Blue Notes

SRV's Life Told by Those Who Knew Him at His Best...and Worst

Stevie Ray Vaughan (right) with his older brother and guitar hero Jimmie, backstage at the Austin Opry House, 1984
Stevie Ray Vaughan (right) with his older brother and guitar hero Jimmie, backstage at the Austin Opry House, 1984 Photo by Tracy Anne Hart/Courtesy of St. Martin's Press
Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan
By Alan Paul and Andy Aledort
368 pp.
St. Martin’s Press

He was one of Texas’ greatest guitar heroes, a fiery player with one foot in the blues and one in rock who had a growing base of fans and high profile admirers like Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, and Gregg Allman. But when a 1990 helicopter crash took Stevie Ray Vaughan’s life at the age of 35, his musical life also became another “what if/coulda been” parlor discussion game for fans.

click to enlarge ST. MARTIN'S BOOK COVER
St. Martin's book cover
Writers Paul and Aledort have partnered to gather and organize several decades worth of interviews – both from their extensive previous work and newly-conducted – with more than 100 of Vaughan’s former bandmates, music industry insiders, record company execs, famous admirers, ex-lovers, frenemies, friends, family (including his brother, Texas blues great Jimmie Vaughan) and even Stevie’s own words to create a full picture of his life and music. The only other Vaughan bio, Joe Nick Patoski and Bill Crawford’s Stevie Ray Vaughan: Caught in the Crossfire, came out more than 25 years ago.

Like Paul’s previous tome on the Allman Brothers Band, the book is written as an oral history – which has its own pros and cons as a format. One on hand, it allows many voices to be heard verbatim, popping in and out of the story. On the flip side, oral histories can read herky-jerky, and often lack an author’s more overall (and sometimes needed) observations on the subject and perspective placement.

One of the book’s more interesting areas show how perception of Vaughan’s music shifted, even among his biggest fans. Too blues for rock and too rock for blues—and always very loud—bookers and record companies weren’t always sure what to do with him and his band early on. And was he a Jimi Hendrix admirer, or copy? Paul and Aledort also show how difficult it can be to make the transition from local hero (as SRV was in Austin and Texas) to a national force.

Often, Vaughan was his own worst enemy, and his non-stop partying was a detriment to his life and career, also testing the patience of those who loved him. But no one ever questioned his fierce dedication to the music. So much that he would end up filling the holes in his calloused fingertips with a mixture of his own making that involved baking soda, super glue, and grafted skin from other areas of his hands and arms!

A number of chance encounters and gigs helped boost his profile up to his debut record which gives the book its title, involving such disparate elements as Austin’s Continental Club, famed producers Jerry Wexler and John Hammond, musician Jackson Browne, and a one-off gig at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in Switzerland.

But famous benefactors could also go sour. Blown away by his performance at that Jazz Festival, David Bowie asked Vaughan to contribute most of the lead guitar work on his almost-finished Let’s Dance record (that’s Stevie playing the signature solos and/or outro licks on “Let’s Dance” and “China Girl”). And Stevie was set to go on Bowie’s world tour. But a disagreement over money and situations exacerbated by drug-addled Vaughan and his aggressive wife soured things. Vaughan quit at the very last second to the point where his luggage had to be removed from the plane carrying the touring party.

click to enlarge Stevie Ray Vaughan onstage, 1977 - PHOTO BY KEN HOGE/COURTESY OF ST. MARTIN'S PRESS
Stevie Ray Vaughan onstage, 1977
Photo by Ken Hoge/Courtesy of St. Martin's Press
In retrospect, though, maybe that was for the better. As the Texas Flood record was just about to drop, and Stevie had his own band and own career that was just about to take off. And it did – though as Paul and Aledort details, drugs and drinking became as important to Stevie as music, which also sent the business and finance side of his career into complete disarray.

Though when he went to rehab in 1986, he took to recovery with a religious fervor. Which makes it all the sadder that at the time of his death, Vaughan had a vastly renewed musical vigor, seemed poised for even bigger stardom, and was about to release Family Style, a long-awaited collaboration album with brother Jimmie.

Houston appears numerous times in the narrative. Vaughan’s future bassist/best friend Tommy Shannon first saw him perform on October 27, 1980 at Rockefeller’s (drummer Chris Layton and later, keyboardist Reese Wynans would be the “Double Trouble” band).

A reproduced December 1982 memo shows that the group was guaranteed $800 for each of two nights playing at Fitzgerald’s (though they ended up grossing $1,710 and $2,514, respectively).

SRV and Double Trouble also opened for the Who at the Astrodome in 1989 (playing a parking lot show earlier in the day). But it wasn’t all rapturous responses. Four years earlier, they played the National Anthem at a Houston Astros game that also marked the 20th anniversary of the Astrodome. Vaughan had been up partying for four days, forgot the arrangement, and was summarily booed. Though he did get Yankees legend Mickey Mantle (on hand since he hit the first home run in the Dome) to sign his guitar.

Texas Flood adds greatly to the understanding and legacy of Stevie Ray Vaughan – both the man and the performer. And the myriad of voices (who don’t always agree) are fairly complete and represented well together. It’s required reading for any SRV fan.

Alan Paul and Andy Aledort will sign and discuss Texas Flood at Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet on August 15 at 6:30 p.m. Photographer Tracy Anne Hart - whose photo appears at the top - will also have prints of some of her Stevie Ray Vaughan photos for sale, with a percentage going to the Houston Food Bank.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero