Stevie Ray Vaughan: Lone Star Rising
Through the recollections of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s earliest bandmates and friends, Guitar World presents an unprecedented in-depth look at the Texas blues player’s youthful years as a struggling guitarist.
Nineteen eighty-three was a banner year for guitar fans. Eddie Van Halen contributed a blistering solo to Michael Jackson’s chart-topping hit “Beat It.” Bands like ZZ Top, Judas Priest and Def Leppard broke through to new heights of multi-Platinum success, and newcomers like Yngwie Malmsteen and Metallica made indelible first impressions that would forever change the way guitarists viewed their instruments.
But one of 1983’s biggest guitar success stories was also one of its unlikeliest: the phenomenal rise of a previously unknown 28-year-old blues guitarist from Austin, Texas, named Stevie Ray Vaughan. In the span of a few short months, Vaughan made an auspicious mainstream debut by playing on David Bowie’s 1983 hit album Let’s Dance. Then, in a move that stunned everyone, he turned down a worldwide tour with Bowie’s band and released his own album, Texas Flood. The record single-handedly revived the popularity of the blues for the first time since the late Sixties. Music industry veterans and journalists wondered why they had never previously heard of this cocky, not-so-young upstart who could play like both Albert King and Jimi Hendrix and who was the younger brother of Jimmie Vaughan of the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
But Stevie Ray Vaughan was no stranger to a select audience of music fans who closely followed the blues scene in Dallas and Austin during the Seventies and early Eighties. In fact, many of them could remember seeing a young, wiry kid named Steve Vaughan tearing it up in clubs before he was even old enough to drive. The story of how he became a blues legend is a fascinating tale of hard work, relentless persistence and deep passion for a style of music that even most of its biggest supporters weren’t sure would ever again surpass the peak it reached in the Sixties.
As Craig Hopkins details in his new book Stevie Ray Vaughan: Day by Day, Night After Night chronicle the thousands of gigs, Vaughan had numerous close but mis-timed brushes with fame and fortune over the years. Hopkins tracked down many of Vaughan’s former bandmates to he played with various bands before he finally got his big break. In doing so, he presents a vivid picture of the guitarist in his youth, before he became known to millions.
IN THE BEGINNING
In numerous interviews, Stevie said that his brother Jimmie was the biggest early influence on his playing. Jimmie had already been playing guitar for a few years when Stevie got his first guitar, a steel-string acoustic decorated with stenciled cowboy illustrations that his father bought at Sears as a present for his seventh birthday, on October 3, 1961. Jimmie taught him a few basic chords, but he essentially taught himself how to play by ear, learning songs like “Wine, Wine, Wine” and “Thunderbird” off of a 1962 album by Dallas rock and roll band the Nightcaps. “Baby What You Want Me to Do” by blues guitarist Jimmy Reed was another early favorite.
Sometime in 1963, Stevie walked into a record shop near his home in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas and asked the sales clerk to give him the wildest guitar record that he knew of. Fortunately, the clerk had good taste, as he recommended Lonnie Mack’s latest single at the time, a relentless R&B instrumental called “Wham!” that featured lightning fast runs and radical whammy bar work. Stevie spent countless hours figuring out how to play the song, practicing on his first electric guitar—a Gibson ES-125T with a single P90 pickup in the neck position that was a hand-me-down from his brother. Almost 20 years later, he recorded a cover of “Wham!” for his debut album, and in 1985, he produced Mack’s comeback album, Strike Like Lightning.
Stevie had been playing almost three years when he made his first public performance on June 26, 1964, at a roller rink called the Cockrell Hill Jubilee in Dallas. His band, which consisted of a few friends who also played instruments, was called the Chantones. Reportedly, they played only one song—Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do”—and witnesses say none of the band members knew how to play it all the way through. Stevie recalled being told that “one day he’d be as good as Jimmie,” who, though only 13, was already developing a reputation around Dallas as a great guitar player.