Stevie Ray was no media-hyped charlatan. Not only was he thoroughly grounded in the work of the classic electric blues masters - his solos reflected the influence of players from every walk of blues life - but his playing was imbued with the kind of spirit and honesty that could only signify the real deal. He drew on skills honed in tough Texas nightclubs, and it showed in the integrity of his playing.


While he was true to himself, he at the same time never failed to give credit where it was due. In a 1988 interview, he noted:

"Nowadays it seems that no matter what you do, it's already been done. It must've been a wonderful thing to come along at a time when electric blues was developing as an American music form. To those guys like T-Bone and Muddy, Hubert SumIin, Jimmy Rogers, Lightnin' Hopkins, Buddy Guy, Albert King, B.B. King and Freddie King and a bunch of others, it must've been a free, free feeling to make this kind of music. And they deserve respect for being the innovators - those guys are the ones who really ought to have the recognition."

Texas Flood peaked at 38 on the Billboard album charts, and sold more than 500,000 units in 1983. Stevie Ray received Grammy nominations for Best Rock Instrumental (the lightning Texas boogie of "Rude Mood") and Best Traditional Blues (the deep blues of "Texas Flood").

srv In 1984 Couldn't Stand The Weather was released, along with a video - Stevie Ray's first - made for the title cut. The typically Texas-macho clip received moderate airplay on MTV. This wider exposure helped push the album to platinum and further cemented Stevie Ray's status as the reigning Texas Guitar King. As he continued to forge his own identity on slightly-behind-the-beat Texas shuffles like "Cold Shot" and "Honey Bee," he simultaneously pursued the ghost of Jimi Hendrix, much to the delight of his young fans. If the connection was not apparent from his version of Guitar Slim's "The Things That I Used To Do" (rendered as a kind of response to Jimi's "Red House"), it became clear to one and all with Stevie Ray's near-faithful rendition of "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)," which became a concert favorite.

Organist Reese Wynans joined Double Trouble in 1985, giving the band the bigger, beefier sound it projected on Soul To Soul. Stevie continued degging Jimi's shadow with "Say What!", his answer to Hendrix's "Rainy Day Dream Away," and on Earl King's "Come On," a tune Hendrix covered on Electric Ladyland. Stevie Ray kept the Texas shuffles chugging along with "Lookin' Out The Window" and "Look At Little Sister." And he kept dipping heavily into the Albert King bag, particularly on the slow blues of "Ain't Gone 'N' Give Up On Love" and the gospel-tinged "Life Without You." The album attained gold status. It also served to confirm Vaughan's status as the legitimate heir of Jimi Hendrix, at least in the eyes of the generation that came of age after Jimi's death.


In some ways, he truly was that heir. "It just seemed like Hendrix was always in his thoughts," said Austin guitarist Van Wilks. "He was certainly in his heart and fingers. I remember one time we were talking about Hendrix - which is where our conversations would always ultimately lead - and I pulled this Picture of Jimi's tombstone from my wallet, which I'd taken when I was playing a gig in Seattle. I found out that Jimi was buried in Renton, Washington, so I went there to pay my respects. Anyway, when I showed Stevie Ray this picture, his eyes just got so wide - he couldn't believe it. He just stood there and held that picture in his hand, and stared at it for a long time."

On the surface, Stevie Ray's life was as rosy a success story as one could hope to find. Inside, however, was another matter: the guitar hero was running scared. Substance abuse had seriously clouded his vision, and was beginning to hurt his playing.

Constant road work and grueling late-night mixing sessions for the double Live Alive album helped run Stevie Ray into the ground. He remained on schedule by staying up for days on end - and by ingesting all the cocaine he could get his hands on. Finally, in the early part of October 1986, he collapsed on stage at a performance in London. Instinctively, he called his mother back home in Dallas with a plaintive S.O.S.: "Help. I'm over here in Europe somewhere, and I'm in real bad shape."


He returned to the United States a few days later. On October 17 he entered a deter center in Marietta, Georgia, where he remained through November. Upon his release, he returned to Dallas in an effort to escape the drugs, alcohol and late-night hanging out that plagued him in Austin.

After openly acknowledging his alcoholism, Stevie Ray determinedly tackled Alcoholics Anonymous' 12-step program. By 1988 he was back on the road with renewed vigor, playing with more conviction and clarity than ever before. His walk on the sober side paid off with last year's In Step, his strongest, most focused project up to that time. The album went gold, and won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Recording.

Stevie Ray took a breather from recording Family Style in Memphis for a brief return to his old stomping grounds, and to attend the eighth annual Austin Music Awards. The event could easily have been called the "SRV Awards," for the guitarist was named Musician Of The Decade, and came away with honors for Record Of The Decade (Texas Flood), Record Of The Year (In Step), Single Of The Year ("Crossfire") and Musician Of The Year. Clad in understated formal attire, he expressed his gratitude to the capacity crowd at Palmer Auditorium.

"I just want to thank God that I'm alive. And I want to thank all the people that loved me back to life so that I could be here with you today."

Taken from: "Guitar Legends" (Guitar World Fall 1992)
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