Born on October 3, 1954 in Dallas, TX; died on August 27, 1990, in East Troy, WI; son of Jim (an asbestos worker) and Martha (Cook) Vaughan; divorced from wife, Lenny.

The appearance of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble at the 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival signaled the beginning of yet another blues revival and heralded the arrival of another guitar hero. Vaughan's mixture of Texas blues and Jimi Hendrix-inspired rock helped open the door for acts like the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Robert Cray, Los Lobos, and a host of other authentic roots bands.

Vaughan's earliest exposure to music came from his parents. While neither of them was a musician, they held many dance parties at their house in the Oak Cliff suburb of Dallas. At other times, members of Bob Wills's band (the Texas Playboys) would come over to play dominoes and pick on their guitars, mixing popular hillbilly, swing, and country tunes of the day.

Following the lead of his older brother, Jimmie (later of the Fabulous Thunderbirds), Vaughan began playing the guitar in 1963, stealing practice time whenever his brother would set the instrument down. "Jimmie actually was one of the biggest influences on my playing," Vaughan told Guitar Player. "He really was the reason why I started to play, watching him and seeing what could be done." Both brothers dove into the blues head first, buying albums by B.B. King, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, and all the masters, trying to absorb their feel and sound.

Starting his performing career in clubs at the age of 14, Vaughan played in a succession of bands, including Blackbird, the Shantones, the Epileptic Marshmallow, and Cracker Jack. He also played bass in Jimmie's band, Texas Storm, for a brief period. On New Year's Eve, 1972, one year before his high school graduation, he dropped out and moved to Austin, again following Jimmie, who had been there since 1970. After forming the Nightcrawlers in 1973, Vaughan left for a rhythm and blues combo, the Cobras. "Actually, he was just too much of a guitar player for a band like that," former bandmate Denny Freeman offered in Guitar Player. "He'd do a solo and play all the guts out of a song."

The Cobras were offered a contract by Rounder records but, wary of being taken advantage of, never signed it. A year with them led Vaughan to the group Triple Threat in 1975, which consisted of five lead singers, including Lou Ann Barton. Three years later Vaughan and Barton left to start a new band, the original Double Trouble, named after the Otis Rush song.

Personnel changes saw Barton leave to start a solo career. Bassist Tommy Shannon had played with Vaughan previously in Blackbird and Cracker Jack, and more notably, with fellow Texan Johnny Winter's trio during the blues revival of the late 1960's. Along with Chris "Whipper" Layton on drums, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble began to astound audiences with their high-energy sound. "I'd call it rhythm and blues, but sometimes we get out there with it," Vaughan told Bruce Nixon. "A lot of people think of it as blues-rock, although I'd like to have it thought of as just music."

Whatever the label, around 1982 things started happening for the trio. Members of the Rolling Stones flew the band to New York to play a party at the Danceteria club. Next, record producer Jerry Wexler decided to pull some strings. While working on Lou Ann Barton's debut album, Wexler heard Vaughan performing in an Austin club and immediately got the band a spot at the 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival. They became the first band without a record ever to play there.

David Bowie heard the group's performance and asked Vaughan to play on his next album and the ensuing tour, with Double Trouble as the opening act. "From what I understand," Vaughan told Guitar Player, "Bowie was looking for somebody who played this style anyway, and I was the one he picked." The album, Let's Dance, was a major hit for Bowie. The six cuts that Vaughan played on showed a brand new audience the power of his Albert King-style licks. But in mid-May, just two days before the tour, Vaughan backed out. Reasons given for his departure vary, but according to Bowie in Guitar World, "Stevie didn't make it to the touring stage with us last tour because he had his own illustrious career to get on with, and he did very well, indeed."

Bowie and the Stones weren't the only artists to recognize Vaughan's talents. Jackson Browne jammed with him several times and offered Vaughan the use of his own recording studio, Down Town, free of charge. The ensuing songs were purchased by none other than John Hammond (discoverer of Count Basie, Billie Holliday, Charlie Christian, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, and Bruce Springsteen) who signed the group to CBS and became the executive producer of their first album. "I was so delighted by Stevie's sound," Hammond stated in Guitar World. "It's unlike anyone else's---and he's such a marvelous improviser, never repeating exactly the same thing twice. He's the kind of creative force one looks for but rarely finds."

The debut album, Texas Flood, was distributed by Epic in June of 1983. From the Chuck Berry-in-overdrive "Love Struck Baby" to the beautiful liquid tone of "Lenny," the album showed how different Vaughan's style was from his brother's, or for that matter, any other guitarist's. As Dan Forte wrote, "He doesn't just play his guitar; he mauls it." With instrumentals that pinned listeners to the wall and enough unique licks to make even veteran bluesmen shake their heads, Vaughan was on a mission. The album won Best Guitar Album in the 1983 Guitar Player readers poll, and Vaughan was also voted Best New Talent and Electric Blues Guitarist (topping Eric Clapton and Johnny Winter).

Vaughan's 1984 follow-up, Couldn't Stand the Weather, laid to rest any flash-in-the-pan notions that may have been floating around. Jimmie was brought in on second guitar for the title cut, and there was even some jazzy sax on "Stang's Swang" (courtesy of Stan Harrison's tenor). But the real stopper was the unbelievable rendition of Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)". For nearly 15 years guitarists had been copying Hendrix, but never before had anyone duplicated the sound of an entire song so expertly. Anyone who thought studio tricks were the secret needed only to see Vaughan live. Playing with the guitar behind his back, on the floor, or with hands over the fretboard, Vaughan tore into other Hendrix tunes with equal vengeance. Again he won the Guitar Player readers poll Guitar Album and Electric Blues categories.

