Stevie Ray Vaughan Biography ‘Texas Flood’: David Bowie Excerpt – Rolling Stone
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Why Stevie Ray Vaughan Turned Down a David Bowie Tour

An excerpt from upcoming Vaughan oral biography ‘Texas Flood’ details the blues guitar legend’s inspired collaboration, and eventual rift, with a rock icon

david bowie stevie ray vaughan 1983

An exclusive excerpt from new Stevie Ray Vaughan biography 'Texas Flood' delves into the guitar legend's short-lived collaboration with David Bowie.

Geoffrey Swaine/Shutterstock; Ilpo Musto/Shutterstock

Alan Paul and Andy Aledort’s new book, Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughanout August 13th — chronicles the life of the legendary guitarist in his own words, and those of his closest friends, collaborators, and admirers. The following excerpt, an abridged version of a chapter entitled “Serious Moonlight,” delves deep into Vaughan’s short-lived collaboration with David Bowie on the 1983 album Let’s Dance and a planned tour that never came to be.

[Find the Book Here]

While Double Trouble was in Los Angeles recording what would become their debut album, Texas Flood, Vaughan received a call on the house phone in the apartment they were renting that would prove to be another momentous occurrence.

Recalls [Double Trouble drummer Chris] Layton, “The phone rang at three in the morning, and this quiet English voice said, ‘Is Stevie Vaughan there?’ I said, ‘Damn, who is this?’ ‘This is David Bowie.’ I’m thinking, ‘You mean, the Thin White Duke? Ziggy Stardust? That David Bowie?’ I paused and said, ‘Oh, just one minute.’

“I ran into Stevie’s room, shook him awake, and yelled, ‘Get up, get up! David Bowie’s on the phone!’ They talked for a while, and then Stevie said that Bowie asked him if he wanted to cut some tracks in New York for his new record and maybe join his band for a world tour. Bowie had expressed interest in hiring Stevie the very first night he met him, but no one took it too seriously.”

Adds [Double Trouble bassist Tommy] Shannon, “Stevie was really excited about being asked to play on Bowie’s next record. At that point, he also thought we were going to open the shows, because that’s what Bowie told him.”

Back in Austin, as Stevie made plans to go to New York and record with Bowie, the band and engineer and producer Richard Mullen worked on the “Jackson Browne tapes” — recordings for Texas Flood made at the singer-songwriter’s L.A. studio — at Riverside Sound, where Vaughan recut most of the album’s vocals.

Mullen: I gave Stevie two tracks to work with, and he would cut the vocal part for each song twice. We would use either the best of the two tracks or do a quick comp [comping tracks means to edit parts together from different takes]. Overall, there was no finagling of anything on Texas Flood; it was about as live and true to a performance as it could possibly be. When we were done, I did some mixes and ran off a cassette for Stevie.

Layton: The Texas Flood tapes were in someone’s garage in South Austin. Necessity is the mother of invention, and we needed to get those recordings exposed. Cutter [Brandenburg, Vaughan’s friend and crew member] was the one who really made that point to us. Stevie was looking at a heavy commitment to Bowie, and interest in the tapes would have reminded him of where his heart lay and what he always wanted: to have his own band. It was not inconceivable that the tapes could have been forgotten, and we couldn’t allow that. Tommy, Cutter, and I conference-called Chesley [Millikin, Vaughan’s manager] to discuss this, and he said gruffly, “Don’t bother me! Stevie’s busy with David Bowie!” We asked him to take the tapes to somebody and see if we could get a deal. He said, “Well, that’s not a bad idea.” Expecting Stevie to get back in a milk truck after that run with Bowie seemed ridiculous, so we thought that we’d better up the ante and try for salvation.

Vaughan flew to New York in early January to join Bowie and producer Nile Rodgers at the Power Station studio. Most of the recording for what would become Let’s Dance was already complete.

Nile Rodgers, producer, David Bowie’s Let’s Dance: Almost all the musicians and engineers on Let’s Dance were mine. Bowie told me about this amazing new guitarist that he had heard in Montreux that he thought would be great for the album’s solos. The first time I heard Stevie play was when he played my gold-plated hardware Fender Stratocaster, about twenty minutes before he heard “Let’s Dance” in the Power Station Studio C control room.

