I went to college in and around Austin, Texas, during the first half of the 1980s, right before Stevie Ray Vaughan launched to fame. Even then, Stevie Ray was pretty much the last word in guitar flash. I used to see him playing clubs there quite a bit, probably scores of times, and I rarely had to pay more than a couple of bucks (at least up until the point he played lead guitar on David Bowie’s Let’s Dance, got on MTV himself and became huge). But what I remember most is the time I missed Stevie Ray, and it was my own damn fault.
It was in July of 1990 and by then I had moved on from school to the Daily Camera newspaper in Boulder, Colo. Stevie Ray was playing down the road in Denver, and I went to the show mostly because I’d never seen his opening act, Joe Cocker. There was some other band I wanted to see playing elsewhere in town later that night; more than a quarter-century after the fact, I can’t even recall who it was — just that I left before Stevie Ray came on. I figured I’d always have another chance.
Well, you know how that turned out. On Aug. 27, 1990, Stevie Ray died in a helicopter crash in Wisconsin. That was 26 years ago today. Years later, when I was working on “Comin’ Right at Ya” with subject/star/co-writer Ray Benson and recounted that story, he told me I was a dumb-ass. He was not wrong about that, either. Ray and Stevie Ray were tight, and we talked about him a good bit. Below is some of it, from the book chapter titled “Deadly Sins.”
Stoned or straight, Stevie Ray was always an astonishing player to watch, even if he could be hard to take for anybody onstage with him. I went to see him play this all-star thing before he sobered up and he was coked out, twitching, all over the place and not leaving a bit of room for anyone else. Dr. John, a man who knows a thing or two about mind-altering substances himself, was onstage, too, and he could tell what was happening. He called it to a halt and announced, “What we NEED here is some, uh, DYNAMICALS.”
Everybody who ever jammed with Stevie Ray had a similar experience, but it wasn’t just the drugs talking. I remember one late-night jam in this old union hall near where he lived. When you’re jamming like that, you play until you relinquish the solo spot; go until you run out of ideas and then let somebody else jump in. Stevie Ray, however, just would not let up. He kept on playing and playing and playing, to the point where everybody else got fed up. Nobody got mad, exactly, but we were all a little irritated because he was hogging the jam.
The line you always heard about the Vaughan brothers was that Jimmie only played some of what he knew because he’s a great, understated player, while Stevie Ray played every last thing he knew every time. Which was true, and after he died, I thought back to that jam session. Somewhere deep down, it almost seemed like Stevie Ray knew he would not be here for long. So he put it all out there and never held back a thing. Playing guitar was a full-body experience for him. I went to his house once and found him practicing making faces like B.B. King, getting his whole body into it.
He never stopped, even when he was asleep. His wife Lenny has talked about waking up at night beside Stevie Ray and seeing that he was moving his hands – playing guitar in his sleep. Sleep guitar. She’d just watch, and listen. I bet it was worth hearing.
I miss him.