Ray Of Light: the triumphant life and tragic death of Stevie Ray Vaughan

Stevie Ray Vaughan
(Image credit: Icon and Image/Getty Images)

It was on August 27 that the news broke. The first flash came over the Associated Press wire that Monday morning in 1990 at about seven o’clock: ‘Copter crash in East Troy, Wisconsin. Five fatalities, including a musician.’ Keen-eyed staffers at the Austin American-Statesman caught that item and began putting the pieces together as AP provided fresh details every half-hour: the mysterious ‘musician’ soon became ‘a member of Eric Clapton’s entourage’, and then ‘a guitarist’. By 9.30am, rumours spread that Stevie Ray Vaughan, Austin’s favourite son, was on board the crashed aircraft.

At 11.30am Clapton’s manager confirmed the worst: Vaughan was indeed among the passengers in the five-seater helicopter that slammed into a fog-shrouded hillside near southeastern Wisconsin’s Alpine Valley ski resort.

Stevie Ray had boarded the aircraft after a rousing all-star finalé/jam on Robert Johnson’s Sweet Home Chicago along with Clapton, Robert Cray, Stevie’s brother Jimmie Vaughan and Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy, all of whom ripped it up before an ecstatic crowd of 25,000 adoring fans.

Four Bell 260B Jet Ranger helicopters awaited the artists and their respective entourages following the show. The caravan of blues stars departed from Alpine Valley at two-minute intervals. The first, second and fourth ’copters landed without incident at Chicago’s Meigs Field. The third, carrying members of Clapton’s entourage and Stevie Ray, never made it. Poor visibility due to dense fog is prominent among factors blamed for the crash.

By noon the capital city of Texas was in a state of shock. SRV’s death was the most devastating blow to the Lone Star State’s music community since Buddy Holly, along with Richie Valens and the Big Bopper, went down in an Iowa plane crash 31 years earlier. Soon the entire town of Austin was mourning its homeboy. By 5pm, merchants had posted signs proclaiming ‘We Love You Stevie’ and ‘So Long Stevie’ outside their stores. 

Even the Holiday Inn replaced the cheery ‘Welcome Conventioneers’ on its marquee with a sombre ‘SRV R.I.P.’ Plumbing stores, Tex-Mex restaurants, musical instrument stores, donut shops – all flew the flag of grief in this central Texas town, where Little Stevie Vaughan, the skinny kid from Oak Cliff, became Stevie Ray Vaughan, home-town hero and Austin’s musical ambassador to the world.

In the two decades since his passing, SRV’s impact on the music scene has become more and more pronounced. His influence – his searing guitar style, eloquent songwriting and consummate musicianship – is undeniable on the new generation of blues rockers like Joe Bonamassa, Philip Sayce and John Mayer, while his classic albums such as Texas Flood and Couldn’t Stand The Weather are now justifiable stalwarts of the blues canon.

On that fateful day, though, fans began converging on Zilker Park, seated side-by-side in the darkness with candles; 3,000 points of light flickering in a sea of sorrow.

His music united everyone, it seemed: tattooed Chicano bikers, besuited lawyers and crystal-carrying New Agers mourned in silence together. Young guitar slingers in the crowd caressed their Strats, Buddhists chanted and old friends wept openly as disc jockey Jody Denberg pumped a steady stream of SRV through a makeshift PA system in the park. The sound of Stevie Ray’s stinging Strat pierced the air and went directly to the hearts of the huddled masses, offering bitter-sweet solace to the bereaved.

As mourners gathered at Zilker Park, others instinctively headed to the club Antone’s, a focal point of the Austin blues scene throughout the mid-70s and a favourite hangout of the Vaughan brothers in their formative years. One fan fondly recalled the night in 1978 when Stevie Ray went toe-to-toe on stage at Antone’s with Otis Rush, the great left-handed bluesman who wrote Double Trouble, the tune after which SRV named his band. Another described the night he saw Little Stevie play with Albert King back in 1975. A younger fan related, in still-awed tones, his excitement at witnessing a 1987 jam when Stevie Ray and brother Jimmie were joined on stage by U2’s The Edge and Bono.

By 9pm local TV stations began converging on Antone’s, their cameras capturing the testimony of an obviously shaken Clifford Antone, the club’s well-known owner. “I met Stevie when I was 22 and he was 17,” he sobbed to the cameras. “He was Little Stevie back then, just a kid. And he could play as good then as he does now. People are like that… it’s just born in ’em, you know?”