Carmine Rojas, bassist on Let’s Dance: There was talk about getting Albert King to play on “Let’s Dance,” because David was a genius at putting opposite forces at work and understanding what would work brilliantly. He heard that style of guitar on some of these songs from the start.

Rodgers: Carmine is getting the story a little mixed up. He’s remembering me saying after hearing Stevie’s first sparsely noted solo, “Why didn’t we just get Albert King?” That was my first thought, but I regretted saying that almost instantly after realizing how carefully Stevie was listening and respecting the space. It didn’t take me long to realize Stevie was something pretty special.

Bob Clearmountain, Let’s Dance engineer and mixer: We did Stevie’s guitar solos and a lot of David’s final vocals after the band tracks were done. Stevie just had his Strat, a cord, and a Super Reverb amp, which stood out because so many guitar players at the time would bring in multiple racks and huge pedal boards. He made the most incredible sounds and was the sweetest guy.

Rojas: I had finished my work and was back in the Power Station for another session, and I saw David and Nile and went in as they were recording Stevie Ray’s guitar parts. I was astounded. He was set up playing crazy loud, but beautifully and with the best tone, and he was fully enveloped inside the music. He was amazing to watch.

Rodgers: Stevie was not one bit intimidated. Working with him was a breeze. He did all his solos in a day or two. He loved what he’d heard and knew it was important. He just listened down a few times and tore into each song.

Clearmountain: He worked incredibly fast, immediately cutting three solos on three songs, and what we used were mostly first takes. He listened once and then started playing. It was pretty incredible to witness.

Rojas: He played the outro to “Let’s Dance,” and he just kept playing better and better. I used to go see Albert King and Hendrix at the Fillmore East, and Stevie was dishing out the same kind of soul, touch, and heart I heard from those guys. I was amazed that someone else had nailed something that seemed to be in the past, that I thought I’d never experience again.

Ray Benson, Asleep at the Wheel founder and Vaughan’s friend: I saw Stevie when he came back from the Bowie thing, which blew my mind. I asked him what he played, and he said, “I just sprayed Albert King all over the fucker.”

Clearmountain: I think Stevie had only heard “China Girl” once before he started wailing away perfectly. At the end of the section, there’s a chord change, and he lands on the wrong note, so it sounded a little dissonant. We played it in the control room, looked at each other and winced, and I said, “Let’s fix that.” But David said, “No. It’s perfect.” He liked dissonance, and he loved first takes.

Rodgers: Stevie actually went out of his way to make us comfortable by having ribs shipped up from Sam’s Bar-B-Que. At the start of every session, I’d have someone take everyone’s lunch order so it would be ready for a short break. Instead of ordering that day’s lunch, he ordered the next day’s lunch for all of us: amazing barbecue expressed from Austin. Everybody loved this Southern stranger from that moment on.

Edi Johnson, bookkeeper for Millikin’s company Classic Management: Stevie called me and said, “We need some real barbecue here. Go over to Sam’s and send it up.” They packed it in dry ice, and I drove it to the airport.

Let’s Dance was released on April 14, 1983, and became Bowie’s first platinum studio album in the United States. The title song was a number-one hit around the world, and for the first time, Bowie became an international superstar commensurate with his critical acclaim and influence. Let’s Dance went on to sell seven million copies, making it by far his most successful album.

Jimmie Vaughan: That was a great opportunity for Stevie. There he was playing his Albert King licks on the number-one record in the world. It was amazing! When they played the record in Texas, the DJs would always say, “And he’s our own Stevie Ray Vaughan.” For me, it was such a proud moment. It was an exciting take that! moment.

Layton: Using Stevie was a stroke of genius on Bowie’s part. His guitar playing really jumped out and got people’s attention. He hit everyone with something so strong it spun their head. Everyone has a story about the first time they heard Stevie, just as we do.

Eric Clapton, guitar legend: I was driving, and “Let’s Dance” came on the radio. I stopped my car and said, “I have to know who this guitar player is today. Not tomorrow, but today.” That has only happened to me three or four times ever, and probably not for anyone in between Duane Allman and Stevie.

