How David Bowie Helped Launch Stevie Ray Vaughan's Career

Stevie Ray Vaughan performs in Chicago on February 17, 1984.

Stevie Ray Vaughan performs in Chicago on February 17, 1984. (Image credit: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

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.

"Let's Dance"—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 died January 10, 2016, 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 [pre-Yardbirds] band, the Tridents."

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 Let's Dance 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.

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Damian Fanelli
Editor-in-Chief, Guitar World

Damian is Editor-in-Chief of Guitar World magazine. In past lives, he was GW’s managing editor and online managing editor. He's written liner notes for major-label releases, including Stevie Ray Vaughan's 'The Complete Epic Recordings Collection' (Sony Legacy) and has interviewed everyone from Yngwie Malmsteen to Kevin Bacon (with a few memorable Eric Clapton chats thrown into the mix). Damian, a former member of Brooklyn's The Gas House Gorillas, was the sole guitarist in Mister Neutron, a trio that toured the U.S. and released three albums. He now plays in two NYC-area bands.