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Back in Time: SRV in 1985

Willie the Wimp
Willie the Wimp
(ra-file, 1 meg)


Back in time: An article from Guitar World 1985

Something was up.

Stevie Ray Vaughan looked like the cat that swallowed the canary.
He had plenty of reasons to be pleased: a few weeks earlier Vaughan and his band, Double Trouble, had received their first Grammy (in the ethnic music category, for some tunes on a Montreux Jazz Festival blues anthology), capping a year in which they'd won a number of other industry awards.

After seeing their first two albums climb into the upper reaches of the charts, Stevie Ray and his band toured widely at home and abroad, and were at that moment in the midst of finishing up work on their third album, Soul To Soul.

But it was obvious that something more than a year of new triumphs and successes was on Stevie Ray's mind, as he was being deliberately and playfully vague. He postively seemed to glow. Was he born again?
"Something like that."
There was a faint wisp of a knowing smile under his broad-brimmed hat. Quit drinking and smoking? He held up his glass.
Make up with his wife or family over something?
"That's part of it."


Vaughan grinned mischievously, and talk moved in other directions. He was sitting in the dim corner of a lounge in a pleasant North Dallas hotel, waiting to leave for the studio where Soul To Soul was coming down the home stretch.
A little later, the rest of the band - drummer Chris Layton and bassist Tommy Shannon - came down, and they clearly possessed something of the same glow. Was this contagious?

"Yeah, some big changes have taken place. I haven't resolved all my problems," Vaughan explained, "but I'm working on it. I can see the problems, at least, and that takes a lot of the pressure off. I've been running from myself too long, and now I feel like I'm walking with myself.''


It is understood by many who know him that Stevie Ray Vaughan was at first uncomfortable with his sudden success, perhaps a bit bewildered by it - and not entirely prepared for its accompanying responsibilities.
He was confused by those people who gravitated to him because of his success, and not because of him or his music. Despite all that's happened to him during the past two years or so, Vaughan projects not so much as the slightest aura of rock stardom. He seems very much the hard-working club player he used to be - friendly, modest, down-to-earth.

He chuckled at the memory of playing Austin clubs years ago, making a few dollars for the night and then borrowing money from the bartender to cover the bar tab - he remembered that $1.36 was the least he'd ever earned on a paying gig.
Now he's a success, and at some point he finally began to understand it all. He's getting used to the attention, the star-gazers and the paparazzi.


Vaughan spoke at great length of his current album, and about some of his plans for the immediate future. He was very excited about the new Lonnie Mack album, which he co-produced (and played on) in Austin last year. He'd picked up a few important life lessons from the veteran guitarist; Mack, of course, has seen and done it all in his long career, and lived with and without success.

He smiled:
"I sat down and talked to the man - he's one of those men who will sit down and talk to you too. And thank God for that! He's a wonderful cat. He opened my eyes to a lot of things."

While touring in Australia recently, Double Trouble crossed paths with Eric Clapton, another player who has worked hard to come to grips with the implications of his enormous success.

"He didn't tell me what to do," Vaughan said. "He told me how it'd been for him."

Clapton and Vaughan holed up in a hotel room for a few hours, reflecting on the good life and its pitfalls.

"Then we were working with Albert King, and he came up to me and said 'Man, we got to sit down and have a little heart-to-heart.' You sit down like that with Albert King and you grow."

And Vaughan remembered something that came from Johnny Winter, the first white Texas blues guitar hero, who'd preceded him down the long path.

"He said something to me when the first record was doing so well," Stevie Ray recalled. "It made me feel a lot of respect for what we did, for the music. He said that he wanted me to know that people like Muddy Waters and the cats who started it all really had respect for what we're doing, because it made people respect them. We're not taking credit for the music. We're trying to give it back."


A few weeks later, when I talked to Vaughan again, he elaborated on his relationship with Albert King. It was almost midnight, a warm Dallas spring night, and we were driving across the northwest part of the city, looking for hamburgers while rough mixes of the new album played on the tape deck.

"Albert calls me his godson," Vaughan said. "He's pleased with what we've done, and he explained some simple things: don't get high when you're working, 'cause you're having too much fun and you don't see the people screwin' you around. Have fun - that's great - but pay attention.
That happened when things were happening so fast, and it was real important to hear that kind of stuff. He knows. He's been through it. You wake up one day back in the clubs, without a whole lot to show for what you've been through."

Talk turned back to Lonnie Mack.
"He's something between a daddy and a brother," Vaughan explained. "When he sees something that needs to be talked about, he'll talk. He understands. He's real deep - a warm kind of deep. He wanted to produce us three years ago, but it didn't happen then, of course, and things just worked out like they have. The way I look at it, we're just giving back to him what he did for all of us. It wasn't a case of me doing something for him - it was me getting a chance to work wit~ him."

"You know," he added, "it's wonderful the way people come into your life when you need them, and it happens in so many ways. It's like having an angel. Somebody comes along and helps you get right."

Vaughan, Shannon and Layton can barely contain their excitement about the new record. Stevie Ray wanted to make a buoyant record, he said, with shorter songs, less heavy breathing from the guitar, and some new instrumental combinations. Soul To Soul is filled with Stevie Ray Vaughan trademarks, but it has a good-time, uptown feel - a strong trace of r&b - that distinguishes it from Vaughan's first two albums. The guitar showpieces are there, but it's clear that Vaughan set out to accomplish something different with this record.


"There are a lot of rockin' songs," he said, "and then some like we've never played before. There's definitely blues in it - not less blues than before - but it's a type of music we haven't really tried before, some different kinds of changes. There are a few other players here and there that people won't expect. Some keyboards (ex-Delbert McClinton pianist Reese Wynans has beeen added to Double Trouble), some horns. But the moods are happier."

Double Trouble At that particular time, the band was working nightly at Dallas Sound Lab, a 48-track, digitally-capable facility in the Dallas Communications Complex at Las Colinas, just northwest of the city. They'd booked the studio in great 24- hour chunks of time, and even recorded rehearsals. Vaughan was finding the conditions pretty luxurious - one benefit of having two successful albums under his belt. It helped shape the character of the music on the new record.

"It's helping a lot," Vaughan explained, "because we've gotten to work on individual technique and things, we've come down to playing more like we wanted to play in the first place. To do that, we had to cut in the studio and then sit down and listen to it. Before, we were always forced to work a lot faster than this. And we play so many gigs on the road that we don't have the time to listen to ourselves as closely as we should. You go and play for an hour-and-a-half and then go to the next place, and you don't get a chance to catch what's changing in your music, what's working and what isn't working. We love to play shows - don't misunderstand me - but it's hard to pick up on whether or not we've improved. We have fun when we play live, but the studio is a blessing that a lot of people forget about."


He remarked that he and Double Trouble were recording the album the "old way" - live, in the same room together, and without headphones.

"I've got every amp I own in the studio, all going all-out at once," Vaughan laughed."They had to build a new monitor system for us."

The studio, he explained, was set up like a stage, with the amps positioned so that the other players could hear what was coming out of them. Vaughan even played drums on one cut, but as the track was too slow, it was speeded up.

"We're recording the old way and using the best modern equipment we can find; it's a good combination," Vaughan said. "We go in and cut a song a few times if we need to, or just do a set. At this point, we're pretty fine-tuned, and we're watching it grow as it goes. We're all examining everything. We have a lot of ideas, things we' ve wanted to have a chance to work with."

Double Trouble toured for 18-and-a-half months prior to the 1984 release of Couldn't Stand The Weather, and then took two months off before starting the new project.

"We didn't realize how hard it was to just go play cold, without having played in front of people. I'd never thought about that before. We'd rehearse - try to play this and that - but we didn't play in front of people. You'd be amazed how hard it is not to play in front of people."

In any case, you don't get the sense that a lot of career planning goes into a Double Trouble album - no big calculations about how it should sound or how many units it should sell. What's charted, mainly, is the growth of Vaughan and the band:

"We're trying for feeling. We try to accomplish something with the music, which is to feel through things. I've been trying to grow up some myself, in my heart, and it's happening quick. I feel good about it, and I want that to come out in the music."


Meanwhile, Vaughan remains - like many Texas guitarists - a die-hard Stratocaster player who uses a minimum of effects. For the new album, he's stuck mostly with the white, Strat-style guitar he posed with for the cover of Couldn 't Stand The Weather. Built in 1983 for Vaughan by his friend, the late Dallas guitar dealer and repairman Charley Wirz, the guitar features Danelectro pickups and custom wiring. The instrument's sound is exemplified by the light, quickly strummed break in "Tin Pan Alley", which was recorded with only a low Leslie effect.

