Has it really been twenty five years since Stevie Ray Vaughan died?
Sadly yes. One of the greatest guitar players of any generation died on 27 August 1990 after the helicopter that was carrying him went down in fog, killing all on board.
In the UK the newspaper headlines told me “Eric Clapton Helicopter Crash” but it wasn’t until I read the article more closely that I realised what had really happened. Vaughan was on tour with Clapton and took one of four helicopters laid on for the performers and crew to return to their hotels that night. He may not have been famous enough to make UK newspaper headlines, but I still remember my shock and sadness upon reading of the death of this extraordinary guitarist whom I otherwise didn’t know and had never met.
Stevie Ray Vaughan left behind a tremendous musical legacy, and not just in the studio. As the years go by, more and more of his live shows are surfacing, from live YouTube clips to full DVDs, and whilst some have poor sound or add little to the studio albums, some are exceptional, and give us a glimpse of Vaughan’s prodigious guitar technique and feel.
Here’s a playlist of some of my favourite Stevie Ray Vaughan tunes – and covers – twenty five years since his passing: an Alternative Best of Stevie Ray Vaughan…
Voodoo Child (Slight Return)
I saw Stevie Ray Vaughan play live in June 1988, at Hammersmith Odeon at what would be his last UK show. The last time he’d played London in 1986, he’d got drunk and fallen off stage, triggering a spell in rehab. I went on a whim, mainly because I read a magazine article that quoted him saying he’d sometimes play for three or four hours at a time. It sounded like whatever happened, it’d be worth going and taking popcorn. I’m a sucker for a bargain. I bought a ticket at short notice, preparing to settle in for a three hour plus blues-fest. He played for ninety minutes. Ah well, it didn’t matter. I’ll remember that version of Voodoo Child (Slight Return) as long as I draw breath.
Come on (pt III)
Although his Hendrix cover of Voodoo Child (Slight Return) is better known, Vaughan also covered this Electric Ladyland track. There aren’t many Hendrix tunes that anyone has covered and subsequently improved, but this just might be one of them. Vaughan’s guitar playing is just blistering on this 1984 version that preceded the version on his “Soul to Soul” album.
Look at Little Sister
Vaughan opened the Hammersmith Odeon show I went to with this Hank Ballard cover. There was a buzz because someone said Jimmy Page was in the audience. Stevie Ray Vaughan was that kind of player, everyone in the know wanted to see him play, with those heavy gauge strings, high action, and his Strat turned upside down and played left handed like Hendrix, just to see how he did it. I was in the balcony, and could just about make out the feather in his hat, so his secrets of string bending are lost to me.
Love Struck Baby
Pride and Joy
The hits, and two early examples of Vaughan’s songwriting talent, just in case you thought he might be all Hendrix and Hank Ballard covers. These two versions are from a 1982 show in Montreux.
The Sky Is Crying
Recorded during the Soul To Soul sessions, this version of an Elmore James song was unreleased until after Stevie Ray’s death. NB. Albert King also covered this song and there’s a great album of King and Vaughan playing together called “In Session”.
Life By The Drop
We had to wait for the posthumously released album “The Sky Is Crying” to hear Vaughan play an acoustic guitar on album with this Doyle Bramhall-penned song.
Some lovely Charlie Parker style jazz playing on this instrumental from second album “Couldn’t Stand The Weather”
One of my favourite songs this, made popular by another King, this time Freddie King. This live version is as good as any out there.
Vaughan used to really dig his fingers in to his guitar neck to extract sound from the heavy gauge strings, to the extent that his favourite guitar had to be re-fretted so often the neck was getting too thin, according to his guitar tech Rene Martinez.
“He would really dig in; he not only wore the frets out, but he would wear out some of the wood, as well”.
This version of Testify shows Vaughan’s prodigious talent and technique at its best – on a tune recorded by the Isley Brothers – with Jimi Hendrix on guitar…
Life Without You
This is a self-penned slow blues which highlights some great playing and the quality of Vaughan’s songwriting. It was played on Vaughan’s “Charley” Stratocaster, and was written in tribute to the man who gave him the guitar, luthier Charlie Wirz, who died in 1985.
Stevie also played this song when I saw him in 1988. For obvious reasons it is still one of those gigs that I am most pleased that I made the effort to go to, and is still the one I have been to that elicits the biggest reaction when I mention it to people. Apparently you can see Aerosmith seven times and people’s eyes glaze over like a slightly out of date salmon in the supermarket. But mention Stevie Ray Vaughan, and there’s surprise and interest. Mind you, maybe it’s because people are working out how old that makes me…
Like most of us, the first time I heard Stevie Ray play the guitar was on that lovely solo in David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”.
As ever, Bowie had spotted talent before any of us, and had recruited Stevie Ray Vaughan to be his new Mick Ronson for his Nile Rogers-produced commercial breakthrough album after seeing Vaughan play the Montreux Jazz Festival, Switzerland in 1982. Little did many of us suspect, as we watched Ayers Rock obliterated by a nuclear bomb in the video, that we were listening to a blues genius.
There’s a great David Bowie bootleg that I would solidly recommend called “The Dallas Rehearsals” which is like hearing all your favourite Bowie songs, only with Stevie Ray Vaughan on guitar, tossing off slinky blues riffs to the likes of “Sorrow” and “Jean Genie”.
Think about that.
That’s one of the greatest singers of the last forty years with one of the greatest guitarists, and no, I don’t mean George Michael with Andrew Ridgeley.
Yet all was not a bowl of cherries.
Bowie asked Vaughan to come on tour with him. No-one would be daft enough to turn down such an offer, surely?
But Stevie Ray Vaughan did turn Bowie down. Jackson Browne had also spotted Vaughan at the Montreux Festival. He gave Vaughan and his band free studio time. They recorded an album’s worth of material in just three days.
With the album in the bag and a record deal with Epic signed, Vaughan and his manager decided to leave the Bowie tour before it started, after a deal to allow Vaughan to be the opening act was reneged upon, according to the guitarist.
The debut album “Texas Flood” was released a few months after “Let’s Dance” and reached #38 in the U.S. Charts selling a million copies.
At least we have the rehearsals…