For Stevie Ray, the sky had always cried

August 11, 1993|By Lynn Van Matre | Lynn Van Matre,Chicago Tribune

There was one empty seat left on the first of several chartered helicopters leaving Alpine Valley Music Theater in East Troy, Wis., in the early hours of Aug. 27, 1990, and Stevie Ray Vaughan snagged it.

Moments earlier, the Grammy-winning Texas blues guitarist had been trading torrid licks onstage with Eric Clapton; it was part of the grand finale of a show that found Vaughan's band, Double Trouble, opening for the veteran blues rocker. Now Vaughan was in a hurry to get back to his hotel in Chicago and put in his nightly long-distance call to his teen-age fiance.

He never made it. Shortly after taking off in thick fog, the helicopter banked sharply into a hill and crashed, killing everyone aboard. Vaughan was 35 years old and on a career upswing after beating major drug and alcohol problems nearly four years earlier. A 1989 comeback album had sold more than a million copies and won a Grammy, but, as is often the case with rock casualties, sudden death provided the biggest career boost of all.

Less than a month after his death, Vaughan's posthumously released album, "Family Style" -- a collaboration between the guitarist and his older brother, Jimmie Lee -- reached the Top 10, the highest a Stevie Ray Vaughan album ever had climbed on the pop charts. A second posthumous album debuted in Billboard's Top 10.

Whether Vaughan would have gone on to become a guitar-slinging superstar or simply have remained a solid concert draw will never be known. What is clear, however, from this detailed and generally evenhanded biography is that for much of his life Vaughan was as deeply troubled as he was talented.

Insecure about his appearance from an early age (a botched sinus operation when he was 6 left him with a flattened nose that drew taunts of "Tomato Nose" from his childhood contemporaries), Vaughan grew up at odds with his volatile-tempered father, an itinerant asbestos installer. He and brother Jimmie, a talented hard-core blues guitarist who went on to form the Fabulous Thunderbirds, never completely resolved their sibling rivalries.

Like Jimmie, Stevie Ray -- who began playing blues guitar at age 12 and idolized Jimi Hendrix -- lived for music. As a teen-ager in Dallas, he dropped out of school and moved to Austin, home to a thriving music scene. There he played in local bands, formed Double Trouble, embarked on a stormy and doomed marriage, laid the groundwork for what would evolve into a flamboyant stage persona and overindulged his penchant for cocaine, speed and whiskey.

After several false starts, he and Double Trouble started to take off. By 1983, after playing lead guitar on David Bowie's smashingly successful "Let's Dance" album and releasing his debut album, the self-taught guitarist was on his way to a stardom he proved unable to handle.

By 1986, Vaughan had deteriorated into what his biographers describe as a "coke-sniffing, whiskey-chugging, guitar-playing automaton," performing erratically at best and going for days without changing his clothes. Finally, after suffering convulsions brought on by substance abuse during a tour of Germany, he entered a rehabilitation clinic and emerged a proselytizing convert to sobriety.

"There's a big lie in this business," he told an interviewer at the time. "The lie is that it's OK to go down in flames. Some of us can be examples about going ahead and growing."

Unfortunately, he had less than four years left to grow.


Title: "Stevie Ray Vaughan: Caught in the Crossfire"

Author: Joe Nick Patoski and Bill Crawford

Publisher: Little, Brown

Length, price: 313 pages, $19.95

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.