Photo by Robert Knight, the legendary rock photographer who also shot Vaughan’s
final performance at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre on Aug. 26, 1990.
The music world lost a masterful blues guitarist on Aug. 27, 1990, when a helicopter bound for Chicago crashed minutes after takeoff from East Troy, Wis., killing Stevie Ray Vaughan and four others. This Friday, 20 years will have passed since his tragic death, yet Vaughan is still revered by blues purists and rock fans alike as one of the most influential electric blues guitarists in history.
The legendary Vaughan tore through the 1980s like a tornado, single-handedly leading a scorching blues revival that led to gold albums and sold-out tours before his tragic and untimely death at age 35. Vaughan fused the pure blues of Albert King, Otis Rush and Muddy Waters with the rock guitar of Jimi Hendrix to form a distinctive, snarling style of his own that left listeners breathless at a time when blues wasn’t exactly tearing up the charts.
Born and raised in Dallas, Vaughan began playing guitar as a child, inspired by older brother Jimmie.
“Jimmie showed me a lot of stuff,” the younger Vaughan said in a 1983 interview that appeared in Guitar World. “There was a time when he warned, ‘If you ask me to show you anything again, I’ll kick your ass.’ Well, I did and he did!”
By age 17 the younger Vaughan had dropped out of school to concentrate on music, playing in a variety of groups that eventually led to the late-’70s formation of Double Trouble, so named for an Otis Rush song.
Double Trouble drummer Chris Layton recalls the first time he ever heard his future bandmate play the guitar during an interview with North American radio show In The Studio with Redbeard.
“I didn’t meet him that night, but the first time I heard him play was at a place called Soap Creek Saloon in Austin, Texas,” Layton said. “Drove up, got out of my car and I could heard the band playing, but I heard this piercing guitar. It was like outside, not even coming from inside; It was just like drilling right there in the walls of the building. I thought, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’ And, it was Stevie. I thought, ‘He’s remarkable.’ He just was.”
|1984′s Texas Flood marked the first album for Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble.|
|Family Style, Stevie’s duet album with his brother Jimmie, was released in October 1990.|
|Greatest Hits was released in 1995, and was eventually followed by The Real Deal: Greatest Hits Vol. 2 in 1999.|
Vaughan became lead singer of the band after the departure of Lou Ann Barton in 1979, and Double Trouble soon ruled the fertile Austin, Texas, music scene.
A 1982 Double Trouble performance at the Montreux Festival caught the attention of Brit rock legend David Bowie, who enlisted Vaughan for his blockbuster release later that year, Let’s Dance. Now signed to Epic, Vaughan and Double Trouble released their own album in summer 1983, Texas Flood.
The album was an immense success. Texas Flood put electric blues back in the spotlight and high on the charts for the first time since the late ’60s. A follow-up was quickly recorded; 1984′s Couldn’t Stand the Weather charted even higher and attained more success than Texas Flood, going gold by the end of 1985. Third album Soul to Soul appeared in summer ’85, and the double-live Live Alive was released in fall 1986 before a massive 1987 U.S. tour. Alcohol and drug use took their toll on Vaughan’s health, and he entered a relatively quiet year of rehab after the tour.
Layton recalled a frightening night in Germany when he witnessed Vaughan hit rock bottom.
“I remember looking in his eyes — it was almost like it was like the life went out of his eyes for a second,” Layton said in the Redbeard interview. “It’s almost like you could see that there was almost some kind of movie or something; some special effect; and then it kind of came back in and he said, ‘I need help.’ Then I knew that something had switched in him and he was ready to take care of his life, and something — God, some force had brought him back from the edge. Any longer and I don’t think he would have been with us.”
By 1989, though, he and Double Trouble were back and busier than ever with In Step, which reached number 33 on the charts, won a Grammy for best contemporary blues recording and went gold a mere six months after its release.
Despite his recovery, Vaughan was mulling his mortality in the final days before his fateful helicopter ride. Legendary rock photographer Robert Knight, who shot Vaughan’s final encore performance alongside guitarists Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray and elder brother Jimmie Vaughan, vividly remembers the final days he spent with his friend in East Troy, Wis.
“We had weird conversations for those two days about life and death,” Knight said. “Just a lot of sacrosanct conversations. He said he felt like something was going to happen in his life; that his career was going to explode, but he didn’t know how long he’d have because he had a drug overdose and had done a lot of damage to his body. Still, he felt God had given him a second chance. There was just a lot of this interesting stuff we discussed, and I was sort of morose about all of it.”
But Vaughan was in great spirits that final night at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre, gladly taking Clapton up on his offer to ride back to Chicago on one of the helicopters after the show.
“I think the rest of Stevie Ray’s band, Robert Cray and everybody were on the buses already, so Stevie looks at me and goes, “Robert, let’s go down to Chicago and see Buddy Guy play at his club,” Knight recalled. “I was like, ‘Nah, I don’t think I want to do that.’ So he decided to go ahead.”
Vaughan must have realized he had depressed his photographer friend with his earlier conversations though, because before departing, he turned to Knight and said, “Listen Robert, don’t worry, because if anything ever happens to me, you’ll know me when you hear me.”
“He actually said that to me,” recounts Knight. “And then we said goodbye, and agreed we’d meet in Paris in two weeks for a Jimi Hendrix tribute thing he was going to go over and do.”
The next morning Knight awoke to learn that his friend was gone forever.
“I literally had hundreds and hundreds of photos from that last day and was so happy with the shoot, and suddenly that was all blood money,” said Knight, who was besieged by requests from the media for the photos. “I just couldn’t bear to have those photos associated with the crash, so I sat on them for about two years before I finally released any of them.”
A duet album with Jimmie Vaughan, Family Style, which had been recorded shortly before Stevie Ray Vaughan’s death, was released that October and entered the charts at number seven.
Years later, Stevie’s death is still difficult to process for Jimmie Vaughan. Nonetheless, he’s understandably proud of his younger brother, his work and the music they made together. He said in summer 2010 that “The whole thing doesn’t seem like it happened. It still stings.”
Vaughan poured his soul into his music and his subsequent posthumous releases proved just as popular as those released while he was alive, including The Sky Is Crying (1991), In the Beginning (1992), Greatest Hits (1995), The Real Deal: Greatest Hits Vol. 2 (1999) and box set SRV (2000).
You’ll know me when you hear me.
Through his musical recordings, his legacy lives on two decades later, and undoubtedly will for many more.