Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble
- Tommy Shannon
- Chris Layton
- Steve Ray Vaughan
- Reese Wynans
Had Stevie Ray Vaughan not suddenly surfaced in the early 1980s, guitar in hand and a nearly uncontrollable urge to play it, then the blues might have willed him into existence.
These, after all, weren’t the best times for the blues, which had been the bedrock of all American music for nearly a century. MTV was making pop music more physical and visual: Think Michael Jackson and Madonna. Most of mainstream rock was all about big sound, arena shows and elaborate stage sets. And new wave, though it rebelled against rock’s more ornate sounds and superstar mindset, was as style-conscious as it was interested in a simpler approach to making records. The blues connected to none of this.
The 1960s had been the music’s last golden age, a time when masters like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and B. B. King played to eager young rock audiences fascinated by its emotional power, and guitar kingpins like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Duane Allman, Johnny Winter, Carlos Santana and Mike Bloomfield – a member of The Paul Butterfield Blues Band – collectively created a new hybrid: blues rock. From blues rock came heavy metal and the likes of Led Zeppelin. But in the 1970s, rock also became increasingly diversified, with other new sounds and styles running rampant. It got crowded, with glam, country rock, Southern rock, singer-songwriters, funk, punk, reggae and disco all competing for attention and fans. This left little room for blues, and by the end of the decade, its status as a vibrant, relevant music tradition was being seriously questioned. What the blues needed most was an exciting new artist, one knowledgeable and passionate about its long and important history in American music, yet original enough to make a new mark. It needed someone dazzling enough to grab the attention of rock fans who had lost interest in the blues, yet authentic enough to keep longtime true blues fans in his camp.
The music turned not to Chicago nor Memphis nor the Mississippi Delta – the traditional wellsprings of great blues – but to Texas, and in particular, to Austin, where it found Stevie Ray Vaughan. Texas already had a rich blues tradition before Vaughan arrived on the scene. In the 1920s, Blind Lemon Jefferson became one of country blues’ biggest stars. A decade later, T-Bone Walker introduced the electric guitar to the blues, dramatically changing its sound and scope. Lightnin’ Hopkins’ vast recording catalogue reflected his blues virtuosity on both the acoustic and electric guitar, while players like Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Johnny Copeland, Freddie King, and Albert Collins brought blues closer to R&B and rock and roll. Then, in the 1960s, Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter and ZZ Top contributed to the blues-rock explosion. Vaughan’s name would be added to this distinguished list of legendary Texas blues artists.
Born in 1954, Vaughan was raised in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas. His earliest and most important influence was his big brother, Jimmie.
“We shared a room that had a little record player in it,” recalled Jimmie. “He listened to the records I listened to – Jimmy Reed, Bill Doggett, Lonnie Mack. He watched me play the guitar. And he got hooked.”
Jimmie left home at age 14 to pursue a music career, arriving by 1970 in Austin, a college town with plenty of music clubs and a small but growing blues community. Before he left, he gave 11-year-old Vaughan one of his electric guitars and the batch of worn blues records they had listened to together.
“I gave him my Fender Telecaster. It replaced the cheap ones he’d been messin’ with,” said Jimmie. “He fell in love with it. I don’t think he ever put it down.”
Vaughan quickly found that the guitar was an ideal emotional outlet, and that the blues was a music language he could easily translate on guitar. After high school, he joined Jimmie in Austin, anxious to grow his guitar talent and to play the clubs where Jimmie’s group, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, were tearing it up.
“Stevie saw that the Fabulous Thunderbirds were playing every night in Austin,” Jimmie recalled. “And that’s what he wanted to do: play every night, anywhere you could. The idea was to play.”
Vaughan played guitar with the Austin band the Cobras, but he was meant to be a bandleader, where he could more fully define the blues sounds he heard in his head. He formed the Triple Threat Revue with African-American guitarist W.C. Clark and local blues-rock singer Lou Ann Barton.
