Told to get clean or he had two weeks to live, guitar great Stevie Ray Vaughan did, and recorded his greatest album

Stevie Ray Vaughan studio portrait
Stevie Ray Vaughan in 1989 (Image credit: Aaron Rapoport via Getty Image)

There’s a heart-stopping moment in the film The Shawshank Redemption when Andy Dufresne crawls to freedom through what Morgan Freeman’s character Red narrates as “five-hundred yards of shit-smelling foulness I can’t even imagine”. Then redemption comes as he’s cleansed, arms outstretched, by the falling rain. 

The scene sums up neatly the final few years of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s life. The shit-smelling foulness of his drug and alcohol addiction, near-death experiences and the toxic relationships few of us could even imagine. Then redemption for SRV comes with the recording of his final, addiction-free album, 1989’s In Step. To paraphrase Red: Stevie Ray Vaughan crawled through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side. 

In Step isn’t just Stevie Ray Vaughan’s greatest studio album, it’s also his most influential. In fact, in terms of the continued survival and progression of blues music, In Step is as important as Robert Johnson’s King Of The Delta Blues Singers, BB King’s Live At The Regal, East West by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, even the Beano album by John Mayall’s Blues Breakers.

Recorded with his band Double Trouble [bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Chris Layton], it was Vaughan’s fourth and final studio album and his biggest commercial success. In Step won a Grammy in 1989 for Best Contemporary Blues Album, and delivered a No.1 single, Crossfire, on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart. It’s the album where Stevie Ray finally found his true voice. 

In Step put blues music back in business. The guitar landscape of 1989 was still roamed by hordes of gangly scrotes with bicycle pumps shoved down the inside leg of their spandex pants. Before grunge drove the decisive stake through the heart of these Hollywood vampires, Vaughan scored more than a few converts with the power of blues.

Unlike the Marshall-fuelled shredders, he found his sound via classic American amplifiers. He ran his amps loud and clean, albeit pushed into light overdrive with his heavy touch, even heavier strings and a succession of Ibanez Tube Screamer pedals. You can hear his pick hitting the strings of his Fender Stratocasters on In Step. You can hear the same thing on Jimi Hendrix’s studio recordings. 

While 80s rock and metalheads modified their Strats beyond recognition, thanks to the efforts of Edward Van Halen, Vaughan preferred the vintage originals. Like Slash and Gary Moore did for the Gibson Les Paul Standard, and Danny Gatton did for the 50s ‘Blackguard’ Fender Telecaster, Vaughan rebooted the desirability of the classic unmolested Stratocaster. His tone on In Step defined the sound of modern electric blues just like Gary Moore did on this side of the Atlantic with his Gibson Les Paul. 

In Step became the blueprint for the emerging trend of young blues artists of the 90s and beyond. These initially included Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jonny Lang, who were then joined by the likes of Joanne Shaw Taylor, Oli Brown, Laurence Jones and Quinn Sullivan. Thanks to SRV and In Step – and Gary Moore’s Still Got The Blues, released a year later – the yoof found a way to make an ancient art form their own. 

“The defining moment for me was when I saw Stevie Ray Vaughan,” disciple Kenny Wayne Shepherd told Guitar World. “I was seven years old at the time, and I got to meet him afterward. I walked away from that concert just dying to get serious about the guitar. I already had some toy guitars that I had played around with at home, and I probably learned my first notes on one of them, but I got my first electric guitar right after I had met Stevie.”

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about In Step is that it exists at all. Stevie Ray Vaughan was your archetypal dead man walking, hell-bent on self-destruction until he committed to recording what would become his final studio album with Double Trouble. 

His five-hundred-yard crawl began when he was a child. “I guess about seven or eight years old, I started stealing drinks,” said Vaughan after the release of In Step. “My parents used to have these ‘forty-two’ parties, and quite a few people would come over and they’d be havin’ their Tom Collins or whatever, you know. And when somebody wasn’t looking, I’d take one of the drinks and run to the kitchen, you know, an’ make them a new one, refresh their drink. It’s just that I would refresh my memory about what it tasted like a lot of the time. I never really thought that it tasted very good or anything.” 

By 1986, the son of an alcoholic was himself a seasoned self-abuser. On tour in Europe that September, SRV almost checked out for good via a drug overdose after a show at the Pfalzbau in Ludwigshafen, Germany. Incredibly, he survived and managed to make his way to London for a date at the Hammersmith Palais on October 2. Before the encore, Vaughan fell off a gangplank backstage and suffered an internal haemorrhage. It was another near-death experience. 

Dr Vernon Bloom, a specialist in drug addiction who treated Vaughan before the Hammersmith Palais show – ostensibly to get him through his set in one piece – gave the guitarist his diagnosis: get clean or you have two weeks to live. Stevie Ray Vaughan was then 32 years old.

Against all the odds, he got his shit together and returned to the live stage. On November 22, 1986 he was in concert with Bonnie Raitt at the Towson Center in Maryland, Florida, and he was clean and sober. 

