Stevie Ray Vaughan: Lone Star Rising
While playing with Blackbird, Vaughan traded his 1951 Broadcaster for a thinline semihollow Epiphone Riviera with mini humbuckers that was owned by Geoff Appold. “I asked him why he wanted that Epiphone,” Appold told Hopkins. “He said, ‘Well, Freddie King was everything to me, and I wanted to be like him, with a hollowbody Gibson.’” Appold recalls that even back then Vaughan had already developed a preference for heavy strings.
Blackbird frequently traveled to Austin to play gigs, because most clubs in Dallas would hire only bands that played Top 40 covers. By the end of the year, the entire band relocated to Austin. Despite the city’s current status as the capital of Texas blues, back in 1972 there was no blues scene to speak of and only a few clubs hosted blues bands and performers (Antone’s didn’t open until 1975). Even so, audiences in Austin were more adventurous and tolerant of non-mainstream music styles, so it was easy for Blackbird to find plenty of regular gigs.
Unfortunately, it was more difficult for Blackbird to find a consistent lineup (Tommy Shannon played bass in the band for about a month), and by the end of the year, Vaughan joined Krackerjack, which was a “Led Zeppelin–style” band. With Krackerjack, he played a handful of high-profile concert gigs, opening shows for Wishbone Ash, Sugarloaf and Wet Willie. He left Krackerjack after playing with the band for just three months. His replacement was Gary Myrick, who later recorded the new wave hit “She Talks in Stereo” with Gary Myrick and the Figures in 1980.
WELCOME TO HOLLYWOOD
In March 1973, Vaughan and Doyle Bramhall became members of Marc Benno and the Nightcrawlers. Benno was an established singer-songwriter/guitarist from Dallas who had worked with Leon Russell and the Doors (he played rhythm guitar on L.A. Woman) and had already released three solo albums with A&M Records. Benno flew Vaughan and Bramhall out to Hollywood to participate in recording sessions at Sunset Sound for what was supposed to be Benno’s fourth album. Outside of Texas, Vaughan had previously played only a handful of gigs in the South, and it was his first trip to California.
Although A&M passed on the album (Benno finally released it independently in 2006 with the title Crawlin’), the experience greatly accelerated Vaughan’s growth as an artist and performer. He wrote his first songs—the title track and “Dirty Pool”—and Bramhall taught Vaughan how to sing. He also met a handful of big-name stars who were working at or visiting the studio, including former Beatles George Harrison and Ringo Starr, former Monkee Mickey Dolenz, Kris Kristoffersen and pop crooner Andy Williams. The Nightcrawlers also toured the U.S. as an opening act for Humble Pie and the J. Geils Band.
“[It was the first time that] Stevie got to see a big tour and full-blown recording,” Benno told Hopkins. “Stevie was not born in a club in Austin and then discovered. He had that Hollywood experience and some business experience, too. He took all of that back to Austin along with all the soul he already had.”
Most performers who experienced such a close brush with fame and fortune would pursue an even more pop focus, but Vaughan turned 180 degrees when he went back to Austin and began to play jazz and dig deep into the blues. He learned how to play Wes Montgomery–style octaves and taught himself to play the classic blues standard “Texas Flood” by Larry Davis. Although Vaughan had used a Marshall stack since he joined Blackbird, he switched to Fender Twin Reverb and Super Reverb amps instead.
Doyle Bramhall recalls, “We were getting into more soul and funk kind of music and jazz and listening to all these great jazz records. Band-wise, we started to work more on dynamics—bringing the song up and coming down real quiet with it.”
Although Benno had dropped out of the Nightcrawlers, manager Bill Ham (who also managed ZZ Top) took interest in Vaughan and Doyle and started booking gigs for their band. Many of the gigs were disastrous. In one instance they drove all day to Little Rock, Arkansas, only to find out the club had switched to country and western a few weeks before. But they also played a handful of high-profile shows opening concerts for Charlie Daniels, ZZ Top and Kiss, who were on their first tour.
In 1974, progressive country artists like Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker and Michael Murphy dominated the music scene in Austin, and gigs became harder to find for rock and blues bands. Bruce Bowland, who was the lead singer of Krackerjack, told Hopkins, “That was a real hard time for everybody in Austin. We all thought we were bulletproof, that no one could touch us, and then this movement called progressive country came out and kicked our ass. Although rock and roll was still happening, it wasn’t happening as big. It was like the wheels just fell off of everything.”
Artists:Stevie Ray Vaughan
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