My introduction to Stevie Ray Vaughan began with Jimi Hendrix. “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” was and is my favorite Hendrix tune of all time. By the time I was aware of Stevie Ray Vaughan, sometime in 1986, I had collected all the versions of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” I could find. Being 15, unable to drive and living in Podunk, PA, with a paper route and crappy job at the local grocery store did not give me a lot of access to the music I craved so the number was few and I studied them closely.
I did have access to music magazines and if you remember the 80’s you know there was a surplus of them, from Creem to Hit Parader, Rolling Stone and Spin, to my favorite, Guitar For The Practicing Musician. I was and am an LP liner notes nut and Guitar… went even further in depth, analyzing the music and players, sharing influences, writing habits, and of course, instruments. I had yet to get into playing guitar past the noodler stage but serious interest was right around the corner. Mostly I was reading Guitar… for the interviews. I knew little of blues and as a 15 year old listener I had no idea I was already hearing blues from my favorite bands like Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix Experience. Even Tom Keifer from Cinderella was playing blues for me, and mentioned Johnny Winter in a Guitar… interview – a name I tucked away for much later.
One day whilst perusing Guitar… I saw an advertisement for an album called Live Alive by a flamboyant looking dude named Stevie Ray Vaughan. A few things piqued my interest. It was a live album and from Iron Butterfly Live, to The Who Live At Leeds to The Jimi Hendrix Concerts and Frampton Comes Alive, I was a live album guy. This Stevie Ray was dressed in a flashy gold coat that matched the ring on his hat and the color of the guitar. He looked like a cowboy who joined Sha-Na-Na. Awesome. But perhaps most intriguing was the inclusion “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” Now I was really interested. I filed this away too.
A short time later I saw this album in an ad for Columbia House Music Club. Get 12 LPs for a penny! A penny? Damn. I had a penny. I decided this Ray Vaughan guy would be worth the hassle of taping a penny to the card, so I picked 11 LPs since Live Alive was a double and counted as two selections, and mailed in my card – ever hopeful the penny would stay affixed. I still wonder how many they got without that penny. Anyway, I would deal with the purchase requirement later, once Mom realized I signed her up for Columbia House. Six to eight weeks later my box of records arrived and I excitedly opened my cache of music.
I found “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” and cued it up on the turntable. Holy shit. This is amazing. A little different in the opening but he nailed the feel of it. It sounded like Hendrix to me. People haven’t always covered Hendrix tunes like they do now. For a while they were like sacred texts, plus no one really wanted to be judged in comparison Jimi. Stevie didn’t care. He loved Hendrix and was going to play the music. He inhabited the music. I was stunned. This was incredible. After my “Voodoo Child” induction to Stevie Ray, I went back to the side one of the LP and digested the whole thing through, all the while checking out the photos on the inside cover of this marauding, mariachi pirate kicking his guitar, wearing Native American headdresses, and hamming it up with his band. Who is this guy?
At this point I wasn’t completely sold on Stevie Ray. I loved the Hendrix, and the fast tunes like “Pride And Joy” and “Love Struck Baby” but still, I was regretting my exclusion of his other albums in my 12 for a penny deal. Over the next year I eventually picked up “Texas Flood,” and “Couldn’t Stand The Weather” which I enjoyed quite a bit. I was in shock when I heard “Scuttle Buttin’.” That was the fastest thing I’d ever heard and I was, at this point, quite a metal head. Still, SRV was just one more guitar player I liked. Sometime over the course of the year, I turned sixteen, won $50 in a school poetry contest and ventured into the world of bootlegs with the winnings. I’ve been trapped there ever since. I found a cassette bootleg of Stevie Ray Vaughan live at Loreley. It had no track list, no label, and no specific date but it was marked as a soundboard recording. My young ears had heard some really crappy Led Zeppelin audience boots, so soundboard drew me in. I paid eight 1987 dollars for the tape and it transformed me from casual SRV fan to apeshit wingnut in just under 90 minutes. He actually pulled off “Scuttle Buttin’” live and it was better! Plus “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” and sick versions of “Little Wing” and “Third Stone From The Sun.” Third. Stone. From. The. Sun. What?
