The hard rockin’ life and ԁеаtһ of Stevie Ray Vaughn

Stevie Ray Vaughan always burned the candle at both ends. Then he started in on the middle.

A booze-and-coke habit wasn’t unusual among musicians. But the depth of Vaughan’s worried even Muddy Waters, a sly veteran still singing “Champagne and Reefer” in his 70s.

“Stevie could perhaps be the greatest guitar player that ever lived,” the older man noted. “But he won’t live to get 40 years old if he doesn’t leave that white powder alone.”

“Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan” shows just how right, and wrong, Muddy Waters was.

The book, an oral history by Alan Paul and Andy Aledort, celebrates Vaughan’s virtuosity. It also details his addictions and the awful toll they took.

But while the story ends sadly, it also includes a surprising note of grace.

Vaughan was born in Dallas in 1954, to Martha and “Big Jim” Vaughan, and with his older brother Jimmie already waiting at home. Daddy was a drinker and a cruel disciplinarian.

By the time they were 7 and 10, Stevie Ray and Jimmie had their first guitars. They were immediately obsessed.

Brothers Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan backstage at the Austin Opry House, 1984 (Photo Tracy Anne Hart)
Brothers Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan backstage at the Austin Opry House, 1984 (Photo Tracy Anne Hart)

Within months, Jimmie was in a band. By the time he was 15, he was in a group, The Chessmen, with a record contract. He quickly dropped out, left home, and didn’t look back.

Stories circulated, though of how The Chessman opened for Hendrix. Jimmie met Janis Joplin, and she invited him to visit her in San Francisco. Naturally, he went.

Big Jim Vaughan warned his younger son not to turn out like his brother. Stevie Ray couldn’t think of anyone he would rather be. He kept practicing his guitar. When the strings tore up his fingertips, he fixed the wounds with Krazy Glue.

Soon, he was on stage, too, although the bands kept changing. Brooklyn Underground, Cast of Thousands, and for a while, he was even in one called Epileptic Marshmallow.

Meanwhile, big brother Jimmie was already touring with his group, The Fabulous Thunderbirds.

By 1977, Stevie Ray settled on a lineup and a name he would stick with, Double Trouble. They were a big deal in Austin and landed regular gigs, but that was the only steady thing in Stevie Ray’s life.

He had no home and couch-surfed where he could. His drug use deepened and not surprisingly, he became erratic and undependable. One day, he impulsively married a moody new girlfriend, twisting a gum wrapper into a wedding ring.

“What’s your anniversary present going to be, a newspaper?” a friend cracked.

If it were, it was going to be all bad news. Stevie Ray’s new bride had her own drug problem and, as another buddy observed, “as many personalities as Heinz has varieties.” Technically the marriage lasted nine years but was doomed from the start.

As Stevie Ray’s life was falling apart, by the early ’80s, the band was starting to rise. They got a new manager who made things happen.

He secured a slot for them at New York’s Danceteria, where they auditioned for Mick Jagger’s new Rolling Stone Records. He also landed them two nights opening for the Clash.

Stevie Ray Vaughn, Mick Jagger, and Ron Wood at the Danceteria night club in New York City.
Stevie Ray Vaughn, Mick Jagger, and Ron Wood at the Danceteria night club in New York City. (Daily News/New York Daily News)

Jagger passed, though. “I like them, but everybody knows the blues doesn’t sell,” he said. The hard-core punk fans of the Clash booed Double Trouble so lustily, that the two bands agreed to cut the two nights to one.

Despite that, Double Trouble started taking off.

Legendary record producer Jerry Wexler caught them at a gig and raved to the head of the Montreux Jazz Festival. The fest booked them for one night, July 17, 1982.

It was a lot different from the Texas roadhouses they usually played. So was the audience, filled with Swiss music fans and rock stars.

Afterward, David Bowie asked to meet them and invited Stevie Ray to play on his next album. Jackson Browne jammed with them and hearing they didn’t have a record contract, offered free time in his studio to cut a demo.

Bowie’s new album turned out to be “Let’s Dance,” with Stevie Ray playing blistering solos on several songs, including the title track. The group’s demo tapes made their way to John Hammond, who signed everyone from Benny Goodman to Bruce Springsteen.

Hammond convinced Epic Records to sign Stevie Ray Vaughan, too. Stevie Ray insisted Double Trouble be part of the deal.

The band took off. Their first album, “Texas Flood,” came out in 1983. They toured for 18 months straight then returned to the studio for the followup, “Couldn’t Stand the Weather.” Their fame grew.

So did Stevie Ray’s addictions.

People tried to help. “We gonna have a little heart-to-heart,” bluesman Albert King warned the star backstage. “The gig ain’t no time to get high.”

But Stevie Ray was already strapped into a roller coaster. He used coke so he could drink more, then he would drink even more to come down from the coke. Eventually, to save time and his ravaged nostrils, he simply poured the cocaine into glasses of Crown Royal.

No one could last like that. On Sept. 28, 1986, on tour in Europe, he collapsed in a German hotel room, vomiting blood. He was rushed to the hospital.

The next day, the band resumed the tour. They had gigs to play.

At Chicago Fest in 1983 (Paul Natkin Photo Reserve Inc.)

But their manager started making calls. First, he phoned the doctor who had helped Clapton kick his habits. Then he called Stevie Ray’s mother and his new girlfriend. They flew out to the band’s next stop, in London.

Finally, Stevie Ray agreed to go into treatment.

“Something had to give,” said Double Trouble keyboardist Reese Wynans. “And what gave was Stevie.”

Except that wasn’t the end. The 32-year-old rock star went through rehab. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous and stuck with it.

Soon he was carrying around a suitcase full of pamphlets on living sober. He pored over them the way he used to study the chords to “Purple Haze.”

But he didn’t get preachy about it, and he didn’t get boring. His example inspired long-time friends like Bonnie Raitt to clean up. If anything, his music got better.

And he reconnected with Jimmie, smoothing out the rough edges of a little-brother/big-brother dynamic that sometimes kept them apart.

Meanwhile, Double Trouble continued to do great work, cutting “In Step,” their biggest album yet. On Aug. 27, 1990, they joined Clapton for a major concert in Wisconsin.

It was a great venue, but the traffic back to O’Hare Airport was notorious. When an extra seat opened up on someone else’s helicopter, Stevie Ray grabbed it.

And ԁıеԁ, minutes later, as the pilot lost control and crashed into a mountain.

Stevie Ray Vaughan was 35.

In a way, Muddy Waters was right. The kid who might have been the world’s greatest guitarist didn’t make it to 40.

But he made it to where he did on his terms.

Texas Flood, by Alan Paul and Andy Aledort (St. Martin's Press)
Texas Flood, by Alan Paul and Andy Aledort (St. Martin’s Press)

And left behind not only some extraordinary music but proof that yes, you can come back and take control of your own life. Even if it’s only for one day at a time.

Vaughan couldn’t just play Hendrix. At times, it seemed like he was Hendrix — while remaining his goofy, cowboy self.

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