Steve Miller, guitarist, rock star: The first time I heard Stevie Ray Vaughan was seeing “Let’s Dance” on MTV, and I was jumping out of my seat screaming, “Who the hell is playing guitar?”

Gus Thornton, Albert King bassist: I was pretty hip to what Albert sounds like after playing with him for years, but Stevie got me! When I heard “Let’s Dance,” I thought, “Well, this is real nice. Albert with David Bowie!” Stevie is the only guitar player I’ve ever heard who could approach Albert’s touch, tone, and attack. Hearing that sound on the radio was real cool.

Steve Jordan, drummer for Keith Richards, the Blues Brothers and many others: The solo on “Let’s Dance” is iconic. It’s just a devastating, landmark moment in recorded history. It was pure greatness, a bolt of lightning screaming, “I’m here!” And you kept hearing it everywhere you went. It was a serious thing to walk into a club and hear that solo booming. And it sounded better every time!

Bowie’s Serious Moonlight tour, which would kick off May 18 in Brussels, Belgium, and end in December in Hong Kong was set to be a huge sensation. Stevie and the Bowie band convened for rehearsals in Las Colinas, Texas, near Dallas in late April 1983. Guitarist Carlos Alomar, who had worked with Bowie for years, was the musical director.

Rojas: Rehearsals went great because Carlos is one of the best on the planet. Stevie was phenomenal on the stuff he had recorded and on songs like “Jean Genie,” but he struggled to find his place on some of the headier, more eccentric songs, because as musical as he was, that style just wasn’t him. Carlos would just take over, and we worked around it.

David BowieDavid Bowie in concert in Washington DC, America - 27 Aug 1983

David Bowie performs in Washington, D.C., August 1983. Photo credit: Greg Mathieson/Shutterstock

Carlos Alomar, David Bowie’s guitarist and bandleader: I immediately realized the problems that I would have, cutting the first rehearsal short because Stevie Ray Vaughan does not read music and only knows basic blues chords. I can’t tell him to play a minor seven flat five or ask him to do scale-wise progressions. Holy smokes, I can’t even write him a dummy chart where you just get G, A, D. My job is just to make every guitarist sound great, and I got along with all of them. We’re all guns for hire, and I needed Stevie to understand that he would be comfortable working with me, that he’d be able to dig in deep and improvise. His comfort was important, and after we shedded, he was able to bring his thing to the rehearsals. I was happy, he was happy, and David was happy.

Rojas: The morale was really strong and got better every day. Stevie gravitated towards the more urban guys: me, Carlos, Tony Thompson [drums], and Lenny Pickett [sax], because that’s who he was. You could have dropped Stevie in a ghetto anywhere and he’d get along just fine.

Layton: He felt black, culturally. He identified more with the black race than the white race. What that really meant to him is hard to say, but some of that could have started with things he said about growing up, being a scrawny little kid, pushed around a lot.

Shannon: For a long time, he was honestly torn up that he wasn’t black. He felt like he could have gotten closer to the music had he been.

Rojas: We all understood each other, and we loved to jam during downtime, playing blues and “Mustang Sally” and just blowing.

Shannon: There was a part of the show where Stevie was supposed to walk down a ramp, and they wanted him to do these choreographed moves, but he’d walk exactly the same normal way every time. They could never get him to do what they wanted, because Stevie was incapable of pretending to be something he wasn’t.

Alomar: He was going to remain true to the blues, and we were going to work with him. I thought it was amazing to have a real blues player. One day, Stevie said he can’t make a rehearsal because he was in mourning. I said, “I’m really sorry for your loss. Who died?’” “Muddy Waters.” “Oh, did you know him?” “Not really.” At first, I said, “I understand mourning, but we’ve got a rehearsal to do.” But no, no, no, brother, you do not tell a bluesman to just keep on walking when Muddy Waters died! That is a sacrilegious thought, so rehearsal was canceled, to Bowie’s chagrin. I had to respectfully say, “You cannot make the man, a true bluesman, come, David. I’ll cover his parts, and we can rehearse without him, but you’ve got to leave him alone.”

