Stevie Ray Vaughan and his Austin Roots
Stevie Ray Vaughan at the Hill Auditorium on December 11, 1986 in Ann Arbor, MI during his Live Alive tour.
Photograhy by Kevin Evans
Standing near the red carpet at the 2015 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony during mid-April in Cleveland, Gary Clark Jr.’s eyes sparkled as he spoke about helping to honor Stevie Ray Vaughan and his band, Double Trouble that night.
“It’s a big honor to be here in any light, but extra special for me to be here for the Stevie Ray Vaughan induction,” says the Austin musician, singer and bandleader, who many feel has stepped into the late Vaughan’s formidable shoes as the town’s most dynamic guitar slinger. “When I first started playing guitar, two weeks later I saw Stevie Ray Vaughan on television performing with Double Trouble, and I definitely sat around my room as a kid learning ‘Texas Flood’ and ‘Pride and Joy’ for hours and hours until my mom would bang on the door and tell me it’s time to shut up. “So there’s a lot of Stevie Ray Vaughan in my heart and in my head. He was one of the greats."
We probably didn’t need the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to tell us that, either—though surely nobody’s about to give back the trophies that were presented that night. Nevertheless, Vaughan’s legacy was arguably well-established even before he died in that tragic August 27, 1990 helicopter crash in Wisconsin, at the age of 35, which robbed us of a singular talent whose diverse approach brought together Freddie King roadhouse blues and Jimi Hendrix psychedelic flash, with enough polish to be part of David Bowie’s multi-platinum 1983 album “Let’s Dance.” His style was an amalgam of influences fused together into something reverential but utterly original; “Texas Flood,” for instance, may sound like classic blues, but once Vaughan starts ripping out those solos it’s clearly its own kind of blues, and, back then, a new classic in the making.
As fellow guitarist John Mayer said of Vaughan during his Rock Hall induction speech, “He was the ultimate guitar hero...It sounded like an exotic tale told in a familiar voice... The second I heard it, I knew it was going to mean everything.”
Though he’s inextricably tied to Austin—where a statue sits in his memory on the shores of Lady Bird Lake—Vaughan was born in Dallas but moved around the South (Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Mississippi) as his father, an asbestos worker, took a variety of jobs. The family eventually settled in Dallas’ Oak Cliff district, and it wasn’t long before Vaughan picked up on his older brother Jimmie’s interest in music (“Whatever was around he’d pick it up and try it,” Jimmie once noted) before he began learning pop songs on a three-string guitar he received for his seventh birthday. He received one of Jimmie’s hand-me-down electric guitars, a Gibson ES-125T, a year later and began studying players such as Hendrix, Lonnie Mack, Kenny Burrell, Otis Rush, Muddy Waters and others.
“My guitar teacher would come over and he’d teach me how to play like John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Lee,” Jimmie Vaughan remembers. “Stevie was standing right there; I had a Montgomery Ward guitar and Stevie had a toy cowboy guitar. If I left I would say, ‘Don’t touch my guitar,’ and of course as soon as I left he would pick it up.”
“The music just spoke to me, man,” Vaughan explained during the early 80s, as his star was just beginning to rise. “I loved the feeling you could get from playing, and the feeling other people could get when you played for them. I was kind of a shy kid, wasn’t always happy at home, and (music) was what made life better.”
Jimmie Vaughan recalls that, “He loved playing guitar more than anybody I know. He loved it so much...that’s why people love his music, ‘cause he loved it so much and you can hear the enthusiasm in there.” He laughs as he recalls that “our dad would say, ‘You guys are good. Maybe someday you can make a record together...’”
Getting more hand-me-down guitars from Jimmie, notably a Fender Broadcaster, Vaughan joined bands such as the Chantones, the Brooklyn Underground and the Southern Distributor and the Liberation, earning a reputation as a teenage wunderkind who played with a dexterity and feel well beyond his years.
“You could tell he was special even at 15 years old,” says Double Trouble bassist Tommy Shannon, who first saw Vaughan when he was, in fact, 15, playing at a Houston club called Rockefeller’s. “I remember we were outside the club and a bunch of us were talking, and his guitar pierced through everything. I went inside and there was Stevie, a little kid, but he just had something special. Everybody who heard him thought he was special.
“And he was very humble about it; he didn’t put himself on a pedestal or anything. He was still really respectful of the older guys, the older musicians who were playing around. He took a break and I went up and told him, ‘I belong playing with you’ and we got up and had a jam session and it worked out great, and he called me two weeks later to join his band.”