The following day, still reeling from the news, the city of Austin tried to carry on. By now every daily newspaper in the US had run some kind of front-page item about the tragic loss. And although the blues world was stunned, the people of Austin were positively crushed. How could this horrible thing happen? Why now, after Stevie Ray had cleaned up and got his life back together?

Old friends and colleagues showed up at Antone’s on Tuesday night to hug each other and help brush away the tears. Eddie Munoz, an old friend of Stevie’s and guitarist in the early 80s band The Plimsouls, recalled SRV’s uncanny ability to communicate directly through his instrument: “Stevie was a rarity. There are very few people who have that much soul and that much power, who can command so much attention just by plugging in a guitar. But he didn’t carry any big pretence about it. He used to say to me: ‘I don’t know where it came from. It just happened. My brother Jimmie showed me some stuff, and then it was like the dam broke.’ He was just so shy and unassuming – until you put a guitar in his hands. He lived for playing that guitar. Everybody’s jaw dropped whenever he played. There are those people who are just so blessed – one person out of millions who can touch the instrument and have it sing for him. Stevie Ray always had that.”

Stevie Ray’s death hit this writer particularly hard. I had followed his meteoric rise to fame, having first been tipped off to his toe-curling, Strat-slinging abilities back in 1982 by ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons for a story I did on the lineage of Texas guitar. I finally got to interview Stevie Ray when he came to New York on October 4, 1984 for a gala Carnegie Hall gig. Our chat took place in the band bus parked outside the prestigious venue. I remember Stevie being soft-spoken, polite in a charming southern way, somewhat shy and somewhat high – his blurry, red eyes revealing his decadent lifestyle at the time.

As we continued chatting, it seemed we had a lot in common. Along with our mutual love of the blues, I also played guitar; but wasn’t foolish enough to go toe-to-toe with this cat. I too had an elder brother who was a huge influence on me musically and gave me my first guitar when he got a better one, just as Jimmie Vaughan had done with Little Stevie when they were kids growing up in Oak Cliff. We talked about sibling rivalries and the little-brother syndrome. I felt a strange bond with this skinny guy from Texas, and knew that we would meet again at some point down the road.

My next one-to-one encounter with Stevie Ray didn’t come for another few years, and it was under extraordinary circumstances. He had just got out of a treatment facility in Marietta, Georgia, where he’d spent a month trying to get clean and sober. Speaking to the press was just part of the healing process, and a very cathartic one at that. This time I met him down in Orlando, Florida, where he was to kick off his comeback tour. And instead of the shy, red-eyed insecure kid that I had encountered on the band bus outside Carnegie Hall three-and-a-half years earlier, this Stevie Ray Vaughan was focused and purposeful. He spoke with conviction and gave direct eye contact. And he seemed to possess an inner strength that came from self-awareness. His words from that meeting still ring in my ears today.

“There’s just a lot more reasons to live now,” he said. “I can honestly say that I’m really glad to be alive today. Because, left to my own devices, I would’ve slowly killed myself. There were a lot of things I was running from, and one of them was me. I’ve made a commitment now, not for the rest of my life, just for today. Now, each day’s a new victory.”

During the course of our lengthy interview, Stevie Ray detailed the ravages of his pre-rehab lifestyle: the endless gigging and recording; the lack of sleep; the abundance of cocaine and alcohol fuelling every waking hour. As he told me: “For a long time we had a schedule that was just completely out of hand. And the only reason we put up with it was because – partly from the situation we were in and partly from doing too much coke – we thought we were super-human. I mean, the whole deal is that when you walk on stage you’re up there bigger than life. People idolise you. And if you let that go to your head you’re in trouble. You have to keep those things in perspective, but that’s hard to do when you’re high on cocaine and drinking all the time.”

He took a deep sigh and continued: “During that period when we were touring and making a record, my trick was not to sleep at all. I would stay in the studio all night long, doing mixes of the live stuff and choosing tunes. I’d leave the studio about noon, go to the hotel to grab a shower, go to the sound-check and play the gig. Then I’d come back to the studio, stay there all night doing mixes, come back to the hotel the next noon, grab a shower, go to the sound-check and play the gig. Then I’d come back to the studio. And then the whole thing would start all over again. For two straight weeks I did that. We had spread ourselves way too thin. It was taking its toll, and the only way we could see to deal with that was: ‘Oh, you’re too tired? Well, here, snort some of this.’

