Lookback: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lost 30 Years Ago, Aug 27, 1990

*Image of SRV taken from the internet and likely subject to copyright

August 27th, 1990 will always be, for me, if I may paraphrase FDR, a day that will live in Blues Rock infamy… B&V has always focused on new or vault releases from established rock artists who have been around for a while. I like to turn people on to stuff they might not be aware of, its easy to lose track of certain artists. Doing that though has meant there are a lot of artists that I love that I haven’t had the chance to write about. The grim 30 year anniversary of the loss of the magnificent Stevie Ray Vaughan compels me to write about the guitar legend…

I remember when I was a kid all the “adults” who were my parents’ age would occasionally talk about where they were the day President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed. My mother, for those interested, was watching ‘As The World Turns’ while ironing in the living room of my parents’ apartment. Although, in truth, that was probably what she could be found doing on most days. I wasn’t alive yet when JFK was assassinated but I can relate to that “I remember where I was when…” vibe (It Was 42 Years Ago Today… The Loss Of The King… Elvis Presley. Where I Was…).

The year 1990 was a momentous one for me. In mid January, I marched into the office of my corporate masters and resigned my position in Arkansas. My last day was February 1st. I arrived home at my less-than-ecstatic parents’ house in a U-Haul with my meager possessions and a slight hangover. I have a vague memory of a box of Playboy magazines tumbling out of the U-Haul at the feet of my Sainted Mother during the move-in with one magazine falling open to the provocatively posed centerfold, a rather awkward moment… My poor, long suffering mother. What can I say, Arkansas was a lonely place. I had moved my stuff into my parents’ spare room, but to say I was “staying there” is a bit of a misnomer. I left there more often than I was actually there. I went to the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, went to see friends in Chicago and even returned to Arkansas to see the friends I’d made there. Living under the constant disappointed glare of my father was getting uncomfortable so eventually I decided I was going to go to Europe for a couple of months… travel the Continent. Perhaps write the Great American novel… or the decent American blog, years later.

I left on July 3rd of that year, but by the time I landed in Rome it was the 4th of July. I’ve been in Rome exactly twice in my life and both times they’ve had a record heat wave. Next time I go, it’ll be in a random winter month. Anyway, I transversed the continent from Italy to Germany to Spain and France and then to the British isles. It was a great, life-altering trip. I even got to see Roger Waters in Berlin (I Attended: Roger Waters & Special Guests, ‘The Wall’ at the Berlin Wall, July 21, 1990). I finally ran out of money and travelled back to Kansas City in mid-to-late August. I had gotten in the habit of walking around all day while I was in Europe (where I’d lost some weight too), and to keep that “exercise-regimen” up, I’d get up in the mornings and walk this four mile trek I’d laid out near my folks’ place. By August 27th, I couldn’t have been home for more than maybe a week? It started off like most of my unemployed days that year, I got up, grabbed my radio “Walk-man” and took off down the trail.

I was listening to the local rock and roll station when they announced there had been a helicopter crash outside of the Alpine Valley amphitheater, out in the boondocks between Chicago and Milwaukee. I knew the theater as my friends Doug and RK had taken me out there less than year before that, the previous September, to see the Rolling Stones on the Steel Wheels tour. The DJ mentioned that Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan had both played the night before and no one had been able to locate either one of them but it was believed that one of the performers had been killed. My walk slowed to a crawl as I took this in. I remember standing on the trail when I had this horrible thought at the time – and I’m not proud of this at all – I hoped it was Clapton and not Stevie Ray. It’s not that I wanted either of them dead nor did I wish Clapton any particular ill-will but if I had to choose at that point in time I wanted Stevie Ray to survive.

Clapton, by 1990, was pretty much a spent force, or so I thought. He’d go on to record a few interesting albums, but for the most part he’s chosen to fade away vs burn out… good for him. But any creative fire from Clapton was going to be, well, few and far between. But Stevie Ray Vaughan… he was, in my mind the future of blues rock guitar. I had been an early adopter on SRV and his fabulous backing band – Chris “Whipper Layton on drums, Tommy Shannon on bass and later Reese Wynans on keyboards. Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble did a lot to usher in the blues/blues rock revival that happened in the 80s/90s. There would be no Kenny Wayne Shepherd or Jeff Healy with out Stevie Ray… The venerable bluesman Robert Cray had a big success in 1986 with Strong Persuader a great album but one has to wonder if he’d have had that success without Vaughan blazing the trail before him. You have to remember, this was the 80s – synth rock, New Wave bands were everywhere… and the bands that weren’t post-punk, new wave, were Hair Metal bands. Stevie didn’t wear make-up or put hair spray on his head, he wore a hat reminiscent of Zorro. And that guitar – the tone, the sound, the amazing solos. Old school blues played that ferociously was definitely swimming up stream in the 80s. 

