Life Without You: Thirty years ago, Stevie Ray Vaughan took the world by storm with Texas Flood. As Sony releases the ultimate anniversary edition of that album, we celebrate the phenomenal rise of the last great blues guitar hero of the 20th century.
In May 1983, only days before Stevie Ray Vaughan was scheduled to play his first concert with David Bowie on the Serious Moonlight tour, his career had reached a fork in the road.
Texas Flood, his debut album with his band Double Trouble, was in the can and set for release the following month, but the tour with Bowie, which was scheduled to last until the end of the year, threatened to postpone his ability to effectively promote the album until 1984. Facing a choice between increasing his exposure as a supporting member of Bowie’s band or supporting his solo career on his own while the album was still fresh, Vaughan chose the latter.
The choice was not as difficult as it might have seemed initially. According to Chesley Millikin, who was Vaughan’s manager at the time, Bowie’s management reneged on an agreement to allow Double Trouble to open select dates on the tour, and even prohibited Vaughan from doing interviews without prior permission, which made it difficult for Vaughan to even talk about Texas Flood.
Then there was the issue of Vaughan’s pay. While the $300-per-show rate was the same as what other members of Bowie’s band were being paid, and was certainly not out of line for a supporting touring musician in the early Eighties, Millikin thought that Stevie deserved more. It seemed arrogant and reckless for Millikin to demand higher pay for a relatively unknown musician than the seasoned pros in Bowie’s band, but when Millikin pointed out that Bowie was being paid $1.5 million for a headlining appearance at the US Festival, it made Bowie look unreasonable and cheap.
In the end, Vaughan wasn’t actually given a choice between staying with Bowie or bowing out. Millikin made the decision for him moments before Bowie’s band boarded a bus headed to the airport to catch a flight to Brussels, Belgium, where the tour’s first show was scheduled. Bowie’s tour manager was instructed to remove Vaughan’s bags from the bus, leaving a confused Vaughan on the sidewalk, wondering what he was going to do next. Millikin’s decision turned out to be the right one, however, as Vaughan earned instant notoriety for allegedly telling Bowie to take a hike while gaining the freedom to concentrate fully on promoting Texas Flood and giving his burgeoning career the full attention it needed.
While it would have been fascinating to hear Vaughan jamming on Bowie classics like “Station to Station,” “Rebel Rebel,” and “Fashion,” had he remained with Bowie the world would have been deprived of his now-legendary show at the El Mocambo Tavern in Toronto, his pairing with Albert King for the Canadian In Session broadcast, and his first appearance on the Austin City Limits television program. We also would have missed his fiery performance at Ripley’s Music Hall in Philadelphia, originally broadcast on WMMR radio and officially released for the first time on Sony’s new 30th Anniversary Legacy Edition of Texas Flood.
It’s likely that, even if he had remained with Bowie, Vaughan would have risen to premier guitar-hero status upon the release of Texas Flood. The album was about as perfect a showcase for his immense talents as he could deliver. Recorded in just two days, Texas Flood essentially captured Vaughan and Double Trouble performing a live set at a magical moment in Vaughan’s career, where his seasoned performing experience, fresh excitement over new opportunities and desire to make a definitive statement coalesced.
“Stevie said that we waited all of our lives to make that first record,” Double Trouble bassist Tommy Shannon says. “After that, making records was work.”
“We didn’t know we were making a record,” adds Double Trouble drummer Chris Layton. “We basically played all the songs we had been playing at the gigs. We’d record something, listen to it, and if it sounded good we’d go on to the next song.”
While Let’s Dance provided only a fleeting glimpse of Vaughan’s talent, Texas Flood laid it all on the line. The depth and diversity of his talent were perfectly presented in the rollicking rockabilly boogie of “Love Struck Baby,” the swinging blues of “Pride and Joy,” the burning instrumentals “Testify” and “Rude Mood,” and the ethereal jazz-inflected closing track, “Lenny.”
Although blues and roots music were far from pop music staples at the time (the only exceptions being a handful of artists like George Thorogood and the Stray Cats), Vaughan and Double Trouble gained exposure on MTV via an honest, low-key performance video of “Love Struck Baby,” shot on the band’s Austin, Texas, home turf at the Rome Inn bar. Looking like a gunslinger in a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western, Vaughan cut a commanding figure that was in strong contrast to the girlie-man glam-metal musicians and prissy new-wave guitarists then dominating MTV’s playlist.
For the first few months after Texas Flood was released, Vaughan and Double Trouble booked shows at clubs and theaters, playing to sold-out audiences numbering from 400 to 2,000 fans. When their booking manager landed them the opening slot for the Moody Blues’ U.S. tour, they suddenly found themselves in front of audiences of 10,000 to 20,000, greatly increasing their exposure.
“Our first gig with the Moody Blues was at the Meadowlands in New Jersey in front of 21,000 people!” Shannon recalls. “Our record hadn’t become that successful yet, but we were playing in front of coliseums full of people. We just went out and played, and it fit like a glove. The sound rang through those big coliseums like a monster. People were going crazy, and they had no idea who we were. We started drawing bigger crowds and playing bigger places. That validation by so many people gave us more strength to really take off.”
By the end of 1983, Texas Flood was certified Gold in the United States, with sales exceeding 500,000 units. To keep the momentum going, Vaughan and Double Trouble entered the studio in January 1984 to record their second album, Couldn’t Stand the Weather. The band spent 19 days at the Power Station recording the album, and this time around executive producer John Hammond (who also co-produced Texas Flood) was present during the tracking sessions. “We had this big budget,” Layton recalls. “We were camped out in New York City, and we felt like we could do whatever we wanted.”