A simple message is engraved on the metal plate where the neckjoins the body on the back of the guitar: '"To Stevie From Charley. More in '84."

It's rather characteristic of the generous spirit that Vaughan' s early success inspired in many of his old Texas fans - indeed, Soul To Soul is dedicated to Wirz.

srv"I've been going between that guitar, the beat-up '59 Strat and this other guitar that Charley found for me, a '61 Strat," said Vaughan. "It's brutal. They all have that neck, and I associate them with Charley - I didn't get the '59 from him, but he worked on it so many times that it feels like I did, I guess. I like the white one. It sounds like my old beat-up one, but it' s cleaner, not quite as fuIl-sounding. And Charley never told anybody but me what he did when he wired it."

"But that's the sound," he added. "That Leslie and that guitar, if the amp's working clean. You have to use the right amp, like a Super, with the Leslie and a Vibraverb head - it's really a steel guitar head. If you set 'em all up in a live room, it sounds great. I don't use a chorus - I like to get that sound with a Leslie too. It's old-fashioned, but I'm trying to bring it up-to-date."

Vaughan is fairly vague about his amp set-up, though he admits to keeping two Vibraverbs, two Super Reverbs, a Dumble 150-watt Steel String Singer (which he'd stopped using for a while, but returned to recently) and the Leslie all hooked together. The actual combination, he explained, was determined over a period of time by which amp worked when, until he accidentally came up with a combiation that he liked. Other amps seem to come and go - indeed, in the several weeks between interviews, he'd acquired another Fender.


"They're hooked up pretty straight, I guess," he grinned. "I have a Tube Screamer, a wah and the Leslie on my pedal board, and an on-off switch for everything, so that when I switch it off, between the guitar and amp there ain't nothin'. When I do a song like 'Third Stone From The Sun,' I can't control the feedback with the effects on. It goes crazy, so I switch 'em all off and then kick it back when I'm done. It's mostly straight, though - a weird set-up - but pretty straight."

In addition to that, he continues to play with his guitar tuned a half-step low - "E-flat tuning" he calls it - and he said that before Wirz died earlier this year, they had discussed building a custom-scale neck that would allow Vaughan to use the tuning without transposing with concert-pitch instruments. It sounds like an impossible idea, but who knows? When two stone guitar fools like Stevie and Charley got together, anything was possible.

Vaughan's use of the low-pitch tuning was Hendrix- inspired, in any case.

"He did it a lot," said Stevie Ray. "It gives you different overtones. It's an interesting sound, and I find it a lot easier to sing to."

He's also acquired the wah-wah pedal used by Hendrix to record "Up From The Sky." He speaks without any self-consciousness about Hendrix, with whom he has often been compared. In May, Vaughan played a solo version of "The Star Spangled Banner" at the Houston Astros' home opener at the Astrodome. Immediately, people recalled the world-weary, apocalyptic version played by Hendrix at Woodstock in 1969. And the performance triggered yet a new round of comparisons between Hendrix and Stevie.

"I heard they even wrote about it in one of the music magazines," said Vaughan. "They tried to put the two versions side by side. I hate that stuff. His version was great."

And, yet, the comparison exists - if only because Vaughan includes at least one, or two (and sometimes three) Hendrix songs in each live show, because he featured a well-known Hendrix song ("Voodoo Chile") on his second album, and most of all, perhaps, because he captures the spirit of the improvisational Hendrix on stage more accurately than any other contemporary guitarist. An affinity obviously exists.


In Texas, Vaughan is regarded by his old crowd as a hot blues player with a tight band and a lot of rock and roll in his sound; the blues variations are still common in Texas clubs. His music has been refined and expanded by all the work and opportunities that've come his way in the past two or three years, but at its core, it's still the steamy, torrid blues he played in the late-Seventies.

The people outside Texas - those less familiar with his story, who know his work only from records and the hype of the last few years - have turned Vaughan' s long-standing love for Hendrix's work into a point of comparison. Vaughan himself feels it's all been over-played. According to one Person in his organization, Vaughan labored long and hard over the decision to add "Voodoo Chile" to Couldn 't Stand The Weather and that he finally decided to include the song because he felt that his younger audience hadn't heard Hendrix, and he wanted to spread the word.

