August 27, 1990 – Stephen “Stevie” Ray Vaughan was born October 3, 1954 in Dallas Texas, Stevie grew up in the musical shadow of his older brother Jimmie, but he had a knack for guitar playing that went far beyond prodigy or natural talent.
He was three-and-a-half years younger than his brother Jimmie (born 1951)(Fabulous Thunderbirds). Their dad, Big Jim secured a job as an asbestos worker, an occupation that involved rigorous manual effort. The family moved frequently, living in other states such as Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Oklahoma before ultimately moving to the Oak Cliff section of Dallas. A shy and insecure boy, Vaughan was deeply affected by his childhood experiences. His father struggled with alcohol abuse, and often terrorized his family and friends with his bad temper. In later years, Vaughan recalled that he had been a victim of Big Jim’s violence.
In 1961, for his seventh birthday, Vaughan received his first guitar, a toy from Sears with Western motif. Learning by ear, he diligently committed himself, following along to songs by the Nightcaps, particularly “Wine, Wine, Wine” and “Thunderbird”. He listened to blues artists such as Albert King, Otis Rush, and Muddy Waters, and rock guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix and Lonnie Mack, as well as jazz guitarists including Kenny Burrell. In 1963, he acquired his first electric guitar, a Gibson ES-125T, as a hand-me-down from his brother Jimmie.
Soon after he acquired the electric guitar, Vaughan joined his first band, the Chantones, in 1965. Their first gig was at a talent contest held in Dallas’ Hill Theatre, but after realizing that the band could not perform a Jimmy Reed song in its entirety, Vaughan left the band and joined the Brooklyn Underground, playing professionally at local bars and clubs. He received brother Jimmie’s Fender Broadcaster, which he later traded for an Epiphone Riviera.
When brother Jimmie left home at age sixteen, Vaughan’s apparent obsession with the instrument caused a lack of support from his parents. Miserable at home, he took a job at a local hamburger stand, where he washed dishes and dumped trash for seventy cents an hour. After falling into a barrel of grease, he grew tired of the job and quit to devote his life to a music career.
Paying His Dues
In May 1969, after leaving the Brooklyn Underground, Vaughan joined a band called the Southern Distributor. He had learned The Yardbirds’ “Jeff’s Boogie” and played the song at the audition. Mike Steinbach, the group’s drummer, commented: “The kid was fourteen. We auditioned him on ‘Jeff’s Boogie,’ really fast instrumental guitar, and he played it note for note.” Although they played pop rock covers, Vaughan conveyed his interest in the addition of blues songs to the group’s repertoire; he was told that he wouldn’t earn a living playing blues music and the band parted ways. Later that year, bassist Tommy Shannon walked into a Dallas club and heard Vaughan playing guitar. Fascinated by the skillful playing, which he described as “incredible even then”, Shannon borrowed a bass guitar and the two jammed.
In February 1970, Vaughan joined a band called Liberation, which was a nine-piece group with a horn section. Having spent the previous month briefly playing bass with brother Jimmie in Texas Storm, he had originally auditioned as bassist. Impressed by Vaughan’s guitar playing, Scott Phares, the group’s original guitarist, modestly became the bassist. In mid-1970, they performed at the Adolphus Hotel in downtown Dallas, where ZZ Top asked them to perform. During Liberation’s break, Vaughan jammed with ZZ Top on the Nightcaps song “Thunderbird”. Phares later described the performance as: “They tore the house down. It was awesome. It was one of those magical evenings. Stevie fit in like a glove on a hand.”
Attending Justin F. Kimball High School during the early 1970s, Vaughan’s late-night gigs contributed to his neglect in his studies, including music theory; he would often sleep during class. His musical career pursuit was disapproved by many of the school’s administrators, but he was also encouraged by many people to strive for a career in art, including his art teacher. In his sophomore year, he attended an evening class for experimental art at Southern Methodist University, but bailed when it conflicted with rehearsal. Vaughan later spoke of his dislike of the school and stated that he had to receive a daily note from the principal about his grooming.
