Before his untimely death in 1990, guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan had become the leading figure in the blues-rock-revival he spearheaded in the mid-'80s.
Vaughan's first musical inspiration was his older brother Jimmie, a guitarist who later helped form the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Together, the brothers immersed themselves in the work of blues guitar greats like B.B. King, Alberty King, and Freddie Kings, and early rock guitarists like Lonnie Mack (whose 1985 comeback, Strike Like Lightning, Vaughan would coproduce). By the time he was 14, Vaughan was already playing Dallas blues clubs with a variety of bands including Blackbird, the Shantones, and the Epileptic Marshmallow. Dropping out of high school, in 1972, Vaughan relocated to Austin, Texas, the up-and-coming musical haven where his brother had already established himself.
In Austin Vaughan formed the Nightcrawlers and then joined the Cobras for a year. Vaughan's next group was Triple Threat, which included Lou Ann Barton among its five vocalists. After three years with Triple Threat, Vaughan and Barton formed Double Trouble. Barton left to go solo, and Double Trouble reverted to a power trio with Chris Layton on drums and Tommy Shannon, a bassist who had played with Johnny Winter in the late '60s. Vaughan's fluid Hendrix-meets-the blues-masters guitar playing, his rough-edged vocals, and the trio's live intensity made them local legends. (In the Beginning captures a 1980 radio broadcast.)
By 1982 the band's considerable reputation had reached the Rolling Stones, who hired Double Trouble to perform at a private party in New York. That same year, veteran producer Jerry Wexler arranged for Vaughan's band to play the Montreux Jazz Festival —the first time an unsigned, unrecorded group had done so. David Bowie caught the performance and tapped Vaughan to play on his next album. Vaughan's gritty guitar work became one of the unexpected highlights of Let's Dance. Legendary talent scout John Hammond became Vaughan's most important mentor, signing Double Trouble to Epic and acting as executive producer for the band's debut, Texas Flood (#38, 1983). Vaughan's raw, blues-drenched virtuosity struck a chord with a grass-roots audience. Couldn't Stand the Weather (#31, 1984) saw Vaughan pay explicit tribute to Jimi Hendrix with an exact cover of "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)." In 1985 Vaughan became the first white performer to win the W.C. Handy Blues Foundation's Blues Entertainer of the Year award; that year Vaughan also added keyboardist Reese Wynans to the band.
After collapsing onstage during an English tour, Vaughan sought help to deal with his cocaine and alcohol addictions, entering a treatment center in September 1986. "Wall of Denial" on his 1989 album, In Step (#33), addressed his addiction and rehabilitation. In 1987 he made a rare film appearance trading guitar leads on "Pipeline" with surf-guitar king Dick Dale in the Annette Funicello film Back to the Beach. A 1989 tour with Jeff Beck attested to Vaughan's renewed strength and continued popularity.On leaving an East Troy, Wisconsin, theater —following an onstage guitar jam that included Eric Clapton, Jimmie Vaughan, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, and Jeff Healey —Vaughan was killed in a helicopter crash. By then, Vaughan was firmly established as the era's premier blues-rock performer. Two posthumous releases —Family Style (#7, 1990), a collaboration with Jimmie Vaughan, and The Sky is Crying (#10, 1991) —became Vaughan's best-selling recordings. Greatest Hits and Live at Carnegie Hall went to #39 and #40, respectively.
In 1995 Jimmie Vaughan organized an all-star tribute concert in Austin featuring Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, B.B. King and more. A Tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan, released the following year, won a Best Rock Instrumental Grammy for the cut "SRV Shuffle." As a new generation of guitarists (notably Kenny Wayne Shepherd) copped Vaughan's signature style, his catalogue continued to sell more than 800,000 copies a year. Epic/Legacy reissued his first four albums with bonus tracks in 1999, along with The Real Deal: Greatest Hits, vol. 2, which entered the charts at #53. Blues at Sunrise, a collection of slow blues recordings, was released in 2000 as was the box set Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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