It's hard to believe now, but in his lifetime Stevie Ray Vaughan was an underdog. That's what made his every success inspiring. He started as a punk kid playing an older mans' game on the Texas blues circuit. He was 28 years old before recording his first album. He spent most of his career warming up for players he could smoke in his sleep. He humbly worshipped guitarists past and present though he was more fluid and dexterous than any of them. He worked his way up from the bottom of an Old Crown whiskey bottle to record a triumphant final album with Double Trouble. And he made it back home, recording Family Style with his brother Jimmie just before he died.
Like most Austin musicians, Stevie jumped around from band to band in his younger years, not settling in with Double Trouble Chris Whipper Layton on drums and Tommy Shannon on bass until he'd paid his dues the hard way. Then, in one year's time, word-of-mouth reports about the Texas trio with the hot-shit guitarist spread like a brush fire. With no record contract and little more than a milk truck to tour in, Double Trouble hit the road. Soon the big buzz was translating into big bucks. Jimmie Vaughan recalls that Stevie was really coming into his own as a player by 1980, and that nothing fed his appetite for playing music like a receptive crowd. "He came on like gangbusters that year," says Jimmie. That was when he played the In The Beginning show. (Initially a radio broadcast from the Austin club Steamboat Springs, In The Beginning was released on disc in 1992Ed.)
"Around that same time, he called me up one night at about 3:00 in the morning from L.A," he continues. "He had made all this money on a gig, and he was just on cloud nine. That was when all these doors started opening for him."
Jimmie, Chris, and Tommy, all of whom knew Stevie Ray like family, sat down with Guitar.com to piece together a chronology of Stevie's studio recordings.
Testifying: Texas Flood (1983)
Jackson Browne was among the first to push open a door for Stevie and Double Trouble, offering them use of his California studio, Downtown. Browne's generosity is part of the SRV legend now, but at the time, the band figured it was merely a chance to get their live act on tape. We weren't looking for or talking to labels, says Layton. It was just a band making a tape in a warehouse. We spent two days doing it. All we did was set up and play right through the material like we were playing live onstage. That's how innocent ignorant, almost it was. We were just a couple of guys who headed out to California in a beat-up van and left with some tapes under our arm. Wasn't but a year later it turned into Texas Flood.
That album wound up on Epic Records, but the label hadn't even pressed it when David Bowie, hoping the Texans fiery leads would help revive his career, asked Vaughan to play guitar on "Let's Dance." Sure enough, the record rocketed up the charts, and Vaughan was catapulted into the spotlight and out of his natural element. Still, the crowd back home loved to see one of their own succeed.
"Hell, we were jumping up and down, skipping down the street," says Jimmie. "There was my little brother on a number one hit, playing just as loud as shit all over the record. It was an exciting time."
"The only flak he took was from himself," agrees Tommy Shannon. "He and David Bowie were good friends, and he really respected Bowie and his music. After being pressured to join the touring band, he finally said he'd do it. This will tell you a lot about Stevie: He was going to keep us on salary the whole year of the tour, and then we were gonna start again. The night before he was supposed to go on the road, he said, 'I can't do it.' He turned that down to come back to us, touring around in a milk truck. That's how committed he was to his own vision of music." Now back where he belonged, Stevie was ready to give Double Trouble a good hard push behind the Texas Flood release. Though no one, including the record company, was expecting significant sales, the album shattered the glass ceiling on blues releases.
Hot Shot: Couldn't Stand The Weather (1984)
"Stevie suggested a title for the second record," Shannon says, then chuckles. He wanted to call it It's A Love Thang. Chris and I were going, "'Oh, man, that sounds real goofy!' If things came down to three different opinions, he would always do what he most wanted, but Stevie would always listen to other suggestions."
Glimpsing a bright future after the success of Texas Flood, SRV and Double Trouble quickly headed to New York to record Couldn't Stand The Weather at the Power Station, where Stevie had tracked for "Let's Dance." Typically, this is the part of the rock 'n roll story where the guys in the suits come tell the band how to manufacture a hit. But Stevie wasn't having any of that.
Whipper Layton remembers: "Stevie had a meeting with the record company and essentially told them, 'Don't you think we did a pretty good job with the first record? We made those tapes for almost no money, y'all put them out, and we sold half a million copies. Does that prove to y'all that we have some kind of idea of what were doing with our music?' Nobody could argue with any of these points."
"They realized they couldn't change us," agrees Shannon. "We were what we were, and Stevie was very, very protective of his own creativity. Anytime anybody threatened that, he would just come out and tell them no. He was always that way."
Brother Jimmie was around for a stretch of the Couldn't Stand sessions, and even contributed guitar to the title track and Elmore James' "The Things (That) I Used To Do." He says his memory is a little scant, but he may also have played on a version of Freddie King's "Hide Away". Jimmie says it was common for the band to roll tape even when not intending to put the song on record.
"If you're a blues player," he says, "you've got your originals and your ideas of what you're going to do, but you've also got all these other songs you just want to play because it's fun. It's not like you're playing them with the idea that everything has to be a giant hit. It's hard to record when you're thinking like that. Sometimes you play that stuff to trick yourself into being inspired in the studio."
Building an Empire: Soul To Soul (1985)
By the time the band was ready to record its third album, it had augmented its lineup with keyboardist Reese Wynans. The group's sound was getting bigger and better, and Stevie had developed a signature style. Though SRV's incomparable, strong, earthy sound is, to this day, the Holy Grail of guitar tone, Jimmie reveals that Stevie struggled with it just as much as the next guy.