Brandenburg: He planned to go to Muddy’s funeral, but he was really having a hard time with drugs and couldn’t get it together. He always felt bad about that, but I know Muddy would have understood. He was a kind and loving, sweet man who called Stevie “my baby boy.”

Layton: The Dallas Morning News ran a big story on Stevie, headlined “Dallas’ Favorite Son” on the front of the Entertainment section with a huge picture of Stevie and a little tiny shot of Bowie. Lenny [Vaughan’s wife] felt that Stevie wasn’t getting his due, and she went to the rehearsal with the paper, walked right up to Bowie, and threw it down at his feet. She said, “Look at that!” Lenny’s intensity was not something Bowie would tolerate, and she and Stevie were doing a lot of drugs.

Edi Johnson: Lenny was causing a lot of problems, and someone called Chesley and said, “Get that woman out of here.”

Alomar: Lenny disrupted things, but I think it was more of a buildup than one incident. Anyone’s substance abuse problems are private — I don’t care what you do if you play your ass off — but anything that disrupts rehearsal is disruptive. If you go to somebody’s house, you don’t put your feet on the table. If you smoke cigarettes, you don’t ask to leave work to smoke every five minutes.

Layton: Bowie insisted that he orchestrate all press. He was turning the screw a little tighter, and Stevie hated to be controlled; it made him want to break out of jail, and things really started to become strained between Bowie and Stevie’s management.

Alomar: There are many places where wives and children are not allowed, and anything interrupting the rehearsal will not be tolerated. I want everyone to be happy, but we cannot continue moving forward if you keep raising the threshold for our tolerance. It ain’t gonna work, brother. When Lenny was asked not to attend, things got personal: “Anything that’s an affront to my wife is an affront to me.” As musicians, our sensitivities are much greater, and if you’re in an altered state, then that awareness is distorted, and business decisions feel personal.

Layton: Tommy and I were just sitting here in Austin, on salary, wondering what would happen. David’s original pitch was presented as, “Stevie should come and play on my record and world tour. It would be great if Double Trouble came, too, and opened the shows.” But it was really an insinuation as opposed to a real invitation. It was a way to get Stevie interested in the record and tour. There wasn’t any reneging, because it never was an actual offer.

Cutter Brandenburg, Double Trouble tour manager: We were on salary under the impression that we were gonna open some shows, but we were a month or so away from the tour beginning, Stevie’s rehearsing away, we have no dates, and no one from Bowie’s camp is returning my calls. I called Stevie at Las Colinas and said, “I don’t know what’s goin’ on, but I don’t think it’s gonna happen.” I felt something was amiss and told Stevie that.

Shannon: We weren’t involved in any of these conversations, but I know that he was pissed off when he found out that they didn’t really want us to open any shows. He didn’t want to leave us in limbo for a year. Meanwhile, Chesley was pressuring Stevie tremendously: “Stevie, you’ve got to do this tour with Bowie!”

Alex Hodges, Vaughan’s then-booking agent and later manager: There was talk about them opening shows and playing club dates late at night and on off days. Trying to figure out how to make that work with a different agent routing a major arena-level tour is pretty daunting. Having a parallel tour makes sense as a goal, but there are built-in conflicts, including logistical ones. What kind of access is he going to have to the press? How is he going to get from the arena to the club? Who is going to pull him out of the rhythm and schedule of the big tour? What if Bowie is traveling on an off day and you’re trying to play a club in the last city? And how are you going to take care of Stevie’s band and crew 24-7? I remember thinking, “I just hope this all works.”

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Stevie and producer John Hammond, who signed him to Epic Records. Photo credit: Don Hunstein/ © Sony Music Entertainment

As tensions grew between Vaughan’s and Bowie’s camps, Epic was gearing up for the release of Texas Flood. Vaughan’s camp and label were debating if it would serve the album better to have Stevie out promoting the record, or to be featured on a very high-visibility tour with Bowie. When Bowie’s camp moved to New York, Epic set up two industry showcases with Bryan Adams at the Bottom Line on May 9 and 10. Among those in attendance were Mick Jagger, John Hammond Jr., Johnny Winter, Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen, and tennis player John McEnroe, ranked number one in the world and a huge star often seen out on the town.

