Stephen "Stevie" Ray Vaughan was an American blues-rock guitarist, whose broad appeal made him an influential electric blues guitarist. To date, a total of 18 albums of Vaughan's work have been released. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Stevie Ray Vaughan #7 in its list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time, and Classic Rock Magazine ranked him #3 in their list of the 100 Wildest Guitar Heroes in 2007.
Stephen Ray Vaughan was born to Martha and Jimmie Lee Vaughan at Methodist Hospital in Dallas, Texas on October 3, 1954, three years after his brother, Jimmie Vaughan. Stevie's father, whose nickname became "Big Jim", was an asbestos worker whose job carried the family to cities across Texas. Wherever there was an opening, the family would pack up and move to another city.
Big Jim and Martha loved to dance to Western Swing, and it was the boys' first exposure to music. The Texas Playboys, a country band, would hang out at the Vaughans' house often, playing dominoes with Big Jim. The Playboys would bring alcoholic beverages to the house and Stevie would sneak sips when nobody was looking. This started him on his addiction to alcohol.
When Jimmie broke his shoulder playing football when he was 12, family friend Michael Quinn gave him his first guitar. Soon after, Stevie got one of his own: a plastic Roy Rogers toy guitar from Sears, with only three strings. Stevie recalls that it also came with a set of blankets.
The boys, uninterested in taking formal guitar lessons, taught themselves to play by listening to records by Jimi Hendrix, The Yardbirds, and The Beatles, that Jimmie brought home. The brothers were also drawn to blues music and taught themselves the guitar techniques of blues guitarists like Albert and B.B. King, Otis Rush, and Buddy Guy.
At the age of 15, Jimmie was the lead guitarist in a local cover band called The Chessmen, and played gigs all over Texas. One day when bandmate Doyle Bramhall came to pick up Jimmie for a gig, he saw young Stevie playing along to Jeff's Boogie by The Yardbirds. Bramhall became the first to tell Stevie Ray Vaughan that he was actually good.
When he was 17, Vaughan got a tattoo of a peacock on his chest. It was initially supposed to be much bigger, but realizing the pain of the process altered Stevie's body-art plans.
Stevie was playing in rock bands by age 12. His first recording was for a garage rock band called "A Cast of Thousands", and his style stood out. He had paying gigs when he entered high school: first with Jimmie's new band, Texas Storm, and then with his own group, Blackbird. Stevie would play late night sets at local bars.
Stevie's and Jimmie's focus on music caused their grades to drop. Their alarmed parents tried to intervene, but it was too late: in 1967, Jimmie moved in with Doyle. Stevie, left at home, decided to take a job washing dishes at the local Dairy Mart. Part of his job was to clean out the trash bin, which required standing on top of 55-gallon wooden-lidded barrels that were used for storing grease. One day the wooden lid broke on one of the barrels and Stevie fell up to his chest in grease--and was fired for breaking the lid. He decided that, rather than try to get another job like this, he would pursue his dream of being a guitar player like Albert King, his current favorite.
In early 1971, both Jimmie and Doyle grew tired of the fading music scene in Dallas and moved to Austin to give it another try. A year later, Stevie followed with his band, Blackbird. At 17 years old, he dropped out of high school during Christmas break and hit the road.
When he first came to Austin, Stevie and his band didn't have much money, so he would sleep on a barroom pool table, but he fit in with the more appreciative music scene on the east side of town. With blues clubs like the Soap Creek Saloon, Vulcan Gas Company, and Antone's, Stevie could trade licks with the blues masters he grew up listening to. Clifford Antone, one of the club owners, took notice and practically begged Albert King to let 17-year-old Stevie play guitar with him. After much convincing, he finally agreed--and was very impressed when he heard Stevie play his own licks.
Sharing riffs with these admired masters was Stevie's dream come true, making a career in Austin turned out to be tougher than he thought. In 1973, he joined a promising rock group called Krackerjack, which included future bassist Tommy Shannon, whom he met after a stint at a club in Dallas called "The Fog." Stevie quit when the leader decided they should wear makeup on stage. The next year, he was asked to join Marc Benno and the Nightcrawlers, a blues band that included singer Doyle Bramhall and future Bee Gees bassist Russ Powell. The Nightcrawlers drove from Texas to Los Angeles to record an album, but Benno's record label rejected the tapes, and Stevie traveled back to Texas.
In 1975, he hooked up with another popular Austin group, Paul Ray and the Cobras, a two-guitar band with Stevie in the background. After two years, they only had one single recorded, and Stevie grew frustrated and quit. He was still in the shadow of his big brother. Jimmie's new group, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, were the talk of Austin, and became the house band at Antone's. In late 1977, Stevie decided it was time to put together a band of his own called "Triple Threat," which included bass player, W.C. Clark, Freddie "Pharoah" Walden on drums, and singer Lou Ann Barton.
