The 1980s unexpectedly became the hub for one of the greatest revivals in American music history. For a genre that had been dormant for decades, blues music charted back into the mainstream. Legends who pioneered the traditional form were suddenly creating new albums and touring again. Among these star-studded returns were Ray Charles, B.B. King and John Lee Hooker. But this revivalist era also saw the emergence for a new wave of blues artists who stood toe-to-toe with their idols. While Jeff Healey and Robert Cray were well-received newcomers, there is one who became the cornerstone of their inception. Stevie Ray Vaughan was just another Texan until 1983 when he became one of the most highly regarded guitarists of all time. His smooth vocals and effortless shredding landed him to be viewed as a second coming of Jimi Hendrix. But behind the flamboyant outfits and masterful guitar-playing, lies a gentle soul that witnessed a career tragically cut too soon.
The Lone Star state of Texas held many memories of Vaughan’s early childhood. Not all of them good. Born into a family of intense manual laborer’s, Vaughan often endured the underlying temper of his father that was fueled by alcohol. But his shy nature and insecurities were drowned out when his older brother, Jimmie, introduced him to music. His admiration for Jimmie’s record collection inspired him to learn more about music composition in school. The aspiring musician’s family gifted him with a guitar that had transformed his life. Vaughan practiced endless hours by playing along with blues records by Albert King and Muddy Waters. Eventually, Vaughan became tired with school impeding on his music capabilities and would drop out to focus on his talent. The next few years shaped Vaughan’s performing capabilities as he toured across the state with several bands. By the early 1970s, he would settle with renowned musicians Jackie Newhouse and Chris Layton. The trio rebranded themselves as Double Trouble with Vaughan as the lead singer. From then on, they would venture into every club in the state and quickly become one of the most popular bands in Texas.
The group’s reputation for having a tight blues rhythm but hard rock sound preceded them everywhere. The attention had reached overseas as they were invited to perform at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Thousands were in attendance for their performance. While the audience wasn’t familiar with the group, they became instant fans that night. Among those in attendance who, likewise, became fans were legendary songwriters David Bowie and Jackson Browne. Bowie personally asked Vaughan to appear in his upcoming album while Browne gave the other members a studio space. Shortly after, the group would sign with Epic Records after impressing famed A&R scout John Hammond. What followed was the creation of one of the most hailed blues rock albums to date.
1983’s Texas Flood unleashed the gates for blues music as it soared to the top of the charts. Its crossover success to rock radio saw Vaughan and the group successfully mutating genres. The self-titled track and “Pride and Joy” became synonymous classics in blues rock. Their national recognition was followed by a sold-out tour to commemorate the newly acquired fame. But the trio wasted no time to get back into the studio to release more music. The follow-ups Couldn’t Stand the Weather and Soul to Soul were all commercial successes. But the price of fame began to weigh heavily on Vaughan as he sunk into alcoholism and drug addiction. Even with his health declining, Vaughan still reached success as he capped off 1989 with his best-selling album In Step. The albums reviews inspired Vaughan to reach sobriety and stay clean for the rest of his life. Except, it wouldn’t be former vices that saw his career come to an end.
1990 marked Vaughan’s reunion with Jimmie as they recorded an album that was planned for a later release. The artist continued to tour that year which concluded in an encore performance alongside Eric Clapton and Robert Cray. Vaughan would board a helicopter flight immediately following the concert. But while en route the helicopter had crashed and claimed the lives of all on board. The tragedy was felt by every mainstream artist who mourned Vaughan’s passing. Jimmie honored his brother’s legacy through the posthumous completion of their last record, Family Style. The release inspired a collection of outtakes by Vaughan that Jimmie compiled and released to critical success. For his contributions, Vaughan and Double Trouble would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Leaving behind a legacy that saw a small Texas native becoming more than a revivalist, but an inspiration for future guitar masters.
Written by Trenton Luber