"Oh, he worked on it constantly. He almost always had a good tone, but he was always working on it and trying to keep it up there or get it better. He was constantly screwing with amps, replacing speakers, twiddling with the guitar. Stevie would hook up all of his amps, everything he had, all at once. That stuff would be buzzing so bad that it was louder than the drums. Of course, it's no secret that Jimi Hendrix was an enormous influence on Stevie's tone and taste. The remastered Soul To Soul release lays that fact bare, and features Stevie unloading on two versions of the beautiful Hendrix composition "Little Wing," the first of which segues to Jimi's "Third Stone From The Sun." The band never blinked when it came to covering Hendrix, and Layton says that once they started playing Little Wing, they probably recorded it every time they were in the studio. Hendrix is Tommy Shannon's favorite musician of all time, too, and he's retired the '62 Fender Jazz bass Hendrix once played at a Johnny Winter jam session. "That bass glows in the dark," Shannon chuckles. It's the same instrument he played throughout his years with Stevie Ray.
But did the Hendrix influence go too far, given Stevie's wide-brim hat, the scarves, the cover tunes?
"Well, yeah," confesses Jimmie, "but he could do it so well. It was just fun. I remember one time we were in Hawaii, and it was some convention that Stevie and Jeff Beck were playing. Stevie was in the middle of his set, doing Voodoo Child. I was standing over on the side with Jeff Beck, and I said something like, 'I don't know why he doesnt just do his own thing.' And Jeff goes, 'Yeah, he's giving it all to Hendrix!' But Stevie loved doing it, and people loved it."
Soul To Soul was a time of experimentation, and Stevie toyed with a six-string bass and even got behind the drumkit on Empty Arms. Unfortunately, the bandmembers creativity was impaired by their excessive booze and cocaine intake.
"There was a certain kind of darkness that came over everything at that time," Shannon says gloomily. "We'd be in the studio playing ping-pong for three or four hours, on studio time, waiting for the cocaine to get there. Stevie and I knew we were in trouble, but we didn't know what to do about it."
They were about to hit bottom, and hard.
Caught In The Crossfire: In Step (1989)
Though Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble had cut an album every year since their debut, it would be four years before In Step was released. Having collapsed in London onstage just a few days after his 32nd birthday, Stevie rang a desperate distress call to his mother and soon headed back to the States to begin the long, hard process of drying out. Shannon was in bad shape, too, and though Layton and Wynans did not suffer from addiction, they had their own demons to cut loose. It would be three years and a load of heartache before they walked the tightrope back to their music.
"In Step was when everybody had to come to terms with sobriety," says Clayton. "We were playing music for the first time without drugs or alcohol. We were saying, 'What will life look like through this lens?' "
Says Shannon: "Stevie was very scared. We'd never recorded sober before. He'd say, 'I've never done this. I'm not sure what to do here.' But all of a sudden we could hear things the way we'd always wanted, and knew what to do. We would have our recovery meetings, and sit down to talk about spiritual things and personal problems. We just had to be honest and open and try to deal with life on real terms."
"A lot of guys think they have to get high to get in that perfect spot to play," adds Jimmie, speaking from personal experience. "You get in that trap, and then it's hard to learn it any other way. That's what Stevie had to do, and it took a lot of concentration and a lot of desire. But he could play blindfolded and upside-down and in the trunk. It was just a matter of doing it."
In the end, the In Step sessions yielded not only the number one hit Crossfire and a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album, but the best-captured Stevie Ray tracks of his career. The band surged forward on its own adrenaline and actualized the potential it had so long held in reserve.
Love Or Confusion: The Deification of SRV
"It's kind of an interesting phenomenon in our culture," notes Chris, "that people like Hendrix and Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison get immortalized through death. I don't know how it is in other cultures around the world, but here, somebody dies tragically and they become this whole new entity. Stevie was highly respected and people thought highly of him before he died. People who knew him and listened to his music just loved him, the person."
After the terrible helicopter crash that took Stevie's life in 1990, fans around the world began to deify Vaughan. Perhaps it's a way of coping with the loss. Well-intended though it may be, it distances the worshiper from the warm reality of Stevie Ray as a human being. His bandmembers weren't disciples who followed someone who walked on water. They kicked around in a van with him, shared the highs and lows, and counted their blessings every day he was alive.
Says Tommy, "Musically, I think he deserves the praise. But I think a lot of people have the wrong impression. Playing with Stevie was one of the greatest honors of my life. Every night he would do something new that would just blow me away. In a way, I never got used to his guitar playing, and by that I mean that I never took it for granted. He had his demons to wrestle just like the rest of us. He wasn't a saint. He was a beautiful human being; a very special, gifted human being, but a human being."
Asked how he feels about the posthumous sainthood of his brother, Jimmie says, "I'm excited for him, and I understand what people see in the music. But I'm all emotional about it because he's my family, my flesh and blood. The way I remember him is warm and kind, and as my brother, a person. A lot of people have made him into someone where I don't know what they're talking about.
I'm getting better with it as time goes on. He helped a lot of people and inspired a lot of people, and is still doing that. The whole thing is so amazing to me. I think back on what went on and what he did and what I got to do with him, and the whole thing is just unbelievable. It's beyond any dreams that you could've ever had. You could never have dreamed it up or asked for anything that fantastic to happen."
Visit Double Trouble at their website: www.tommyshannon.com/