In 1985 Vaughan had the opportunity to work with one of his idols and earliest influences, Lonnie Mack. The two had met years before when Vaughan was playing in a small club. Mack wanted to record Vaughn and have him play in his own band, but things didn't work out. As it was, Vaughan ended up producing and playing on Mack's comeback effort, Strike Like Lightning. "They were his tunes and I just tried to help him by doing the best I could to do what he wanted to do with the record," Vaughan told Guitar World. "That's what I think producing is ... just being there, and, with Lonnie, just reminding him of his influence on myself and other guitar players."

In addition to winning the Guitar Player readers poll Electric Blues category again, in 1985 Vaughan also became the first white artist to win the W.C. Handy Blues Foundation's Blues Entertainer of the Year award. Vaughan also released his third album, Soul to Soul. With the additon of Reese Wynans on keyboards as a permanent group member and Joe Sublett providing sax, the sound was fuller and more up-tempo. It contained the obligatory nods to Hendrix, "Come On" and an original wah-wah tour de force entitled "Say What!" But rather than just being vehicles for Vaughan's solos, the songs were now beginning to have more meaning, especially for Vaughan. He had been battling alcohol and cocaine for quite some time, trying to live up to the superstar image. Vaughan was struggling to get a focus on his life without following Hendrix to the grave.

While touring to promote Soul to Soul and mixing tracks for an upcoming live album, Vaughan collapsed and fell off the stage in London. He had been stretching himself too thin and had to be checked into a clinic to seek help. In September of 1986 Vaughan entered the Marietta clinic under the supervision of Dr. Victor Bloom. Vaughan stayed there a month---with visits from Jackson Browne and Eric Clapton offering support---and then transferred to a treatment facility in Georgia.

His fourth album, Live Alive!, was released in 1986 and contained a remake of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" which eventually became a video. Although it was a double album, critics like Gene Santoro complained: "It's not that the performances are uninspired, exactly; just that they don't bring anything new to the material. And while the sound is OK, as often as not it's muddy an plagued by overloads." Regardless, Live Alive! received a Grammy nomination, and Stevie again won the Guitar Player readers poll for Electric Blues, beating Eric Clapton for the fourth year in a row (Jimmie Vaughan placed third).

Vaughan seemed to come to terms with his status and addictions and was back on the road playing with vigor and aggressiveness. "I can honestly say that I'm really glad to be alive today," Vaughan told Bill Bilkowski, "because left to my own devices ... I would've slowly killed myself." Vaughan laid plans to enter the studio with Jimmie to record an album.

A tour of the United States in early 1987 followed the release of Live Alive! After that came another stint in rehab. Vaughan took an extended break from concertizing, but he kept his creative juices flowing by composing new material. By the late 1980s, he seemed to have the upper hand over his substance abuse problems, and he was ready to record what would be his final studio album. In Step, released in 1989, featured a host of Vaughan originals that framed the guitarist's fearsome playing with spare, economical tunes. People hailed the album with the observation that "If the apocryphal Johnny B. Goode played the guitar like ringing a bell, Vaughan plays with enough heat to forge one of his own."

Vaughan's 1990 tour was a popular one, and on the weekend of August 25 and 26 he drew sellout crowds of 80,000 fans to shows at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wisconsin. After finishing the August 26 concert with a superstar jam featuring guitarists Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, and his brother Jimmie, Vaughan hopped on a helicopter bound for Chicago. The helicopter crashed shortly after takeoff, killing everyone aboard. Tributes and condolences flowed in from as far away as Scandinavia, Japan, and Africa.

The only consolation for Vaughan's grieving fans was the host of unreleased material, much of it of top quality, that trickled out over the next decade. The already recorded and long-awaited Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan duet album, Family Style, appeared in October of 1990, and The Sky Is Crying, a set of Vaughan studio outtakes, was released a year later. Three live albums, In the Beginning (1992), Live at Carnegie Hall (1997), and Live at Montreux 1982 & 1985 (2001) captured the guitarist in concert at various stages of his career, and SRV (2000) was a massive four-disc collection of previously unknown Vaughan gems that showed the depth of Vaughan's debt to his predecessor Jimi Hendrix. Of the variouis Vaughan greatest-hits collections that appeared, The Essential Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble (2002) and Stevie Ray Vaughan (2003, part of a series of blues CDs released in conjunction with the Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues television series) were the most important in introducing the art of one of the all-time great blues guitarists to new listeners.

by Calen D. Stone and James M. Manheim

Stevie Ray Vaughan's Career

Began playing guitar, 1963; began playing clubs in the Dallas, TX, area at the age of 14; performed with a number of bands, including Blackbird, the Shantones, the Epileptic Marshmallow, Cracker Jack, and Texas Storm; moved to Austin, TX, 1972, and performed with the Nightcrawlers, the Cobras, and Triple Threat; founder of Double Trouble, 1978; first recorded on David Bowie's album Let's Dance, 1983; signed by CBS and released first album, 1983; toured extensively throughout the United States; released five albums on CBS label before his death, 1990; several recordings compiled posthumously from live performances and already recorded material.

Stevie Ray Vaughan's Awards

Named Blues Entertainer of the Year by W.C. Handy Blues Foundation, 1985; winner of numerous magazine readers poll awards.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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