Remembering a true Dallas maverick - guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughan

 

Monday, August 27th, marks the 28th anniversary of the death of guitar-great Stevie Ray Vaughan.

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If you're saying, "Who?," for shame, y'all! I'm speaking of the uber-talented blues/rock guitarist and singer who almost single-handedly breathed life back into the corpse of The Blues in the 1980's, all the while giving props and resurgence to the original black bluesmen, many of whom were still alive and embarked on second or even third careers, just by virtue of Vaughan's unending respect for them and constant word-of-mouth praise.

Stevie Ray Vaughan was a true Dallas maverick, whose time was up far too soon.

Just minutes after midnight on August 27, 1990, at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wisconsin, Vaughan was killed in the crash of a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter, along with pilot Jeff Brown and three men from the entourage of Eric Clapton.

He was just 35 years old.

Stevie had just finished playing an epic closing set with his brother, Jimmie, and Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton and Robert Cray.  Their final song was Sweet Home Chicago, where the musicians were headed after the concert, some by limo and the others via three choppers awaiting them on the venue's helipad.

Jimmie Vaughan had a seat on the fated chopper, but Stevie asked him for it; he wanted to get back to Chicago to see his girlfriend and figured it'd be faster than a limo. Jimmie acquiesced.  Minutes later, the chopper, at full throttle, slammed into the side of a 300-ft ski hill, killing instantly all on board.

It had been extremely hot and humid the day of the crash, and the inside windshields of the helicopters kept fogging up, to the point that Buddy Guy (in another of the choppers), frightened, kept wiping the windshield with a cloth before takeoff and almost left the craft.

Ultimately, the accident report stated that pilot error was to blame; the chopper never rose near the altitude needed to clear the ski hill.  In fact, pilot Brown had crashed before in the identical model helicopter.

The tragedy ended the career of one of the most influential guitarists of his time, who was at the precipice of full-on stardom, with the highly-anticipated September, 1990 release of the album, Family Style, that Stevie had recorded with brother Jimmie.

Stephen Ray Vaughan grew up in the tough Dallas neighborhood of Oak Cliff, notorious for being where Lee Harvey Oswald gunned down Dallas motorcycle officer J.D. Tippit, the same day Oswald allegedly assassinated JFK.  Stevie grew up in the shadow of his older brother, Jimmie, who, by his teens, was a local blues guitar phenom himself.  He eventually pirated one of Jimmie's guitars and taught himself to play, mostly his beloved blues and Hendrix.  Jimmie eventually moved to Austin and Stevie soon followed.

Diametrically-opposed to the disco craze, the 1970's Austin blues scene was thriving; while still in his teens, Stevie was playing in clubs with blues giants, Albert King, Hubert Sumlin and Muddy Waters amongst them.  He formed his own bands, eventually assembling Double Trouble, named after a song by Chicago bluesman Otis Rush. Drummer Chris Layton, bassist Tommy Shannon and keyboard man Reese Wynans were all blues vets and as good as it gets, and together with SRV, they recorded many award-winning albums and performed the world-over.

In the mid-1980s, SRV's long years of drink and cocaine abuse nearly killed him; he collapsed, hemmorhaging on a London street, ending up in rehab in Georgia.  It saved his life, but sadly, he enjoyed only four years' sobriety before he was killed.  To his great credit, in that time, he became an AA-sponsor to many, famous and not, quietly helping them become sober.

Stevie Ray Vaughan long has been one of my absolute favorite players. I saw him many times, and each time his power, finesse and incredible tone never ceased to amaze me.  I've seen Buddy Guy, two Kings - Albert and BB, Otis Rush, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Carlos Santana, Mark Knopfler.  Greats, all.

But with the exception, perhaps, of Chicago's brilliant Terry Kath, Stevie Ray Vaughan was the finest musician I've ever seen.

The older blues players loved him because he always paid them their due, and he was of great influence to so many young musicians who came after him.

Yes, there are myriad other truly fine players.  But none with the exact combination of Stevie's fire, fury and soul.  In the almost 30 years since his death, no one can touch him.

He was a freakin' force of nature.


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