The road to In Step began with his new-found sobriety, but it got serious in December 1988 when producer Jim Gaines was asked to work on Stevie’s next album. “How do you feel about recording me when I’ve got ten amps goin’ at once?” SRV asked Gaines. “Think you could handle that?” 

“Why not?” Gaines replied. “It sounds like a nightmare. Let’s do it.” 

What’s interesting about the SRV you find on In Step is that it’s all him. Yes, there are covers of Willie Dixon’s Let Me Love You Baby, Buddy Guy’s Leave My Girl Alone and Howlin’ Wolf’s Love Me Darlin’, but there’s no pastiche there. Vaughan had always worn his influences on his sleeve – Lonnie Mack, Albert King, Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix and more. He’d covered Guy’s Mary Had A Little Lamb faithfully on his debut record Texas Flood (’83), and pulled off an unnecessary run-through of Jimi’s Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) on 1984’s Couldn’t Stand The Weather

Yet with In Step, sobriety seemed to release Vaughan’s true voice. Not that he was immediately comfortable with the notion of making a record sober. On previous albums, local drug dealers had been the main beneficiaries of the session budgets. Now clean, SRV wasn’t sure if he had the songwriting, guitar playing and vocal chops to pull off another album. As he famously revealed after the release of the album: “I was recording without drugs and nervous as hell.”

The greatest blues albums are born out of joy, adversity, pain, suffering, regret, anger… – write about what you know. For people like BB King and Muddy Waters, that was racism, escaping the cotton fields of the Deep South and, ultimately, finding fame and fortune, their champagne and reefer, in the industrial north. 

On In Step, with the help of singer/songwriter/ drummer Doyle Bramhall, Double Trouble and keyboard player Reese Wynans, SRV distilled his darkest days into the strongest material of his career. Even the album’s title alludes to the Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve Step program. Yet songs like Tightrope and Wall Of Denial are devoid of self-pity. Yes, he knows he’ll always be walking a tightrope between sobriety and relapse, but there’s joy that the wall of denial has finally come tumbling down. 

That joy is there in spades on The House Is Rockin’. Everyone’s invited: ‘Don’t bother knockin’, come on in.’ Also remarkable is the jazz instrumental Riviera Paradise that closes out the album. Driven by some beautifully understated backing from Layton and Shannon, and Wynan’s expressive piano and Hammond work, it plays host to some of SRV’s finest playing.

For producer Jim Gaines, the fine calibre of the band’s work on In Step was the result of his own high standards. As he told The Blues Magazine in 2014: “It could get tense, because I was also the first person to ever tell Stevie: ‘Nope, that’s not good enough. Do it again.’” 

The sessions didn’t get off to the greatest of starts anyway. Having begun at the Power Station studios in New York, Gaines pulled the plug when he noticed an annoying hum in the room. “I moved us to Kiva Studios in Memphis, and that solved the problem,” Gaines says. “They had a big isolation room, and it was great, since the band loved the city and the [studio] bosses loved him because he’s a big star. Still had the problem with the amplification, though. We were getting hum because he’s using a single-coil Strat, so I wrapped the room in copper wire and put him inside what looks like a baseball batting cage. That pulled the interference down seventy per cent. I could live with that.” 

SRV had been bugged about the move from the Power Station. He was used to the studio, having recorded both his second long-player, Couldn’t Stand The Weather, and David Bowie’s 1984 smash hit album Let’s Dance there. Listening to In Step, however, there was no way he could argue with the results Gaines was getting. Vaughan must have realised he’d recorded the album of his career. When the sessions were finally over, he thanked Gaines with a tight hug. 


Stevie Ray Vaughan didn’t get his Shawshank happy ending, and In Step will always be seen as the triumph before the tragedy of his death, in a helicopter crash on August 27, 1990 at the age of 35. He’d been on stage with Eric Clapton at a show at Alpine Valley Resort in East Troy, Wisconsin and was being flown back to Chicago. 

“Listening to Stevie on the night of his last performance here on earth was almost more than I could stand, and made me feel like there was nothing left to say,” Clapton said. “He’d said it all.” 

It’s easy to dwell on the tragedy. Yet listen to the joyous In Step today, and the heartbreaking thing is that it’s so obvious that this sober, reborn Stevie Ray Vaughan was just getting started.

This feature was originally published in Classic Rock 250, published in July 2018.

Ed Mitchell

Ed Mitchell was the Editor of The Blues Magazine from 2012-16, and a contributor to Classic Rock and Louder. He died in October 2022, aged 52. A one-time Reviews Editor on Total Guitar magazine from 2003, his guitar-modding column, Ed’s Shed, appeared in print on both sides of the Atlantic (in both Total Guitar and Guitar World magazines), and he wrote stories for Classic Rock and Guitarist. Between them, the websites Louder, MusicRadar and Guitar World host over 400 of his articles – among them interviews with Billy Gibbons, Paul Weller, Brian Setzer, profiles on Roy Buchanan, Duane Allman and Peter Green, a joint interview with Jimmy Page and Jack White, and dozens of guitar reviews – and that’s just the ones that made it online.