Vaughan wrote four of the album’s eight songs, including “Scuttle Buttin’ ” and the title track. Compared to Texas Flood, the cover songs that he chose for Couldn’t Stand the Weather were a better reflection of the band’s live sets, particularly the Jimi Hendrix song “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” which had been a highlight of Vaughan’s performances for a long time. “Cold Shot,” a hit on MTV and rock radio, was written by members of Vaughan’s previous band, Triple Threat, and “The Things That I Used to Do” and “Tin Pan Alley” were blues standards that dated back to the Fifties.
“ ‘Tin Pan Alley’ was the first tune we cut for the record,” Layton recalls. “We had been doing that song for quite a while, and when we were in the studio getting sounds, Stevie said, ‘Why don’t we just go ahead and play something?’ So we played ‘Tin Pan Alley,’ sort of as a warm-up. When we were done, John Hammond said, ‘You’ll never get it better than that,’ and he was right.”
Double Trouble immediately hit the road in February 1984 after completing the album, booking a world tour that took them to Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, in addition to North America. Thanks in part to their relentless touring schedule, Couldn’t Stand the Weather enjoyed instant success, selling more than 250,000 copies within its first month of release and reaching a peak position of Number 31 on the Billboard 200 chart.
Later that year, on October 4, 1984, Vaughan and Double Trouble performed a historic concert at Carnegie Hall, joined by Dr. John on keyboards, the Roomful of Blues horn section, Stevie’s brother Jimmie, who played rhythm guitar, and vocalist Angela Strehli.
“It was a dream for Stevie to play Carnegie Hall,” Shannon says. “He went to all lengths to make that show happen. We had special mariachi suits made just for the gig. We brought all of the special guests to a soundstage in Austin called Third Coast, rehearsed for three days, and had everyone fitted for their clothes. The record [Live at Carnegie Hall] tells the whole story of that gig. That’s some of my favorite playing from Stevie, ever.”
Unfortunately, as the gigs got bigger, so did the group’s problems with drug and alcohol abuse. The band members had picked up the habits from years of playing in clubs, and the effects began to wear heavily on Vaughan. It showed on his next studio album, Soul to Soul, released in September 1985. After a failed attempt to add a rhythm guitarist and second vocalist to Double Trouble, Vaughan hired keyboardist Reese Wynans to give himself more freedom to concentrate on his singing and solos.
But even with the additional support, Vaughan seemed distracted, and both the original songs that he wrote and his selection of cover material wasn’t as strong as it had been in the past. Soul to Soul failed to light a spark with his audience, and it remains the only one of his studio efforts that failed to achieve Gold certification.
After finishing the recording of Soul to Soul in May 1985, Vaughan and Double Trouble toured almost nonstop for more than a year. While on tour in Ludwigshafen, Germany, on September 28, 1986, Vaughan’s alcohol and cocaine addiction finally took its toll on him, and he passed out from dehydration.
Layton recalls that when doctors revived Vaughan, Stevie told him, “I need help.” When the tour arrived in London a few days later, Vaughan sought the care of Dr. Victor Bloom, who had helped Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend recover from their addiction problems. After Vaughan returned to the U.S., he checked into a rehabilitation program at Peachford Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia.
During this time, Epic released the live album Live Alive, compiled from four concert performances recorded during 1985 and 1986. Vaughan admitted that the performances were not among his best and noted that numerous overdubs were recorded later to fix mistakes. While on tour to promote Live Alive, the newly sober Vaughan started writing songs for In Step, and he remained on the road for most of 1987 and 1988.
On January 25, 1989, he entered the studio to start recording that album and completed it two months later. When In Step was released in June 1989, critics hailed it as his best album to date, praising both the maturity of his playing and his honest treatment of his addiction problems in the songs “Wall of Denial” and “Tightrope.” The album also featured fewer cover songs than his previous efforts and benefited from several collaborations with Austin singer-songwriter Doyle Bramhall. In Step was also Vaughan’s most commercially successful release and his first to achieve double-Platinum status.
With his destructive habits behind him, Vaughan’s creative muse was renewed. In late 1989, he went on a coheadlining tour with Jeff Beck, and in January 1990 he filmed a live acoustic performance for MTV Unplugged. That March he entered the studio to record a long-overdue collaboration with his brother, Jimmie, appropriately titled Family Style.
Vaughan and Double Trouble spent the summer of 1990 touring extensively, including a pair of shows on August 25 and 26 opening for Eric Clapton at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wisconsin. During the early hours of August 27, after joining Clapton, Jimmie, Buddy Guy, and Robert Cray to perform a rousing version of “Sweet Home Chicago” for the second show’s encore, Vaughan boarded a helicopter to fly to Chicago. However, the pilot’s vision was impaired by fog and the helicopter slammed into a nearby ski hill, killing the pilot, Vaughan and other passengers.
Vaughan was buried next to his father at Laurel Land Cemetery in Dallas, Texas, on August 30, 1990. His spirit still lives on today among countless blues guitarists who steal his licks and futilely attempt to duplicate his powerful tone and touch. While many guitarists have kept the blues alive over the years, there’s no doubt that the blues would not be as popular and vital as it is today if Vaughan had not come along and changed the public’s perception of the genre.