In September 1970, Vaughan made his first studio recordings with the band Cast of Thousands, which included future actor Stephen Tobolowsky. They recorded two songs, “Red, White and Blue” and “I Heard a Voice Last Night”, for a compilation album, A New Hi, that featured various teenage bands from Dallas. In late January 1971, feeling confined by playing pop hits with Liberation, Vaughan formed his own band, Blackbird. After growing tired of the Dallas music scene, he dropped out of school and moved with the band to Austin, Texas, which had more liberal and tolerant audiences. There, Vaughan initially took residence at the Rolling Hills Country Club, a venue that would later become the Soap Creek Saloon. Blackbird played at several clubs in Austin and opened shows for bands such as Sugarloaf, Wishbone Ash, and Zephyr, but could not maintain a consistent lineup. In early December 1972, Vaughan left Blackbird and joined Tommy Shannon in the rock band Krackerjack; but he performed with them for less than three months.
In March 1973, Vaughan joined Marc Benno’s band, the Nightcrawlers, after meeting Benno at a jam session years before. The band featured vocalist Doyle Bramhall, who met Vaughan when he was twelve years old. A month later, the Nightcrawlers recorded an album at Sunset Sound Recorders in Hollywood for A&M Records. While the album was rejected by A&M, it included Vaughan’s first songwriting efforts, “Dirty Pool” and “Crawlin'”.
Soon afterward, he and the Nightcrawlers traveled back to Austin without Benno. In mid-1973, they signed a contract with Bill Ham, manager for ZZ Top, and played various gigs across the South, though many of them were disastrous. Ham left the band stranded in Mississippi without any way to make it back home and demanded reimbursement from Vaughan for equipment expenses; Ham was never reimbursed.
In 1975, Vaughan joined a six-piece band called Paul Ray and the Cobras that included guitarist Denny Freeman and saxophonist Joe Sublett. For the next two-and-a-half years, he earned a living performing weekly at a popular venue in town, the Soap Creek Saloon, and ultimately the newly opened Antone’s, widely known as Austin’s “home of the blues”. In late 1976, Vaughan recorded a single with them, “Other Days” as the A-side and “Texas Clover” as the B-side. Playing guitar on both tracks, the single was released on February 7, 1977. In March, readers of the Austin Sun voted them as Band of the Year. In addition to playing with the Cobras, Vaughan jammed with many of his influences at Antone’s, including Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin, Jimmy Rogers, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Albert King.
Vaughan toured with the Cobras during much of 1977, but near the end of September, after the band decided to strive for a mainstream musical direction, and Stevie once again left the band.
He had played gigs with numerous bands through late 1977, during which time he mastered his chops when he finally formed his own group, Triple Threat Revue, which included singer Lou Ann Barton, bassist W. C. Clark, and drummer Fredde Pharaoh. In January 1978, they recorded four songs in Austin, including Vaughan’s composition “I’m Cryin'”. The thirty-minute audio recording marks the only known studio recording of the band. He then renamed the band Double Trouble after hiring drummer Chris Layton on drums and bassist Tommy Shannon and for the next few years, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble played the Austin Texas area, becoming one of the most popular bands in Texas.
Montreux Changed it All
In 1982, the band played the Montreux Festival at the introduction of Jerry Weller and their performance caught the attention of David Bowie and Jackson Browne. After Double Trouble’s performance, Bowie asked Vaughan to play on his forthcoming album ‘Let’s Dance’, while Browne offered the group free recording time at his Los Angeles studio, Downtown; both offers were accepted. Stevie Ray laid down the lead guitar tracks for Bowie’s Let’s Dance album in late 1982 and shortly afterward, John Hammond, Sr. landed Vaughan and Double Trouble a record contract with Epic. The band recorded its debut album in less than a week at Jackson Browne’s Downtown Recording Studio. Things were finally starting to happen!
His debut album, Texas Flood, was released in the summer of 1983, a few months after Bowie’s Let’s Dance appeared. On its own, playing guitar on Let’s Dance earned Vaughan quite a bit of attention, but Texas Flood was rapidly becoming a blockbuster blues success; receiving positive reviews in both blues and rock publications, reaching number 38 on the charts, and crossing over to album rock radio stations. Bowie offered Vaughan the lead guitarist role for his 1983 stadium tour, but Stevie turned him down, preferring to play with Double Trouble. Vaughan and Double Trouble set off on a successful tour and quickly recorded their second album, Couldn’t Stand the Weather, which was released in May of 1984. The album was more successful than its predecessor, reaching number 31 on the charts; by the end of 1985, the album went gold. Double Trouble added keyboardist Reese Wynans in 1985, before they recorded their third album, Soul to Soul. The record was released in August 1985 and was also quite successful, reaching number 34 on the charts.