“And between the coke and the alcohol, it had gotten to the point where I no longer had any idea what it would take to get drunk. I passed the stage where I could drink whatever I wanted to and be able to hold my liquor, so to speak. One day I could drink a quart, and then the next day all I’d have to do was drink one sip to get completely smashed.”

Stevie Ray doesn’t remember exactly how much he drank the night he fell off the stage in London in 1986. Two, maybe three drinks. Maybe a quart. But it was painfully obvious at that point that something had gone dreadfully haywire with the reigning star of the rock and blues scene. John Hammond’s promising protégé was drowning in a morass of self-destruction. “I would wake up and guzzle something, just to get rid of the pain I was feeling – whisky, beer, vodka, whatever was handy. It got to the point where if I’d try to say hi to somebody I would just fall apart, crying and everything. It was like… solid doom. There really was nowhere to go but up. I’d been trying to pull myself up by my boot straps, so to speak, but they were broken, you know?”

He exacerbated his mental, physical and spiritual decline with the help of some unfortunate ‘recreational’ activities, the most effective of which involved pouring cocaine into his drinks to prolong the buzz. “I tore up my stomach real bad by doing that. I didn’t realise that the cocaine would crystallise in my stomach and make cuts inside there. Finally I had a breakdown. I mean, everything fell apart. I surrendered to the fact that I didn’t know how to go without the stuff. I had envisioned myself just staying high for the rest of my life, you know? But I had to give up to win, because I was in a losing battle.”

In September 1986 he entered a clinic in London, under the care and supervision of Dr Victor Bloom. “He filled me in on the disease of alcoholism and made me realise that this thing had been going on for a long time with me, long before I ever started playing professionally. Fact is, I had been drinking since 1960 – when I was six years old. That’s when I first started stealing daddy’s drinks. When my parents were gone, I’d find the bottle and make myself one. I thought it was cool… thought the kids down the street would think it was cool. That’s where it began, and I had been depending on it ever since.”

Stevie Ray readily admitted that, just prior to his breakdown, the constant intake and build-up of drugs and alcohol in his system contributed to a decline in the quality of his playing and in his band’s overall performance:

“Sure it affected my playing. Of course, my thinking was: ‘Boy, don’t that sound good?’ And there were some great notes that came out, but not necessarily always by my doing. It was kind of like I was getting carried through something. I just wasn’t in control. Nobody was. We were all exhausted. You could hear it on the tapes of the stuff we had to pull from for the Live Alive album. Some of those European gigs were okay; some of them sounded like they were the work of half-dead people.

“Part of the deal,” he continued, “was that this kind of behaviour is so accepted in this industry. It’s a classic line: ‘Golly, he sure is screwed up, but he sure can play good.’ And I found out that if I stayed loaded all the time, my ego got patted on the back and I didn’t have to worry about things that I should’ve been thinking about. It was a lot more comfortable to run from responsibilities. There were a lot of things I was running from, and one of them was me. I was a 33-year-old with a six-year-old kid inside of me, scared and wondering where love is. I was walking around trying to act cool, like I had no fear at all. But I was afraid – afraid that somebody would find out just how scared I was. Now I’m finally realising that fear is the opposite of love.”

Shortly after that story was published (September 1988) I went to see the new and improved SRV at an outdoor concert at Pier 84 overlooking the Hudson River on the West Side of Manhattan. The show was typically brilliant, the musicianship phenomenal, and included Stevie’s regular speech during his tune Life Without You about committing to a life of sobriety. After the show, I got backstage to say hi to Stevie Ray. At some point he spied me in the sea of well-wishers and hangers-on, approached me, looked me dead in the eye, shook my hand and said: “Thanks for what you did.”

I next saw Stevie Ray in early 1990 at an intimate listening party at the midtown Manhattan offices of Epic Records. He and his brother Jimmie were there to premiere their first-ever collaboration, Family Style, to a select few press members. I remember Stevie wearing white boots, smiling a lot and dancing as the tune Baboom/Mama Said came booming out of the speakers. He was clean and sober and grabbing the brass ring of life from his personal merry-go-round. No more bleary eyes and tell-tale stagger. He was sitting on top of the world, to quote Willie Dixon, enjoying the fruits of his labour right alongside his brother. These were the good times.

And then, like a meteor streaking across the night sky, disaster struck.

