Epitaph for a guitar-slinger


Before his death, Stevie Ray Vaughan was one of the most talented young blues players. Now his technique is copied by today's up-and-coming players.

April 11, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

On Aug. 26, 1990, an all-star blues concert was booked into the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis. Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Stevie Ray Vaughan, his brother Jimmie Vaughan, and Buddy Guy were on the bill, and they concluded the show with all five jamming together on the Robert Johnson chestnut "Sweet Home Chicago."

A few hours after the show, the musicians and their entourage boarded three helicopters bound for Chicago. Two made the trip without a hitch, but the third crashed into a fog-shrouded hill, killing all aboard. Among the casualties was 35-year old guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan.

News of his death stunned the rock world. Vaughan was the most virtuosic of the young blues players who came of age in the '80s, and had developed a sound that drew as much from the psychedelic sound of Jimi Hendrix as from the gritty Texas blues of Freddy King.

Although he'd seen only moderate success commercially -- his biggest album at the time of his death was 1984's "Couldn't Stand the Weather," which peaked at No. 31 on the Billboard album charts -- he was viewed with awe by other guitarists, who marveled at the speed and clarity of his playing. And at the time of his death, Vaughan was playing better than ever, and seemed on the verge of a personal and professional breakthrough.

As is often the case with artists who die tragically, Stevie Ray Vaughan was a bigger seller after his death than before. "Family Style," a collaboration with brother Jimmie that had been completed only a few months before his death, was released two months after Stevie Ray's death, and went to No. 7 on the Billboard charts. "The Sky Is Crying," a collection of outtakes and unreleased recordings assembled the following year, was also a Top-10 hit.

Nor has Stevie Ray's popularity waned much since he died. Epic Records recently released "The Real Deal: Greatest Hits Volume 2," as well as expanded reissues of Vaughan's four studio albums. "The Real Deal" entered the Billboard charts at No. 53 -- not bad for an artist who hasn't cut anything new in almost a decade.

But Vaughan's impact expands beyond his own sales figures, for his legacy all but defines the sound of the blues today. Spin a disc by any of today's hot young blues guitarists, from Johnny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd to Chris Duarte and Susan Tedeschi, and Vaughan's influence is unmistakable. He has become as much a touchstone for today's young guitar-slingers as Elmore James and Robert Johnson were for the blues rockers of the '60s.

"Stevie Ray's the bridge between Jimi Hendrix and traditional Chicago blues," says Brad Tolinski, editor-in-chief of Guitar World. "He took elements of both, and put them together in a form that was modern, but still rootsy enough that you could put your finger on exactly where something comes from."

Combine that synthesis of blues styles with Vaughan's obvious technical mastery of the guitar, and it's easy to see why his recordings have had such impact. What Vaughan delivered was a sort of super-blues, taking the licks and mannerisms of the great players preceding him, and making them louder, faster and flashier. At the same time, he also smoothed the music out, eliminating the rhythmic idiosyncrasies of the greats -- the dropped beats, asymmetrical phrasing and uneven meter so often found in early blues recordings -- so the beat would roll as regularly as in a rock song.

"It's ultimately easier to imitate Stevie Ray Vaughan than it is to imitate any of these other guys," says Tolinski. "It's very difficult to imitate B.B. King or someone like that, because of what these guys do to create such an individual sound.

"What Stevie did was, he cleaned everything up, from Freddy King to Albert King, to Lonnie Mack and Jimi Hendrix. And he put it all in strict meter, which also makes it easier to play, because you can count the beats."

Making it even easier to play the Stevie Ray way was the guitarist's openness about his influences and technique. Vaughan came up just as the guitar magazine boom was beginning, and he gave many tech-oriented interviews. Guitar World, in fact, has put together a CD of an "interview and lesson" editor Andy Aledort did with Vaughan, which the magazine is using as a subscription premium; the disc comes with 12 pages of guitar tablature for aspiring players wanting to let their own fingers do the walking.

There are also interview segments on the repackaged versions of Vaughan's "Texas Flood," "Couldn't Stand the Weather," "Soul to Soul" and "In Step." In them, he talks about various aspects of his music -- for instance, the way he plays a shuffle beat, or the techniques he picked up from listening to Hendrix -- and his comments are reinforced by previously unreleased recordings, like his version of Freddy King's "Hide Away" or Hendrix's "Little Wing/Third Stone from the Sun."

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