Cover photo by Scott Newton, Austin Opera House 1983.
I interviewed Stevie Ray Vaughan, whose birthdate was Oct. 3, 1954, only one time, for a magazine that went belly-up before the interview ran. It was in 1989, a year before he passed away in a helicopter crash, and Vaughan was on tour with Jeff Beck. When I called, he had been reading, he said. “Just stuff about my sobriety.” I pretty much forgot about the interview tape until one of my moves in the ’90s, when I found a red BASF tape with his name on it.
It was a straightforward interview with the theme of the article being guitar influences. Some of these remembrances are well-known in Stevie lore, but the main thing I got from my re-exposure to the tape nine years later was the man’s sweet, humble soul. In the summer of 1989, he was very much at peace. Here’s the interview, on the phone from Seattle.
Who was your earliest guitar hero?
SRV: My brother Jimmie. He had gotten hurt playing football, so he had gotten a guitar as a safer alternative. Part of the appeal was that he was my older brother (by 3 1/2 years) and you know how kids want to do whatever their older brother does. But the other part was that it looked like he was having so much fun.
When did you get your first guitar?
SRV: It was soon after Jimmie started playing. I guess I was about 10. It was a Masonite version of a Roy Rogers guitar — a copy of a copy — and it didn’t work. The only way you could tune it was to take three strings off and tune it like a bass. When Jimmie got his first electric guitar, I got his acoustic.
What kind of music did you guys start off playing?
SRV: When we were first startin’ off we had some friends of the family show us stuff, like one guy played with Ray Sharpe and the Razor Blades, so right off the bat we were playin’ “Linda Lu” (a Ray Sharpe hit), Jimmy Reed — really hip stuff for little kids. Jimmie came right out of the chute, bringing home records by everyone from Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and Buddy Guy to the Beatles and Hendrix to Wes Montgomery and Miles Davis — all this stuff at the same time. I don’t know how he got the idea to be so hip so quick.
When did Jimmie start getting good on the guitar?
SRV: As soon as he picked it up.
How about you?
SRV: Well, it took me a little longer. I had a lot of people tell me, `Man, you’re faster than your brother,’ but I didn’t know what all they were talkin’ about. I knew the beginnings to a lot of songs and I knew the solo parts, but it was usually just half of the song that I knew. I remember the first time Jimmie and I played a talent show and we realized in the middle of a song we’d played dozens of times that we’d never ended it before. We knew we had a ways to go.
Who’s the first nationally-known guitarist you looked up to?
SRV: The first record I bought was the Lonnie Mack 45 with “Suzie Q” and “The Wham” on it. It was just the wildest thing I’d ever heard. Then when I got more of his stuff, I loved the way his slow tunes sounded like gospel and the blues at the same time. After Lonnie Mack, I remember Buddy Guy and Muddy — that was pretty heavy stuff for me. And then it wasn’t too long until I ran into
Albert King. The album was “King of the Blues Guitar.” I was about 12 and I was working as a dishwasher in Oak Cliff somewhere and one day I was cleaning out the trash bin and I slipped and fell into a big barrel where they poured the hot grease. Luckily it was empty at the time, but if I had fell 30 minutes later I would’ve been fried. Well, anyway, the woman who owned the place came out yelling at me because I had broke the lid to the grease barrel. She didn’t even ask if I was all right. Well, I got so mad that I quit that day and told myself that I was going to be a guitar player like Albert King. I knew that’s what I wanted to do — no ifs, ands or buts. And I haven’t had another job since.
When did you get into Jimi Hendrix?
SRV: Most of the influences I got were because of my brother, and Hendrix was another big one. I was really into his music and a lot of stuff about his life, and the higher I got, the more obsessed I became. I wanted to open my mind enough so that I could feel the music, because that’s what he did. Yeah, (Hendrix) was high as a kite and that might’ve had something to do with that. It almost killed me. It did kill him.
When you look back at the history of Texas blues — T-Bone Walker, Johnny Winter, Lightnin’ Hopkins and on and on — there’s seems to be a quality that sets it apart from electric guitar blues from other areas.
SRV: It’s meaner. It’s instinctive. When it’s right, you can feel it. That’s why I like playing with these guys (Double Trouble). We get it sometimes. Sometimes we sound like a great band, and it’s not something you can rehearse. I can’t go to them and say `Try it this way’ — it’s just something that doesn’t need to be said. I think if you had to define Texas blues it would be `just go with the feeling.’ ”
Who are some underrated blues guitarists?
SRV: Denny Freeman. I know he’s got some recognition lately, but he’s still underrated. He’s just incredible. I guess the main thing I learned from him was how to really play rhythm, but he’s also a great example of a player who has a thread that runs through his solos. He’s always thinking ahead when he’s playing.
As far as newer guys, Doyle Bramhall (II) just kills me. He’ll pull it out of a hat and just scare you. Some of the things that I wish I could play the way I want to, he’ll just pull ’em out. His style is kinda like the best parts of Johnny “Guitar” Watson. It could be only a couple notes, but it’s the timing that just gets you. Hosea Hargrove I like a lot: We’re talking real low-down blues. U.P. Wilson, from Fort Worth, is another guy. I’m not sure, but I think he taught Cornell Dupree how to play guitar. I saw Kenny Burrell a couple years ago and he just killed me. I don’t think I can play jazz. I can play jazz-y, but I don’t really know enough about it to take off. I can’t read music and if I write a song I have to ask someone what key it’s in. I don’t know what’s the wrong way to do something, but it’s really liberating to not know you can’t do something — if that makes sense.
I think your playing’s actually gotten better since you got sober.
SRV: That stuff that I’m reading and doing, you know, it’s really helpin’ me, man. I’m finally startin’ to feel like me and that’s something I never knew what it was. That may sound funny or weird to somebody, `oh, who cares?’ But to me . . . I’ve always been Stevie Ray Vaughan, the guy who plays guitar. I didn’t even know who I was. Now I’m starting to find out what I want, what I need, what I feel like, what I think. It feels a lot better.
Are you starting to get more interests besides the guitar?
SRV: Yeah, but now the guitar is getting more important as well. What I do with it is getting more important. What I do with what I write, what I do with what I think, what I feel and say. . . It’s gettin’ to where now it really means something. It’s always meant something, but it eluded me what it was. But now I’m finally comfortable being me. It’s a real neat deal.
Photo by Jay Janner for a piece I wrote in 2010 on the 20th anniversary of SRV’s death.