When Barton and Clark left to pursue solo careers in 1978 and 1979, respectively, Triple Threat became Double Trouble. Now, with Chris Layton on drums and eventually Tommy Shannon on bass, Vaughan had his launching pad in place. “He was sorta like the rocket booster that you put on the spaceship to make it go a little further,” explained B.B. King, one of Vaughan’s early supporters.
Layton was the perfect drummer for Vaughan: young, aggressive, and a blues lover. Bass player Shannon brought big-time experience to Double Trouble. He had played with Johnny Winter and knew the ups and downs of stardom. Vaughan also benefited greatly by being in Austin. Blues giants like B. B. King, Albert King, and Muddy Waters were finding work in Austin’s blues clubs, particularly Antone’s, which had become the centerpiece of the scene. Vaughan often opened up shows for his heroes, then later jammed with them, picking up advice and ideas.
Vaughan might have remained merely a local or regional blues king had fate not intervened. In 1982, Double Trouble manager Chesley Milliken gave his friend Mick Jagger a live tape of Vaughan and the band. Impressed, the Rolling Stones singer invited Double Trouble to play a New York party, giving Vaughan valuable exposure far from Austin. That same year, legendary soul producer Jerry Wexler heard Vaughan and Double Trouble and got them on the Montreux Jazz Festival bill in Switzerland. That’s where David Bowie and Jackson Browne heard Vaughan; Bowie invited Vaughan to play guitar on hisLet’s Dance album, and Browne offered up his California studio so the band could cut some demo tracks.
Finally, John Hammond, the man who signed Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and many other greats to Columbia Records, brought Vaughan and Double Trouble to Epic Records, a subsidiary of Columbia.Texas Flood, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s debut album, came out soon after, earning critical acclaim. Showcasing Vaughan’s striking guitar solos and featuring the crackerjack backing of Layton and Shannon, the album won two Grammys and numerous other awards.
The band’s followup, Couldn’t Stand the Weather, included “Voodoo Child,” the Jimi Hendrix classic that Vaughan made his own. Incessant touring lifted the album and brought in more fans. Keyboard player Reese Wynans, who’d briefly played in a band with future Allman Brothers Dickey Betts and Berry Oakley in the late 60s, was added to the group, broadening their sound. Vaughan was now being hailed as the “next Hendrix” and the "savior of the blues," a term not entirely an exaggeration.
To their credit, Vaughan and Double Trouble were careful not to act the part. Regularly, Vaughan praised those great blues artists who came before him, and, whenever possible, he shared the stage with them. Albert King, in particular, was grateful for Vaughan’s rise to stardom and his friendship. The pair even recorded together.
Two more studio albums, Soul to Soul and In Step, sandwiched a live album, Live Alive. More touring meant more time away from Austin and brother Jimmie, who had hit it big with the Fabulous Thunderbirds. The brothers were now blues royalty. But the fast life didn’t suit the Vaughans, particularly Stevie. Drinking and drugs began to get in the way of his music and his ability to cope with stardom. His marriage failed. His career faltered. He continued to rely on his guitar to get him through the increasingly frequent rough patches, but it was clear he needed help.
Fortunately, he got it. He entered rehab, cleaned up, clarified his vision, and renewed his passion for the blues. In Step, released afterward, was a major success. A long anticipated album with Jimmie, Family Style, was completed. The Vaughan Brothers, as they would bill themselves, seemed poised for even bigger success when tragedy struck.
On August 27, 1990, Stevie Ray Vaughan was killed in a helicopter crash just outside East Troy, Wisconsin, after performing with Jimmie Vaughan, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy and Robert Cray. He was just 35 years old.
Despite a quarter century since his passing, Vaughan’s presence is still felt – and missed – in American music. Nearly every blues artist today claims a Stevie Ray Vaughan influence. His intense performances, powerful solos, and deep, passionate love of the music keep his blues flame burning.
By Robert Santelli