McEnroe: Stevie blew the doors down. I remember wondering how it was possible for this guy to play for an hour and not miss a note. Stevie destroyed the place and when he was done, everyone left.

Paul Shaffer, bandleader, Late Night with David Letterman: There was a lot of excitement surrounding Stevie and a lot of people from MTV were there to see him play. His performance, which included a lot of Hendrix, was explosive.

McEnroe: His level of intensity was unbelievable and so unexpected. I felt chills running down my spine. Seeing Stevie that first time was like seeing the Police at their peak or seeing a phenomenal Rolling Stones or Bruce Springsteen show. Stadium-level intensity and power in a small club.

Gregg Geller, Epic Record executive: There was a big debate whether Stevie should do the tour with Bowie, which would elevate his profile but was at odds with him doing what was best for his own band.

Alomar: Stevie was at the pinnacle of his coming out; everything he had worked on for so long was about to happen, with his own album release riding the wave of Let’s Dance. The thought was doing a David Bowie tour will heighten awareness, and I was very candid when he asked me about this. Anytime I’m with a musician, I feel that we’re brothers, so I was just sharing information and experience. I told him man-to-man that the star here is David Bowie, and his fans might discover you and your new release, but history suggests they won’t. Plus, dude! You only get one shot at your first album, and Bowie’s management are not suddenly gonna put their press team at your disposal. You should know that we’re about Bowie, the greatest superstar in the world. 

Hodges: Stevie was doubting doing the Bowie tour, and I was backstage at the Bottom Line reassuring him that it would help set the stage for his career.

Shannon: They gradually started taking things off the table. The idea of us opening some dates fell through. And then Stevie was told that he couldn’t mention his own band or music in interviews.

Alomar: He had all these last-minute negotiations. There are many different things you can discuss, but the unspoken law is simple: if you enter into an agreement, honor it. You certainly don’t hold everything up when everybody is downstairs getting ready to go to Brussels to do the first gig because you want to renegotiate your contract. That’s like cold blackmail, and it’s just bad management skills, but I never place things on management because the artist knows everything. So Bowie came to me and said, “I’m having problems.” My reply to that is always the same: never create a problem where there is no problem. You want another guitar player, Slicky [Earl Slick] already knows half of the material, and he certainly can play blues. Given that, it was like, “Sorry, Stevie Ray, you’re out.”

Bill Bentley, Austin Sun music editor, 1974–1978: I sold a Stevie story to the Los Angeles Times to run when the Bowie tour came to LA. I did a really nice phone interview with Stevie, then he said, “I gotta run. I have to go quit this tour.” I was like, “Are you kidding?” And he said, “No. I’m not a sideman. I have my own band and our own record.”

Layton: Stevie said, “They wanted to try and control what I could say or not say about the record and about me.” That’s really crossing a line with Stevie Ray Vaughan, so he wanted to have a talk with David, and he was told David was on an island and couldn’t be reached. Stevie asked, “Well, don’t they have a phone on that island?” And they said, “David cannot be reached.” Stevie said he told them, “Well, when you can get the word to him, tell him that Stevie Ray quit.”

Shannon: There weren’t many people except us telling him that he’d made the right decision. Bailing out when he did was scandalous, but Stevie couldn’t do what he couldn’t put his heart into. Most guitarists would have played the game and worked their career. Stevie always came in the back door, never the front! That was his approach to life.

Layton: We were in New York doing stuff around the Epic deal and suddenly got word that Stevie’s off the tour and we’re going back to Texas. Tommy and I were very happy. I don’t know exactly what happened, and neither does anyone else, but the big picture is Stevie had never been told what to do and he wasn’t going to start right when he seemed on the cusp of getting somewhere with his own music.

Brandenburg: Stevie had worked his whole life to have his music out there. He was not about to blow that off to play on David’s tour. Chesley was gung ho about that happening, and he thought it was a money problem, but it was not about money. Everything changed for him when he found out there were no opening shows.