That was it. All bets were off and my SRV bootleg collecting skyrocketed. I bought them all. Eventually I moved into the realm of VHS bootlegs and came home with Live In Japan January 1985. Out comes Stevie Ray puffing a pipe and casually ripping his way through “Scuttle Buttin’” – it just wasn’t fair. He was too good. My close friend and musical conspirator digested all this along with me and we spent hours watching Stevie Ray’s hands and poring over live recordings. The day “In Step” came out I bought it and took it over to his house so we could hear it together. All the while, I was reading every interview I could find with Stevie Ray Vaughan. I learned a few of his tunes and some of his licks from magazines like Guitar For The Practicing Musician. I even started using GHS guitar strings because of Stevie Ray. Within all this Stevie Ray Vaughan material, I discovered blues. I slowly realized it had been around me all the while.
Stevie Ray Vaughan, even at his most drug-addled and intoxicated, was always talking about his heroes. People like Jimi Hendrix, Albert King, Freddie King, B.B. King, Lonnie Mack, Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin, and his big brother Jimmie Vaughan. I checked out all these guys and discovered a world of music that slowly redirected my attention away from metal. Naturally it was at this point I seriously regretted buying a Charvel guitar. The Jackson-cut headstock and fire-engine red finish weren’t very bluesy. Anyway, I tied this information together with what I learned from reading about the blues adored by Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. I also recalled that name Tom Keifer dropped in an interview a few years earlier: Johnny Winter. Johnny Winter and Stevie’s work with Lonnie Mack led me to Alligator Records. My listening has never been the same.
I will always remember where I was when I heard Stevie Ray Vaughan was dead. Keep in mind this was 1990. I had no internet. No texting; no tweeting. The 24 hour news cycle hadn’t even been born yet. That came later with the first Gulf War. I was in my room, waiting for a friend and listening to Neil Young & Crazy Horse. My friend arrived and asked if I heard. Heard what? Stevie Ray Vaughan is dead.
What? How? Where? I teared up. I felt like I had been sucker punched. I felt like I knew him from listening to him pour out his soul in his music. I read all the interviews. He was clean and sober and helping others get their lives together. He was playing great, touring a hot new record and had just made a record with his brother. How could he be gone? I must admit that when I heard the circumstances of his death my first reaction was why wasn’t it Clapton? Callous I know. Sue me. I took his death hard. Only my grandmother’s death has affected me more. I felt empty and hurt. A huge black hole now existed in my musical universe.
Eventually I started trying to fill that hole and find someone else with that sound. No one else at that time sounded like Stevie Ray Vaughan. I looked. I dug up Tinsley Ellis, Smokin’ Joe Kubek, anybody who played blues with a Strat – I tried them out. I found a lot of great music and my journey deeper into the blues began in earnest. Without Stevie Ray’s death I may have never discovered Ronnie Earl or Roy Buchanan, Jimmy Thackery, Walter Trout, or even more recent guys like Chris Duarte and Mato Nanji. I also discovered I loved most styles of blues and went back to the masters like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, and Son House. My musical universe expanded greatly but the black hole has never been filled. I’ve just learned to accept it. I did not know Stevie Ray Vaughan and never met him in person, but I loved him and I miss him to this day. I miss the music that could have been and the powerful force for good he represented by helping people and always humbly directing others to those who came before him to whom he felt indebted. He was a class act, amazing musician, and a respectful, unpretentious human being. Stevie Ray Vaughan continues to inspire me and his music lifts me up whenever I hear it or play it. Not a day goes by without thinking of something or hearing something Stevie Ray Vaughan related and in many ways that makes me very happy. Fly on little wing, fly on…