"I loved his music, and I feel like it's important to hear what he was doing, just like anybody else, like Albert, B.B. or any of that stuff," Vaughan remarked. "I wanted to do the song, but I didn't want to mistreat it. I try to take care of his music, and it takes care of me. Treat it with respect, not as a burden - like you have to put a guy down 'cause he plays from it. That's crazy. I respect him for his life and his music."


At a Dallas show in late April, Vaughan used the Wirz Strat and the '59, and, when a string broke on that guitar, a custom Hamilton. On slow blues like "Tin Pan Alley," the white guitar had a thin, edgy, cutting sound, sweet but hard. The '59 Strat is a fuller, chunkier-sounding guitar, more of a rocker, more typical of the thick tones on Couldn't Stand The Weather; it is Vaughan's instrument of choice when he does Hendrix covers.

While they weren't airing many new tunes that night - it was a free concert with Lonnie Mack, in front of a hometown crowd - Double Trouble were debuting their new keyboard player (who appears on Soul To Soul), Reese Wynans. Vaughan himself played beautifully that night: his slow blues remain vehicles for gorgeous displays of phrasing and tone, and he has a growing arsenal of tricks and techniques, from his flowing, syncopated strum ("Pride And Joy") to funky, overstated string-snapping effects. In the past two years, he's learned a lot about working an audience as well. In the clubs he was a straightforward, stand-up player. Today he's a good showman as well.

"Getting that passion" says Stevie Ray, "that's what I try to do.''

srvWithin days of the Dallas date, the new Lonnie Mack album, Strike Like Lightning (Alligator), finally hit the stores; it was the first record from the legendary guitarist in some seven years. While Vaughan downplays his role as co-producer - it's his first production effort outside Double Trouble - it's clear enough from the handful of guitar duels included on the album that Vaughan helped create a heck of a guitar album.

Vaughan, of course, has always acknowledged Mack's influence on his own playing - "Wham!" was the first single he ever owned - and the two hit it off wonderfully when they finally began working together. The empathy and interplay is obvious.

Vaughan remembered the first time he met Mack. It was 1978 or '79, and an earlier version of Double Trouble (without Layton) was playing in a club in Austin when Mack walked in.

"I was playing the second chord of 'Wham!' that night when he came through the door," Vaughan said. "We did the shit outta 'Wham!' It was cookin'. And there was Lonnie Mack. At first, I didn't even recognize him. Man, it was like magic."

At the time, Mack was assembling a new road band, and he approached Vaughan about joining him. That never came to pass, of course, but the two remained friends over the years. When Alligator signed Mack in mid-1984, Mack and Alligator president Bruce Iglauer talked to Vaughan about producing the record, and he agreed instantly.

"They were his tunes, and I just tried to help him with what he wanted to do with the record; that's what I think producing is," Vaughan said. "A lot of producing is just being there, and with Lonnie, just reminding him of his influence on myself and other guitar players. Most of us got a lot from him. Nobody else can play with a whammy bar like him: he holds it while he plays, and the sound sends chills up your spine. You can't do that with a Stratocaster."

"I just didn't want to sound like I was trying to direct the record."


Things are moving pretty fast for Vaughan, but he has a feeling that this is only the beginning.
The beginning wasn't David Bowie's Let's Dance, which helped showcase his work to the greater rock and roll public, or even Texas Flood, whose chart success seemed to surprise just about everyone, because of how far-removed it was from the pop mood of that moment.

The beginning is now - this new attitude, the self-susteance and self-reliance, the sense of faith in the future. What Vaughan stands to accomplish, perhaps, is an important service to the blues. The music is widely enough recognized as the foundation of rock and roll, but Vaughan may have the opportunity to bring the blues back into the current mainstream of rock in new ways, at a new level. He may, in fact - as Albert King has suggested - take the color out of the blues.

"I do feel as though I've grown as a player through all this," Vaughan remarked at one point. "It's funny - I'm trying to get back to how I used to play years and years ago, and yet, at the same time, to make those ideas grow, tie them into what we're doing now, I guess I'm just remembering where all these things come from. It's all pretty regular music to me, what I grew up with: the Glorytunes, Johnny G. and the G-Men. I used to hear some of those old bands in Dallas, at the Heights Theater in Oak Cliff, in '62 and '63."

"Now, I use heavy strings, tune low, play hard, and floor it." He laughed. "Floor it..." another chuckle, "That's technical talk."

(Taken from Guitar World 1985)

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