It was a thick Austin night in the summer of ’86 and Stevie Ray Vaughan looked bad. Without acknowledging the applause of the sunburned multitudes pressed up against a chain link fence, Stevie emerged gingerly from a big black limo and used a silver-tipped cane to pick his way to the side of the Austin River Fest stage. His 31 years had been multiplied like dog years and almost suddenly he was old, frail and out of breath. His skin was gray and one size too big.
You didn’t need a doctor to diagnose the obvious: Stevie Ray Vaughan was dying.
Exene Cervenka of X has the word “Temptation” tattooed on the back of her hand, so she can see it everytime she reaches. Vaughan had it written all over his body as he took the stage to join his brother Jimmie’s band, the Fabulous Thunderbirds. ZZ Top’s manager Bill Ham said his rock-and-roll wet dream is to see Stevie and Jimmie Vaughan in the same band, but given Stevie’s condition, this set-closing jam session had the prospect of turning into a dry nightmare.
Stevie’s hands, which had reached for so many bottles and joints and chopped up so much powder in 15 years of hardcore roadhousing, fumbled with the cord as if controlled by an apprentice marionetteer. The eyes were slits, the nose almost boneless and the legs as rubbery as Gumby’s just out of the microwave.
Someone in the band counted off: one, two, three, four — a blues shuffle kicked in, and suddenly, almost miraculously, Stevie Vaughan came back to life. The electricity from his white Stratocaster seemed to flow through him. His fingers tap-danced all over the fretboard, finding notes that go right for the knees and bend up the spine. He plays guitar like Keith Moon played drum: nothing in moderation. Jimmie Vaughan is a more reserved player in the classic Texas blues style.
Together on the River Fest stage, the brothers Vaughan were the musical counterpart of a couple of monkeys going berserk in a hardware store, with Stevie airplaning down the aisles unshelving fixtures and gadgetry, while Jimmie sprayed the area with nuts and bolts. T-Bird singer Kim Wilson, fueled by Stevie’s re-genesis, leapt into the fray with a meaty harmonica solo. When he finished blowing, he stepped back, looked over at the Vaughans digging in for the pounce, and said, “OK, whicha you boys wants to go first?”
It took the promoter’s frantic throat-cutting motions to finally end the jam at 11:59. Wilson walked off muttering that they were just getting warmed up while the Vaughans tucked their Strats into bed for the night. When Stevie reached the wings, a roadie handed him his cane, then lead interference to the trailer that served as the dressing room. It would be an hour before the black limo backed as close to the trailer door as possible and took Stevie Ray Vaughan home.
Four months later, it was an ambulance taking Stevie Ray Vaughan. After a show in Switzerland, Stevie had collapsed. Drifting in and out of consciousness on the way to the hospital — they say that this is when your whole life flashes before your eyes.
If that was the case with Stevie, he probably saw himself as a little boy in Dallas, listening to the blues and rock-and-roll records that Jimmie, three years older, brought home. He saw an eight-year-old kid taking three strings off his Roy Rogers guitar so he could play bass for his brother, already a hotshot at 11.
As the siren stirred adrenaline in kids on the route, the sounds inside Stevie’s head were warm, rhythmic and basic. He heard the music of T-Bone Walker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters, while he sat in his old room back in Dallas, trying to bring order to the shapely peninsula of wood and wires that sat in his lap.
Stevie probably remembered the time he quit his dishwashing job in disgust at age 13 and went home and listened to Albert King so loud the speakers distorted. He vowed then and there to be a guitar player, a professional guitar player and he’s never had another job since. On the verge of death, Stevie Ray Vaughan took a long look back at his life and told himself, “This has got to come to a screeching halt.”
“This” was drugs and alcohol. When asked what he was addicted to, Vaughan said “everything.” Cocaine and speed to go up, heroin, marijuana and booze to come down.
“Ever since I was a kid I’ve always been ‘Stevie Vaughan, guitar player.’ That’s all I’ve ever been and I thought that part of being a guitar player was getting higher than a kite every time I played,” Stevie said. “My number one guitar idol was Jimi Hendrix. I used to dress like him on Halloween. I played the same kind of guitar as him and did a lot of his songs. I wanted to be so much like Hendrix that I almost died like he did.”
Stevie Ray Vaughan didn’t die that night in Switzerland. He cancelled the rest of his European tour and checked into a clinic in Marietta, Georgia, which specializes in drug and alcohol dependency. His bassist Tommy Shannon also went through treatment.
“October 13 made three years sober for me and Tommy,” Vaughan announced proudly in 1989. “When we went 100 days, we were so excited, like we’d accomplished the most amazing thing. And now, here we are approaching three years. If you knew how bad we were, you’d know how incredible that is.”
