Recalling the greatness of Stevie Ray Vaughan

by Ted Drozdowski

Etta James called him "the best thing that happened to blues in 20 years." Buddy Guy said, "He's done more for black blues people than any record company ever did." And B.B. King tagged him "one of my very favorite guitarists." The late Stevie Ray Vaughan, first memorialized with 1990's posthumous The Sky Is Crying, is remembered again with the new The Real Deal: Greatest Hits 2 and the reissue of four of his albums: Texas Flood, Soul to Soul, In Step, and Couldn't Stand the Weather.

Vaughan was indeed the most spectacular blues performer to emerge since Jimi Hendrix. Although he spent just seven years as a recording artist and released only six albums during his lifetime, the Austin, Texas, legend is almost single-handedly responsible for the '80s and '90s resurgence in the popularity of the blues.

Sure, Robert Cray had the nascent groundswell's first Top 40 hit with March 1987's "Smoking Gun" (off of Strong Persuader), but it was Vaughan who sold millions of records and had the ability to galvanize arena-sized audiences with his incendiary performances. And in the final hours of his life, it was Vaughan who--by Eric Clapton's admission--emerged the victor in a good-ol'-fashioned cutting contest on a Wisconsin amphitheater stage, leaving the other world-class participants--Clapton, Cray, Buddy Guy, and Vaughan's brother Jimmie--all wondering to what heights he would eventually take his virtuosity.

The question was answered when the helicopter carrying Vaughan to Chicago after the concert slammed into a fog-shrouded hill near the amphitheater in the wee hours of August 27, 1990. He was dead--instantly--at 35.

"I cried when I heard," Buddy Guy said in 1991, during a conversation about Vaughan and the instrumental "Rememberin' Stevie" on Guy's comeback album Damn Right, I've Got the Blues. "He was like a brother to me, and he was always telling people that I was one of the people he got his style from."

Certainly Vaughan wore his influences on his sleeve and never faltered in admitting it. Live and on albums he covered songs by Guy, Hendrix, Guitar Slim, Albert Collins, Howlin' Wolf, Larry Davis, Lonnie Mack, Elmore James, and many others. In his elegant string-bending, vibrato, speed, tone, and hard-edged attack could be heard nuances developed through years of refining the vocabulary of electric guitar greats from Bo Diddley to Albert King to Kenny Burrell. Seeking to share the light from his rising star, Vaughan freely and frequently praised all of his heroes from the stage and in interviews, heralding their medium--the blues--as one of the greatest and deepest of American art forms.

And Vaughan believed every word he said, every note he played. His unsparing performances were a model of openhearted, high-energy delivery developed over years of playing in Texas roadhouses--infused with the blister-fingered three-to-five-sets-a-night work ethic he and his blues idols came up on. He also learned how to be a superb showman during those long Texas nights. The sight of Vaughan wearing a flat-topped cowboy hat decked with feathers, sweat pouring over his face and dripping into his grinning mouth as he furiously picked his Stratocaster behind his head, is an image many of his fans will carry forever.

In a sense, the blues was his on-stage ministry and Vaughan delivered its gospel with uninhibited vigor. His spiritual devotion to the music translated not only to his audience, but to such discriminating fans as James, Guy, and King--all among the genre's most important modern architects. That became even more literal after he shook his addiction to alcohol and cocaine in 1986. Vaughan would use his romantic slow-blues epics "Ain't Gone 'n' Give Up on Love" and "Life Without You" as springboards for little sermons. He'd plead with the audience to love each other, stressing the importance of human understanding. And he'd talk about his own long-term problems with whiskey and cocaine to try to let others know there was light at the end of the tunnel if they chose to enter.

"For me, a lot of things are a matter of faith," he said during a conversation on his tour behind his finest solo effort, 1989's In Step. "I have to have faith in the music and faith in myself and faith in a higher power, 'cause all of them have gotten me this far."

It could be said that Vaughan loved music so much that he accidentally died for it. He could have spent more time off the road, touring only to support newly released albums as most performers at his level do. Nearly all of the seven years after his 1983 debut Texas Flood were a blur of buses and planes and helicopters. But he had a gift and an enthusiasm that he needed to share. And he lived as he wished.

"Sometimes I wanna be just a regular guy, y'know," Vaughan said in 1989. "But then I look around me and I realize, 'Hey, I'm happy!' I'm doing what I wanted to do all my life."

Ted Drozdowski is a journalist and musician living in Boston. His articles have appeared in Rolling Stone, Musician, Travel & Leisure, Live!, Saturday Review, the Boston Phoenix, and a host of other publications. He is the 1998 recipient of the Blues Foundation's Keeping the Blues Alive for Journalism award.


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