Stevie had unleashed his monster guitar virtuosity onto the world.
With his astonishingly accomplished guitar playing, Stevie Ray Vaughan ignited the blues revival of the ’80s. Vaughan drew equally from bluesmen like Albert King, Otis Rush, and Muddy Waters and rock & roll players like Jimi Hendrix and Lonnie Mack, as well as the stray jazz guitarist like Kenny Burrell, developing a uniquely eclectic and fiery style that sounded like no other guitarist, regardless of genre. Vaughan bridged the gap between blues and rock like no other artist had since the late ’60s. For the next seven years, Stevie Ray was the leading light in American blues, consistently selling out concerts while his albums regularly went gold. His tragic death in 1990 only emphasized his influence in blues and American rock & roll.
Even though Vaughan was inspired musically by American and British blues rock, he favored clean amplifiers with high volume rather than distortion, which contributed to the popularity of vintage musical equipment. He often connected several different amplifiers together and used minimal effects pedals. Chris Gill of Guitar World commented: “Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar tone was as dry as a San Antonio summer and as sparkling clean as a Dallas debutante, the product of the natural sound of amps with ample clean headroom.” Vaughan only occasionally used pedals to augment his sound, mainly to boost the signal, although he occasionally employed a rotating speaker cabinet and wah pedals for added textural flair.
There was a price to pay
Although his professional career was soaring, Vaughan was sinking deep into alcoholism and drug addiction. Despite his declining health, Vaughan continued to push himself, releasing the double live album Live Alive in October of 1986 and launching an extensive American tour in early 1987.
Following the tour, Vaughan checked into a rehabilitation clinic. The guitarist’s time in rehab was kept fairly quiet and for the next year Stevie Ray and Double Trouble were fairly inactive. Vaughan performed a number of concerts in 1988, including a headlining gig at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and wrote his fourth album. The resulting record, In Step, appeared in June of 1989 and became his most successful album, peaking at number 33 on the charts, earning a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Recording, and going gold just over six months after its release.
In the spring of 1990, Stevie Ray recorded an album with his brother Jimmie, which was scheduled for release in the fall of the year. In the late summer of 1990, Vaughan and Double Trouble set out on an American headlining tour.
On August 26, 1990, their East Troy, WI, gig concluded with an encore jam featuring guitarists Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Jimmie Vaughan, and Robert Cray. After the concert, Stevie Ray boarded a helicopter bound for Chicago. Minutes after its 12:30 a.m. takeoff, the helicopter crashed, killing Vaughan and the other four passengers (3 members of Eric Clapton’s entourage and the pilot). He was only 35 years old.
In spite of a short-lived mainstream career spanning only seven years, he is widely considered one of the most influential electric guitarists in the history of blues music, and one of the most important figures in the revival of blues in the 1980s. AllMusic describes him as “a rocking powerhouse of a guitarist who gave blues a burst of momentum in the ’80s, 90s and new millenium, with influence still felt long after his tragic death in 1990.”
Family Style, Stevie Ray’s duet album with Jimmie, appeared in October and entered the charts at number seven. Family Style began a series of posthumous releases that were as popular as the albums Vaughan released during his lifetime. The Sky Is Crying, a collection of studio outtakes compiled by Jimmie, was released in October of 1991; it entered the charts at number ten and went platinum three months after its release. In the Beginning, a recording of a Double Trouble concert in 1980, was released in the fall of 1992 and the compilation Greatest Hits was released in 1995. In 1999, Vaughan’s original albums were remastered and reissued, with The Real Deal: Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 also appearing that year. 2000 saw the release of the four-disc box SRV, which concentrated heavily on outtakes, live performances, and rarities.
Vaughan received several music awards during his lifetime and posthumously. In 1983, readers of Guitar Player voted him as Best New Talent and Best Electric Blues Guitar Player. In 1984, the Blues Foundation named him Entertainer of the Year and Blues Instrumentalist of the Year, and in 1987, Performance Magazine honored him with Rhythm and Blues Act of the Year.
Earning six Grammy Awards and ten Austin Music Awards, he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2000, and the Musicians Hall of Fame in 2014. Rolling Stone ranked Vaughan as the twelfth greatest guitarist of all time.
In 2015, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.