The Austin music community woke up on Aug. 27, 1990, with a chunk of its soul gone. At close to 1 a.m., blues guitar great Stevie Ray Vaughan perished in a helicopter crash in East Troy, Wis., after a concert.
It was a foggy night and the pilot took off from behind the stage at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre and flew into the side of a ski slope half a mile away. All five aboard the Chicago-bound helicopter — Vaughan, the pilot and three members of Eric Clapton’s entourage — were killed instantly.
Vaughan died about an hour after joining a superstar jam finale with brother Jimmie, Clapton, Robert Cray and Buddy Guy at the outdoor venue 40 miles southwest of Milwaukee .
Stevie Ray Vaughan was just 35 and on a spiritual high after giving up drugs and alcohol four years earlier.
Besides being an exciting guitar player, whose debut LP revitalized the blues in 1983, Vaughan was beloved in Austin because he’d come up the hard way, toiling in dive bars such as the One Knite and the Rome Inn for more than a dozen years before he broke out nationally.
Vaughan never forgot where he came from and never missed a chance to tout those who inspired him. If you knew the skinny guitar player back then, you called him Stevie Vaughan, even after the Ray was added when he signed to Columbia.
It was Vaughan’s humble personality that inspired the welcoming pose on the 8-foot-tall bronze statue erected in his memory on the hike-and-bike trail about 100 yards from the Auditorium Shores stage location where Vaughan performed so many times.
“Recordings do a really good job at preserving the musical legacy,” said Boston-based sculptor Ralph Helmick , whose design was chosen by Jimmie and mother Martha Vaughan over about 30 other applicants. “I wanted to show more of the kind of person Stevie Ray Vaughan was. And everyone I talked to who knew him said he was always friendly, always approachable.”
Unveiled on Nov. 21, 1993 , the SRV statue is the first stop in Austin for many visiting musicians, especially during the South by Southwest festivals, and it reinforces Austin’s reputation as a city that takes music seriously.
Almost immediately after Vaughan’s death a petition drive, supported by then-City Council Member Max Nofziger, was started to rename Auditorium Shores “Stevie Ray Vaughan Park.” But the Vaughan family thought that was too much too soon.
Promoter French Smith, then head of the Austin Music Commission, had an idea Jimmie and Martha preferred: a statue at Auditorium Shores. Smith had not only put on all those great T-Bird Riverfests, but promoted SRV’s final performance in Austin at the Rites of Spring concert at Auditorium Shores on May 4, 1990.
“Jimmie was very hands-on at every step of the way,” said Smith, who is now in a care facility with advanced-stage multiple sclerosis. “I stroked the politicians and Jimmie put up the bulk of the money to get it done. The city was clear that no public money be used.”
Helmick said his commission, which covered all costs including materials and foundry fees, was about $100,000. Smith said an account also was opened to pay for cleanup in the event of vandalism, which the statue experienced in December 2005 , when words disparaging Vaughan’s originality were written in red paint.
The vandalism saddened Helmick, who flew down to Austin to make sure the statue he spent an entire year on was restored.
As part of his research, Helmick visited Lubbock to check out the Buddy Holly statue.
“That gave me an idea of what I didn’t want to do,” said Helmick, whose earlier work includes a statue of Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler in downtown Boston. The Holly statue shows Buddy in performance, wielding an electric guitar; Helmick said he decided to go for a more meditative pose with the Vaughan statue.
“I showed Jimmie pictures of two statues of David,” said Helmick. “In Bernini’s David, it shows the moment that he slings the stone that defeats Goliath. But in Michelangelo’s David, he’s shown in deep contemplation before the fight. One you look at and one you look with. Jimmie got it right away.”
Helmick said Jimmie Vaughan also understood when the sculptor asked that the statue be moved from its originally intended location — on a hill just north of Palmer Auditorium overlooking Auditorium Shores — to where it stands today. Because of the rotation of the sun, Helmick realized that SRV’s face in the original spot would have been in shadow almost all the time.
“There was some opposition from some of the joggers,” Smith said of the change, which had Vaughan facing south. “But they weren’t organized.” The City Council approved the site change in May 1993.
Although Helmick missed the target unveiling date — SRV’s 39th birthday on Oct. 3. 1993 — by about six weeks, he said it was worth the extra time to get it right. “Every detail had to be just right because you only get one chance.”
Photo by Jay Janner/ AAS