Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Stevie Ray Vaughan

Fort Worth, Texas    Visited October 2013

 I grew up playing the guitar and loving great guitar playing.  But during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s I wasn’t listening to a lot of rock music.  About a decade or so ago I went back to listen to stuff from that era and I ran head-on into a tornado of Stratocaster blues named Stevie Ray Vaughan.  Listening to his music seemed to connect you with the limitless emotional possibilities of electric blues guitar.  Watching him play convinces you that the art of music performance flows from deep places in the soul.  I’ve wanted to do a pilgrimage to SRV’s place for a long time.  I made it last year.  Here’s the story.

Stevie Ray and Jimmy Lee
Stephen Ray Vaughan was born October 3, 1954 in Dallas Texas.  He was the second son of a WWII vet who probably suffered from PTSD.  It was an abusive environment to grow up in, and young Stephen’s life was hard.  At the age of seven he saw his older brother Jimmie Lee playing the guitar.  The instrument became a passion and escape.  By the age of 12 Stevie was playing in local Dallas cover bands.  His early exposure was to blues and rock music and his seminal musical influence was Jimi Hendrix.  As Vaughan would say later,

"I love Hendrix for so many reasons. He was so much more than just a blues guitarist–he played damn well any kind of guitar he wanted. In fact I'm not sure if he even played the guitar–he played music."

Teenage SRV
Stevie’s obsession with music was a major distraction from school.  Teachers attempted to work with his musical interest by offering formal music education.   But as a self-taught musician it just didn’t take.

“I took music theory for one year in high school and flunked all but one six-week period. That's because I couldn't read music, and the rest of the class was already eight or nine years into it. The teacher would sit down and hit a ten-fingered chord on the piano and you had to write all the notes down in about ten seconds. I just couldn't do it.”

Early Seventies Rocker Days

At 17 Vaughan dropped out of school to try to make a go of music and moved from Dallas to Austin.  In the early Seventies he played in a variety of cover and blues bands trying to find what fit his vision.  He developed a reputation as the hot new Texas blues player.   In 1977 he formed a blues band he called Triple Threat Review.  Two years and a couple of personnel changes later the band solidified as Steve Vaughan’s back-up band, rechristened Double Trouble.  With the change in the band name Vaughan also began to use his middle name as a musician. 

Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble spent the next two years on the Texas bar circuit honing the blues-rock groove that became their hallmark.  In 1982 they got their first major gig outside Texas with an opportunity to play the Montreux Jazz Festival.  This was their breakout moment.  One reviewer who was there recounted SRV’s performance.

Stevie Ray Vaughan - Montreux Jazz Festival 1982
"He seemed to come out of nowhere, a Zorro-type figure in a riverboat gambler's hat, roaring into the '82 Montreux festival with a '59 Stratocaster at his hip and two flame-throwing sidekicks he called Double Trouble. He had no album, no record contract, no name, but he reduced the stage to a pile of smoking cinders and, afterward, everyone wanted to know who he was.”

Early 80's
‘Everyone’ included two rock stars at the festival, David Bowie and Jackson Browne.  Each took an immediate interest in Vaughan.  Browne offered the band free recording time in his LA studio.  And Bowie signed up Steve as a featured player on his next album.  Another luminary in the audience at Montreux was John Hammond, the legendary music producer.  Shortly after the festival Hammond signed SRV and Double Trouble to a recording contract.  In early 1983 David Bowie’s album “Let’s Dance” came out with Vaughan playing on eight tunes.  The album became Bowie’s bestseller to date.  A few months later SRV’s first album, “Texas Flood” was released. 

Over the next few years Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble built a reputation as a powerhouse live act through incessant touring and recording.  However with the success came the downside of drugs and alcohol.  The downside bit Stevie Ray Vaughan hard.  By 1986 he was ingesting a quarter ounce of cocaine and a quart of whiskey daily.  Performances became erratic and on a tour in Germany the guitarist collapsed.  An emergency hospital stay and intensive rehab followed.  For Stevie Ray Vaughan, it worked.  As he reflected later, “I hit rock bottom, but thank God my bottom wasn't death.” 

Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble - Mid 80s'

By June 1989 a sober SRV and Double Trouble had rebounded and reached new heights as a band.  With the release of the album “In Step” the guitarist and his band had become both a critical and commercial success.  “In Step” went gold and won a Grammy for best blues album of the year.  Blues legend Bonnie Raitt summed up the rejuvenated power of a drug free Stevie Ray Vaughan,

“He lived and breathed his music like he'd never get out alive, but he did get out... and the way he played and grew after his sobriety took away the last excuse for us blues hounds to stop living that deal with the devil just to be real.”

In 1990 Stevie and his brother Jimmy Lee recorded for the first time together.  An album was to be released in the fall of the year.  In August of that year, the Double Trouble tour arrived in East Troy, Wisconsin.  During a show on August 26 Stevie Ray participated in a jam that included a who’s who of contemporary blues guitarists – Robert Cray, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton and even Stevie’s brother Jimmy Lee.  It was to be Vaughan’s last performance.  Fortunately, video of that final jam on "Sweet Home Chicago"   has been preserved.   

Following the concert around 1:00 am on Aug.27, he jumped on a helicopter with some of Clapton’s crewmembers.  Shortly after take-off in foggy conditions the chopper crashed, killing all on board.  Stevie Ray Vaughan was 35 years old.  

Stevie Ray Vaughan was buried in his home town of Dallas following a memorial service that included many of the great musicians who had come to appreciate the gifts and art of the quiet and universally liked guitarist.  Among the notable reflections, maybe the words of Eric Clapton best capture the essence of the musician Stevie Ray Vaughan.

I don't think anyone has commanded my respect more, to this day. The first time I heard Stevie Ray, I thought, "Whoever this is, he is going to shake the world." I was in my car and I remember thinking, I have to find out, before the day is over, who that guitar player is. That doesn't happen to me very often, that I get that way about listening to music. I mean, about three or four times in my life I've felt that way, in a car, listening to the radio, where I've stopped the car, pulled over, listened, and thought, I've got to find out before the end of the day, not, you know, sooner or later, but I have to know NOW who that is…  and I remember being fascinated by the fact that he never, ever seemed to be...lost in any way...It was as though he never took a breather...or took a pause to think where he was gonna go next, it just flowed out of him. It's going to be a long time before anyone that brilliant will come along again.”

Just a few weeks after Stevie’s untimely death, his album with Jimmy Lee, “Family Style” was released.  The record was a commercial hit and ended up winning a Grammy.  Within just a few months after SRV’s death the new album and Stevie Ray’s back catalogue had sold 5.5 million records. To appreciate the brothers check out this video of them playing  "Pipeline" together on the same double-neck guitar.

Stevie Ray and Jimmy Lee Vaughan

The legacy of Stevie Ray Vaughan has grown since his untimely death.  Unlike most musicians who die prematurely, the artist who passed from the seen in 1990 was not a tragic figure.  He had won his battle with the excesses of rock and roll stardom and had brought the blues he loved to a wider audience.  Stevie Ray Vaughan is universally considered to be one of the top ten guitarists in rock music history.  

   The above are from the Hollywood Guitar Center Museum in Hollywood, CA, which I visited with my son in June 2013. Just above is a somewhat creepy plaque.  Over that are jackets and guitars used by SRV in performance.   

On a trip to Dallas for a conference I connected with a friend of mine, Steve Gonzalez, who had moved to Texas from the Philly area.  I had asked him if he minded if we tried to find Stevie Ray’s grave.  Little did I know that Steve is a huge SRV fan and he was all about the plan.  We found Laurel Land Memorial Park in a suburban area south of Fort Worth. 

Just a few months after this, in March 2014 I had the opportunity to be in Austin, where there is a great statue of SRV memorializing the artist in the town where he made his name.  

At SRV statue in Austin with SG church planting guys

I can't end this post without a few recommendations. Here are a personal top three videos of SRV at his best. 

  • Perhaps Stevie's most well known composition,"Pride and Joy"  from the legendary 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival show that put him on the map as a guitarist.
  • Here's a killer live version of SRV's cover of Stevie Wonder's Superstition, played on his famous guitar "Lenny".
  • Given the acknowledged influence of Jimi Hendrix, Stevie's cover of my favorite Hendrix song,"Little Wing", has to be on my list.  I couldn't find a video with quality to do justice to the live recording on his greatest hits album, but this at least gives a feel for SRV's take on it.  

The beauty of the blues

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