With his particular devotion to music Vaughan was not much for conventional schooling. He spoke of falling asleep in classes, even music, at Justin F. Kimball High School after his late nights playing in clubs—and also about the principal sending home daily notes about his appearance. He was not to be deterred, however, and after his band Cast of Thousands (whose Stephen Tobolowsky went on to thrive as an actor) recorded a couple of songs for inclusion on a compilation album Vaughan decided to drop out of school, flee Dallas and head to Austin and its thriving music community. His band Blackbird first set up shop at the Rolling Hills Country Club, which became the Soak Creek Saloon, and opened for touring rock bands such as Wishbone Ash and Sugarloaf. Vaughan joined other bands, such as Krackerjack and the Nightcrawlers, the latter of which recorded a rejected album for A&M Records and was managed by ZZ Top’s Bill Ham.
Yet another band, Paul Ray & the Cobras, brought Vaughan to Antone’s, Austin’s premiere blues club and a venue that would become so connected to Vaughan—thanks to not only his performances there but also his jams with the likes of Albert King, Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin and many others—that it also housed prominent, large-scale images of him on one of its walls. There were other bands—including the Triple Threat Revue with Lou Ann Barton and others—but Vaughan really skyrocketed after the Hall of Fame lineup of Double Trouble, with Shannon and drummer Chris Layton, came together during October of 1980, after early incarnations of the group (including Barton) worked the Austin circuit, including a residency at the Rome Inn.
“We all developed a really telepathic communication,” recalls drummer Latyon. “I could tell by what guitar he picked and how he held it what he was going to play. We did plenty of shows where he just started doing something, a jam, and all of a sudden we’re kind of into a new piece of music. That was all part of that communication we had that was totally non-verbal. It was very special”
The group built a stronghold around Austin and Texas, but its reputation skyrocketed after the trio played a well-received set at the 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland (although Vaughan himself was dispirited by some boo birds in the front row). The group jammed the next night with Jackson Browne, who offered them free access to his studio in Los Angeles. The tape the group made there wound up in the hands of legendary record company executive John Hammond—who’d discovered Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and many others—who in turn encouraged Epic Records to sign the group.
Concurrently, during January of 1983, Vaughan played on eight songs for Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” and was almost part of the British rocker’s Serious Moonlight Tour band before he bailed out four days before the tour over financial disagreements. “We had our own record coming out,” Vaughan said at the time, “and I was more interested in doing that than being out there with something I didn’t care as much about. In a way it was a blessing; we didn’t have to wait for me to finish” with Bowie.
The publicity of both playing with Bowie and quitting his band certainly made news that didn’t hurt Double Trouble, and “Texas Flood” was released to critical raves and, eventually, double platinum sales. He wound up releasing four more albums with Double Trouble during his lifetime—getting sober before 1989’s “In Step”—and he was about to release “Family Style,” a collaborative effort with brother Jimmie (who’d gone on to found the Fabulous Thunderbirds), before the helicopter crash after a performance with Eric Clapton at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre.
There have been a slew of posthumous releases since, including the 1991 outtakes collection “The Sky is Crying” and plenty of archival live recordings and compilations. But most fans and fellow musicians can only guess about what Vaughan would have done, musically, had he lived. “We’ve speculated on that a lot,” Shannon says, “because towards the end there, when ‘In Step’ came out, Stevie and I had gotten clean and sober and we started growing differently. We started more band contributions. We all started writing. We already had some songs for our next record. We were on the way up again, like a second spurt of energy came along. I have no idea what we’d be doing now, but I know it’d be really good. “
Layton adds that at Alpine Valley, he and Vaughan “had one of the best talks that we ever had, just sitting backstage. He talked about the record with his brother, and he was really excited about our next record. He said, ‘I’ve got all kind of ideas. Some of them are kinda wacky. I’m hearing strings and horns in places, and all this different stuff. We can talk about that later.’
“And, of course, later never came, so it’s kind of the unanswerable question.”
One thing those close to Vaughan are sure of, however, is that he’d be proud to be remembered, whether it’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or on the banks of Lady Bird Lake.
“He would have enjoyed this,” Jimmie Vaughan said during the Rock Hall induction weekend. “He wasn’t a guy who cared too much about prizes or having his horn tooted or anything, but he would have appreciated this. And he would have loved to have been here with everybody and having the chance to play music with them.”
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