On the morning of Friday, August 31, 1990, more than 3,000 fans arrived at Laurel Land Memorial Park in Dallas to pay their last respects to Stevie Ray. Inside the chapel, an inner circle of friends and family gathered in private. First to emerge from the chapel was Stevie Wonder, who was led to a sheltered reviewing stand near the grave site. The casket was then placed in a white hearse, which drove slowly to the site as mourners followed behind on foot. Jimmie and his mother Martha walked alongside the late guitarist’s fiancée, Janna Lapidus. Strolling behind them, heads bowed, were SRV’s drummer Chris Layton and bassist Tommy Shannon alongside the Fabulous

Thunderbirds harmonica ace and frontman Kim Wilson. Behind them were Canadian blues guitarist Jeff Healey, Austin guitar slinger Charlie Sexton, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard, New Orleans icon Dr John, Mark Pollack of Charley’s Guitars store in Dallas, Canadian blues guitarist Colin James, and Charlie Comer, Stevie Ray’s friend and publicist. Blues guitar great Buddy Guy, overcome with grief, slipped out of the chapel and into a nearby car, unable to bring himself to the grave site.

The Reverend Barry Bailey of the First United Methodist Church of Fort Worth (Stevie Ray’s AA sponsor) opened the funeral service with some personal thoughts, his rich voice booming through two huge stacks of speakers. “We’re here to thank God for this man’s life,” he began. “He was a genius, a superstar, a musician’s musician. He captured the hearts of thousands and thousands of people. I am thankful for the impact of this man’s influence on thousands of people in getting his own life together in the name of God.”

Several mourners wept openly as Nile Rodgers eulogised Stevie Ray by recalling a tune from the Family Style session he had produced only a few weeks earlier: “In the song Tick Tock, he sings the refrain ‘Remember.’ And what Stevie was trying to tell all of us was: ‘Remember my music. Remember how important music is to all of us. And just remember that it’s a gift.’ Stevie was truly touched by the hand of God. He had a powerful gift. And through his music, he can make us all remember things that are very, very important, like love and family. And believe me, Stevie, I’ll always remember.”

And with those solemn words, the soulful sound of Stevie’s soothing vocals on Tick Tock poured out of the speakers, touching hearts and raising goose bumps. It was a preview of the Vaughan Brothers’ Family Style album, which would not be released until September 25 that year. The crowd, surprised by this sample of what was yet to come, applauded and cheered.

Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and Stevie Wonder then led the crowd in a few choruses of Amazing Grace, Bonnie carrying the melody as the other two harmonised. And when Raitt said: “Take it, Stevie,” the magnificent Wonder voice came forth, swooping and swirling around the notes with spine-tingling, emotionally charged power, causing many in the crowd to lose control.

Twenty years later, in 2010, Stevie Ray Vaughan was still being rediscovered by a new generation that appreciated the directness, rawness and sheer honesty of his stinging Strat work. Meanwhile, Sony released a newly remastered two-CD edition of SRV’s 1984 platinum-selling album Couldn’t Stand The Weather, to commemorate the anniversary year, which included out-takes and a previously unreleased live concert recording from 1984.

You see, that old blues adage is true: What goes around comes around. Stevie Ray Vaughan was back. And his toe-curling licks sounded as fresh as ever.

This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 148, in July 2010.

Straight Shooter: six Stevie Ray Vaughan classics

Pride And Joy (from Texas Flood, 1983) 

A bold, in-your-face, Texas-style, behind- the-beat roadhouse shuffle infused with some stinging, quintessential SRV strat licks on the guitar.

Lenny (from Texas Flood)

SRV’s instrumental answer to Jimi Hendrix’s lyrical One Rainy Wish (from Axis: Bold As Love) and May This Be Love.

Voodoo Chile… (from Couldn’t Stand The Weather, 1984)

This chilling track indelibly linked SRV to Jimi’s legacy.

Ain’t Gone ‘N’ Give Up On Love (from Soul To Soul, 1985)

A master of slow blues, he deals in deep waters on this autobiographical number on which he unleashes some toe-curling licks.

Gone Home (from Soul To Soul)

This is the realisation of SRV’s dream to jam with guitarist Kenny Burrell and organist Groove Holmes. The jazziest thing he ever recorded.

Crossfire (from In Step, 1989)

Stinging, cathartic Strat work from SRV’s confessional, post-rehab recording.