When Vaughan was killed in a helicopter crash in Wisconsin in August 1990, he was two months shy of four years without drugs or alcohol. That period marked the happiest of his life.
Stevie Ray Vaughan’s last studio album was the first record he made sober. It’s entitled “In Step,” because, according to Vaughan, “I’m finally in step with life, in step with myself, in step with my music.”
The critics and the public both agreed that it was Vaughan’s best album yet, especially vocally. He still dressed like a color-blind Rhoda Morganstern and there wasn’t a clinic in the world that could cure him of the “Fistful of Dollars” hat. But sober, Stevie Ray Vaughan played the guitar better than ever. Bury another myth — you don’t need to be down and out to play the blues.
Though Vaughan’s substance abuse was well-known among his longtime friends and followers, it never seemed serious because he was always in control when he played guitar. He hadn’t always been great but you’d have to find someone who knew him as young as 10 to testify to that.
Unlike other white guitarists like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Mike Bloomfield, who discovered the blues when they went looking for rock’s roots, Stevie Ray Vaughan started listening to the blues right after he outgrew nursery rhymes. Every kid wants to be his older brother, and Stevie had the advantage that his older brother wanted to be T-Bone Walker. At 10, he was way ahead of the game. At 13, Stevie Ray Vaughan could rip.
“It was boldly obvious from the beginning that both Vaughans were something special,” remembers singer Paul Ray, who moved down to Austin with Jimmie Vaughan and their band, Storm. Austin had a blossoming blues scene, bolstered by frequent appearances by Johnny Winter, and besides, said Jimmie, “It was just about the only town in Texas where you could have long hair without getting the hell beat out of you.”
Stevie soon followed. While the elder Vaughan hooked up with the Fabulous T-Birds and a 12-year scratch to the top, Stevie drifted through several bands — the Nitecrawlers, the Cobras and Triple Threat — before teaming with Lou Ann Barton to form Double Trouble. When Barton was “discovered” by Jerry Wexler and signed to Elektra Records, Vaughan, Shannon and drummer Chris Layton continued as a trio.
Their big break came at the Montreux Jazz Festival in ’82 where their bowled-over audience included Mick Jagger and David Bowie. Jagger flew the band to New York to play a private party for the Rolling Stones. Bowie hired Vaughan to play on his “Let’s Dance” LP. A tape of the Montreux show made it into the heavy hands of John Hammond, Sr., who orchestrated a deal with Epic and served as executive producer on the debut LP, “Texas Flood.”
It turned out to be little more than a week’s work for Hammond. “We just went in and played,” Vaughan remembers, “and the whole thing only took eight days: two days to do the music, two days for the vocals, two days to mix and two days to master.”
“Texas Flood”‘s release was greeted with hosannas in the highest, from everyone from the critics who declared the emergence of a new guitar hero to the rabbit-fur-medley-jacket set who made it one of their favorite crank-it-up albums. By the end of his first year as a recording artist, Stevie Ray Vaughan had won a Grammy, a W.C. Handy award as “Blues Entertainer of the Year” and a Guitar Player magazine reader’s poll. Vaughan’s second and third albums, “Couldn’t Stand the Weather” and “Soul To Soul,” easily went gold, and his searing guitar work was featured on James Brown’s number one hit “Livin’In America.” In ’85, Vaughan made his production debut, helming “Strike Like Lightning” by his boyhood guitar hero Lonnie Mack.
Professionally, things were going great, but personally Vaughan was a mess. His father, Big Jim, died, his marriage ended in divorce, his long-time manager, Chesley Milikin, dropped him as a client and his equipment was stolen at the airport in Albany, NY. The powdery white albatross around his neck weighed a ton.
“I look back on those days and I’m really amazed that I survived,” the tan and healthy Vaughan stated during a rare day off from his 1989 world tour. “It’s only since I’ve been sober that I realize that there’s so much more that life has to offer me than just playing the guitar. Still, there’s no greater high than when we (Double Trouble) get it, that feeling, and go from being a good band to being a great band.”
John Lennon said that “the blues is a chair, not a design for a chair or a better chair… it is the first chair. It is a chair for sitting on, not for looking at. You sit on that music.”
For the first time in almost 20 years, Stevie Ray Vaughan stood straight, in the middle of the stage. When he got tired of standing straight he didn’t look for something to lean on. He just plugged in and fell into that big easy chair. And when he walked off, nobody handed him a silver-tipped cane. It wasn’t real silver anyway. The guy who sold it to him just told him it was.
Stevie Ray Vaughan played the last night of the Rome Inn in April 1980. This is believed to be the first live video footage of him, shot probably by Steve Dean.