W.C. Clark left Triple Threat in mid-1978, and Stevie renamed the band "Double Trouble." He then asked drummer Chris Layton to join the band. After an embarrassing post-show incident with drunken Lou Ann, Stevie became the new lead singer and guitar player after he fired her. Around this time, he hired a management company called "Classic Management" that consisted of manager Chesley Milikin, and financial assistant, Frances Carr.
Stevie's drummer at the time, Chris Layton, stayed with him. After almost four years, Jackie Newhouse was dropped from the band in the spring of 1981, and bass player Tommy Shannon decided he wanted in. In turn, he was asked to join Double Trouble. The first show with the new trio format band was at Joe Ely's annual Texas Tornado Jam, a music festival featuring a host of local bands held at the Manor Downs Racetrack, just outside of Austin. The Fabulous Thunderbirds were after Stevie and Double Trouble.
Mick Jagger from The Rolling Stones saw a tape of the show and liked what he saw. He asked Stevie and his band to play a private party hosted by The Rolling Stones at the Danceteria club in New York. After the show, Mick and guitar player Keith Richards talked to the band about getting them a record deal. It never went through, however, and they went back to Texas.
Jerry Wexler, record executive from Atlantic Records, saw the band playing at a record release party for Lou Ann Barton's new position as singer for Roomful of Blues. He recommended that the band play the Montreux International Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Manager Chesley Milikin put in a call to Claude Nobs, the host of the Montreux Jazz Festival and would be the first unsigned act to perform at the festival.
The band was booked on a jazz acoustic night, a setup that involved an upright bass, piano, and generally soft music. The loud and powerful sound of Stevie and Double Trouble shocked the staid crowd. After a few songs, the gig seemed headed for disaster, as some of the audience members booed. Larry Graham, from Sly & The Family Stone was looking forward to an encore with the band, but unfortunately, it never happened.
As the band was backstage, devastated and disappointed, David Bowie and Jackson Browne, two celebrities in the audience approached them to say they had liked what they heard. Browne offered the band 72 hours of free studio time at his own studio in downtown Los Angeles. David Bowie also invited Stevie to play on his upcoming album, Let's Dance, co-produced by Nile Rodgers.
To be able to afford the gasoline to take them to Los Angeles, the band booked a small tour at various clubs like Fitzgerald's in Houston and The Continental Club in Austin. When they finally traveled to Los Angeles during Thanksgiving weekend in 1982, they recorded an album's worth of songs: eight songs the first day; two the next. The band then went back to Texas, where Stevie recorded the vocals at Riverside Sound in Austin.
By 1988, the band was ready to return to the recording studio. For the new record, they traveled to Memphis to record in Ardent Studios, a pro recording studio that has such clientele as ZZ Top, Tina Turner, and Led Zeppelin. Together, old friend Doyle Bramhall and Stevie began writing songs about walking the tightrope to recovery, including "Tightrope", "Wall of Denial", and "Crossfire". The album was named appropriately, "In Step", released on June 6, 1989. "Crossfire" reached the #1 position on the Mainstream Rock Charts. It was the only hit single that they ever had.
In the spring of 1990, Stevie and his brother recorded an album together, one that would feature the music they had grown up with. They recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis and was produced by Nile Rodgers. The brothers agreed to name it "Family Style". That summer, Stevie and Double Trouble went on tour with British soul singer Joe Cocker, touring places like Alaska and the Benson & Hedges Blues Festival.
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To complete the summer portion of the "In Step" tour, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble played two shows on August 25 & 26 at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, WI. The shows also featured Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, and Robert Cray with The Memphis Horns.
After Double Trouble's set at the final show, Vaughan originally planned to return to Chicago by car. Bass player Tommy Shannon and keyboardist Reese Wynans had already departed. The venue was difficult to reach via highway and Vaughan wanted to get back to Chicago to talk to his girlfriend, model Janna Lapidus, who was staying with him at the time.
Tour manager Skip Rickert had hired helicopters from Omni Flights to circumvent congested highway traffic. Most of the seats had already been reserved, but one was available. Vaughan took it.
The helicopters departed at 12:44 a.m. in thick fog. Just past the landing zone was a 200-foot hill. Vaughan's helicopter was piloted by Jeffrey Browne, who was unfamiliar with the flight pattern for exiting the area. He guided the helicopter to about half of the altitude needed to clear the hill before crashing into it. The force of the impact scattered the aircraft over a 200-foot area. The coroner's report stated that Vaughan died of severe loss of blood due to a force-of-impact rupture of the aorta.