J. Marshall Craig, writer, confidant of Vaughan manager Chesley Millikin: Chesley felt like Stevie had really helped relaunch Bowie’s career and they were disrespecting him, treating him just like another sideman. He thought he should be paid more than a backup singer. He wanted Stevie to be on the tour, but not for low pay, no opening shows, not allowed to talk about his own band. Chesley and [Vaughan’s publicist] Charlie Comer held a beef against David Bowie till the end.

The legend of the unknown Texas renegade quitting the rock superstar’s tour made for an alluring story that boosted Stevie’s image, but the reality is a lot more complicated. Lenny had made herself an unwanted presence at rehearsals, and Millikin was playing hardball with Bowie’s managers, who grew irate about a sideman trying to dictate terms. Vaughan’s departure came at the very last minute as the bus was loading up to take everyone to the airport for the start of the world tour.

The Austin American-Statesman treated Stevie’s departure from the Bowie tour as major news. Clipping courtesy of Joe Priesnitz

Alomar: The bags are packed, and suddenly he ain’t coming. I was in shock. I’m still in shock decades later! You just don’t play that card to David Bowie. Ungracious is a word, but it doesn’t tell you everything. Ingratitude is a word, but it doesn’t tell you everything. We can facilitate a lot, but if you have your own agenda, then desperation makes for desperate moves. I asked him, “What do you think you’re doing here?” I’m not ashamed of that conversation.

Rojas: We were on the bus getting ready to fly to Europe, and I looked out the window and saw luggage on the ground and Stevie Ray standing against the hotel wall looking sad and saying goodbye to people. I asked Carlos what was going on in Spanish, which we used as code, and he replied in Spanish, “Stevie’s manager was trying to get more money or have him open up, and they shot it down.” Stevie brought a knife to a gunfight, going up against New York guys who make tours for the Rolling Stones. He hardballed the wrong people, and they weren’t having it. And these guys just moved. We arrived at the airport, and Earl Slick was already there to replace him.

Al Staehaley, bassist in Spirit and an Austin lawyer who represented Vaughan early in his career: Stevie asked me to try and negotiate him back onto the tour, and I tried, but they already had Earl Slick on the payroll. Chesley spun a story: macho Texas guitar slinger tells poofed-up limey to fuck off. It wasn’t really the way things went, but it was the right way for his career to be spun.

On May 21, 1983, the Austin American-Statesman wrote about Stevie leaving the Bowie tour. Writer Ed Ward quoted Bowie publicist Joe Dera as denying Millikin’s claim that Vaughan’s pay was subpar, adding, “We’re disappointed that the people around Stevie Ray Vaughan have grabbed every opportunity for a publicity stunt.” Still, Ward concluded, “Things may not have reached the end. . . . All concerned want him on the tour.”

Layton: The advertising and advance on Texas Flood was Let’s Dance, which stoked people’s interest and curiosity about Stevie. People wanted to know who this unknown guitar player who told David Bowie to take a hike was. That was bigger news than if he’d done the tour.

Jimmie Vaughan: Charlie Comer handled that situation like a genius, finding a way to capitalize on the story and play it to Stevie’s advantage.

James Elwell, Vaughan’s friend: I came home to see Stevie and Lenny standing in front of my house holding a test pressing of Texas Flood, well before it was released. He never had a stereo, and I had a good one, and we were all anxious to hear it. As we listened, Lenny and I were looking at each other, shaking our heads and saying, “We knew it! We knew it!” Stevie was up right on top of the speakers to hear every little pop. That was a magical moment. It was a wax pressing that you can only play about five times, and we wore it out quickly. Texas Flood was not yet released and the band was back in their van touring clubs when they first saw the “Let’s Dance” video, featuring Bowie miming Vaughan’s guitar solo. He was none too pleased.

Shannon: We saw it on the TV of a little club, and Stevie was furious. 

Layton: Stevie was about to become world famous as the guy who played that solo, but the video really bothered him. Bowie’s wearing white linen gloves, and Stevie said, “That motherfucker shouldn’t be pretending to be playing shit he wasn’t playing!” He couldn’t understand why Bowie would do that.

From Texas Flood by Alan Paul and Andy Aledort, with an epilogue by Jimmie Vaughan. Copyright © 2019 by the authors and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

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