I bought, and still own (on vinyl), SRV’s debut, landmark album, Texas Flood (1983). The album was steeped in the blues which always seemed to be at the root of all the music I loved. Double Trouble had played the Montreux Jazz Festival to great aplomb in ’82. They blew everybody in the audience’s mind including David Bowie who invited Vaughan to play on his LP, Let’s Dance, which was a commercial resurgence for Bowie thanks to SRV’s awesome leads. When Stevie Ray backed out of the ensuing tour in order to record his debut it caused quite a stir. All publicity is good publicity I guess. When I first put on Texas Flood, I was blown away. You could hear the influences – Howlin Wolf, Willie Dixon, Albert Collins and Freddie King – but you knew this was a guitarist who was going to make the blues his own. The title track remains a favorite of mine. I even love the track “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” a live favorite, originally arranged by Buddy Guy. “Love Struck Baby,” and “Pride and Joy” are blues rock staples. It’s maybe my favorite of his records.

The two ensuing follow-up albums, while not as towering an achievement, are must-have albums. Couldn’t Stand The Weather (the title track had a great video) was criticized for too few originals, but Vaughan had the balls to tackle Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” and it is epic! “Tin Pan Alley” was a first take. The follow-up LP, Soul To Soul contains some of my favorite SRV tracks – “Change It,” “Little Sister,” and “Lookin’ Out My Window” are all great tracks. The final track, “Life Without You” is one of his finest, underrated songs. It’s a great, my baby has left me songs. Stevie played the blues but man could he rock. 

Unbeknownst to many of us outside the world of musicians, Stevie had some demons. He had started drinking when he was a little kid – stealing nips from his alcoholic dad’s bottles. As and adult he’d added cocaine to the mix. I remember reading that he’d mix the cocaine into the whiskey and that he had an ulcer. We like whiskey around here but please folks, don’t add Coke of any kind to your bourbon, it spoils the taste… I know he collapsed on stage one night in Europe and I always assumed that was the ulcer, but everything I read said it was dehydration. 

Finally, he went to rehab. And he came out clean. And, perhaps this is why I had that awful thought on August 27th of 1990, hoping it was Clapton and not SRV in the helicopter. After getting clean Stevie put out the best, most rocking album of his career, 1989’s In Step. He was attacking rock n roll/blues rock with an all new ferocity and energy. Songs like “The House Is Rockin'” or the lead single, “Crossfire” were great rock n roll songs. There were great blues too like “Leave My Little Girl Alone,” and Howlin Wolf’s “Love Me Darlin’.” He had finally straightened out his life and was making the best music of his career and then, tragedy struck and as I learned on that lonely trail in 1990, it was Stevie Ray Vaughan in the helicopter. I was crushed. I know it’s cliche and they always say about an artist who dies  young, that the artist was on the verge of something new, some different direction. But in the case of Stevie Ray, I believe that may be true. I cite as proof, the last song on In Step, the epic “Riviera Paradise.” Clocking in at almost 9 minutes, it’s like nothing Stevie Ray had done before. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of music that I’ve ever heard. It points in so many directions that Stevie Ray could have taken, if only… 

One of my greatest regrets is I never saw Stevie Ray Vaughan live. I know my college roommate saw him open for Huey Lewis & the News… the balls on Huey Lewis to invite those guys to open? Wow. There’s a blues roadhouse that I used to like to go to every now and then, especially on Sunday nights, B.B.’s Lawnside BBQ. On one wall behind where the bands usually set up is a giant mural of all the blues greats. B.B. and Muddy are in the center. Off to the right, down in the corner is the image of SRV, kneeling with the hat and poncho from the In Step album cover. If you look around, you can see a concert poster for a show he and Double Trouble played at a small blues club that used to be downtown, the Grand Emporium… admission was like $4. Oh to have been in the Grand Em that night… for only 4 bucks. 

I can’t believe it’s been 30 years to the day that we lost Stevie Ray. Where’d all that time go… I urge all fans of B&V, blues and rock n roll to check out Stevie Ray’s body of work. There were a couple of posthumous LPs released (one with his brother Jimmie) and a great live LP, Live At Carnegie Hall that I didn’t mention above that merit attention from everyone. 

Stay safe out there and remember, no Coke in your bourbon, folks. R.I.P to the one of the greatest of all times, Stevie Ray Vaughan, thirty years down the line.