How David Bowie Helped Launch Stevie Ray Vaughan's Career
It’s crazy enough that, in the synth-happy early Eighties, Stevie Ray Vaughan had a top-20 hit with a Strat-fueled, 12-bar-blues shuffle called “Pride and Joy.”
Even more bizarre is that, that same year, his raunchy Albert King–inspired bends graced a bona-fide mega-hit, David Bowie’s jittery “Let’s Dance,” which spent a solid three weeks at the top of the charts.
The song—and the album of the same name—is notable because it served as the world’s introduction to Vaughan’s dynamic fretwork.
Vaughan met Bowie—who shockingly passed away yesterday at age 69—at the 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. After SRV's performance, Bowie was so impressed that he later said, "[He] completely floored me. I probably hadn't been so gung-ho about a guitar player since seeing Jeff Beck with his band the Tridents." (Note: He's referring to Beck's pre-Yardbirds blues band.)
Of Bowie, Vaughan said, "To tell you the truth, I wasn't very familiar with David's music when he asked me to play on the sessions. ... David and I talked for hours and hours about our music, about funky Texas blues and its roots. I was amazed at how interested he was."
Let's Dance raised eyebrows, expectations and bank accounts for all involved.
Vaughan plays lead guitar on several tracks, including two of the album's many mega-hits ("Let's Dance" and "China Girl"), but guitar-wise, the song that truly kicks collective ass is the less-famous "Cat People (Putting Out the Fire)." It's also got the album's healthiest serving of SRV; he solos in the middle, adds Albert King-style bends throughout and then solos near the end of the song.
David Bowie, "Cat People (Putting Out the Fire)" (with Stevie Ray Vaughan)
David Bowie, "Let's Dance" (with Stevie Ray Vaughan)
David Bowie, "China Girl" (with Stevie Ray Vaughan)
SRV was slated to hit the road with Bowie to promote Let’s Dance in May 1983—but Texas Flood was about to come out. The Bowie tour would keep him on the road for a year, keeping him from promoting his own album. Bowie’s management decided to let Stevie open select dates on the tour.
That sounded fine to SRV. But shortly before the tour began, Bowie’s management reneged. Not only would they not allow Double Trouble to open for Bowie, but Stevie couldn’t give interviews about his album while on tour for Bowie. SRV never got to decide whether or not to stay with Bowie. Chesley Millikin, his manager, did it for him.
Moments before Stevie boarded Bowie’s bus, the tour manager pulled his gear and bags off the vehicle. The bus took off without him, leaving SRV on the sidewalk with no idea what to do next. With his new freedom, Stevie put his attention on promoting Texas Flood and turned the loss into a gain.
SRV talks briefly about Bowie in this clip from a 1986 interview on a New Zealand TV show. The Bowie stuff starts at the 1:20 mark. In the video below that, Nile Rodgers—much more recently—tells the story of Let's Dance.
Bowie was a true talent who will be profoundly missed for and by generations to come.