In 1989, Stevie Ray Vaughan released his fourth studio album, and among the tracks was one titled “Tightrope.” The song’s lyrics detailed a man that had been to hell and back.
Caught up in a whirlwind, can’t catch my breath
Knee deep in hot water, broke out in a cold sweat
Can’t catch a turtle in this rat race
Feels like I’m losin’ time at a breakneck pace
Like many other creative types, Stevie Ray Vaughan experienced a kind of deep pain associated with drug and alcohol abuse until an incident in 1986 forced the legendary blues musician to reevaluate his course. On the 25th anniversary of his tragic death, Stevie should be remembered for standing the blues back on its feet. But, even more than that, he should be remembered as a man who went toe-to-toe with his demons, and came out on top.
A True Texan
Vaughan was born in Dallas in 1954, and picked up his first guitar at a young age. At only 7, the soon-to-be blues musician began strumming away at a toy guitar, inspired by the likes of Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix, and his older brother, Jimmie, who also had an affinity for playing instruments. Vaughan was a self-taught musician, who stylized himself after the legendary blues guitarists who came before him. By the time he was in his early teens, Vaughan was already playing in several bands around the Dallas area. With groups like Epileptic Marshmallow and The Shan-Tones, Stevie was traveling the club and bar circuit while honing his craft. Sensing that music was his calling, Stevie dropped out of high school in 1972 to pursue a career in Austin, Texas, the home of a wealthy musical scene in which his older brother was already integrating himself into.
In the mid ’70s in Austin, Vaughan joined up with The Nightcrawlers, and then The Cobras. After traveling the Austin circuit with those two bands for a few years, Vaughan joined up with Lou Ann Barton and W.C. Clark to form Triple Threat. That band reformed later — with Chris Layton on drums and Tommy Shannon on bass — and became Double Trouble after Barton left the group in 1978 to pursue a career as a solo act. Stevie Ray and Double Trouble slowly and steadily built an acclaimed resume in the Austin area, becoming one of the most well-known and popular blues acts in the South. The band had yet to record an album, but, in 1982, they received their first big break. The Rolling Stones had caught wind of the fervor surrounding Double Trouble and hired the band to perform at a private party in New York.
Around that same time, music producer heavy Jerry Wexler had become enamored with Stevie’s powerful blues compositions, and booked him to play at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Double Trouble’s performance there helped launch the group into the mainstream.
“He had no album, no record contract, no name,” wrote People‘s James McBride, “but he reduced the stage to a pile of smoking cinders and, afterward, everyone wanted to know who he was.”
Montreux opened a lot of doors for Stevie and Double Trouble. Jackson Browne offered the band free recording time at his L.A. studio. David Bowie was so impressed with Stevie’s performance, he asked the Texan to play on his upcoming album Let’s Dance. With their career taking off, Epic signed the group to a contract, and Double Trouble recorded their first album at Browne’s studio. In 1983, Stevie and Double Trouble released their first studio album, Texas Flood, to rave reviews. The album secured the No. 38 spot on the Billboard charts, and announced to the world that a blues revival was underway.
The band set out on a national tour following their first album and, capitalizing on their momentum, quickly released another studio effort in 1984. Their sophomore project, Couldn’t Stand the Weather, was even more successful than their debut, landing at No. 31 on the charts. But, with success came the darker side of fame; Stevie Ray’s demons were beginning to consume him.
Booze & Blues
As Stevie and Double Trouble continued to tour and record, their frenetic schedule was becoming an albatross. Prior to the release of their second album, the band toured endlessly for more than 18 months. In order to cope with the tireless pace the band was on, Stevie began consuming large quantities of alcohol and cocaine. In a 1988 interview with Guitar World, Stevie recalled the battles he had with substance abuse.
“I would wake up and guzzle something, just to get rid of the pain I was feeling. Whiskey, beer, vodka, whatever was by me. And it was getting to the point where I’d try to say ‘hi’ to somebody and I would just fall apart, crying and everything. It was like… solid doom. I had hit rock bottom and there really was nowhere to go but up. I had been trying to pull myself up by my bootstraps, so to speak, but they were broke, you know.”
Stevie would even pour copious amounts of cocaine into his alcoholic drinks in order to keep up with the hectic demands of stardom. What he didn’t realize was that the cocaine was crystallizing in his stomach and tearing up his insides. Stevie’s affection for substances could be traced back to his early days in Dallas, when he would routinely dip into his father’s stash of liquor. He began drinking at the age of 6.
“That’s when I first started stealing Daddy’s drinks,” he told Guitar World. “Or when my parents were gone, I’d find the bottle and make myself one. I thought it was cool… thought the kids down the street would think it was cool. That’s where it began, and I had been depending on it ever since.”
In 1985, Stevie became the first white musician to win the prestigious W.C. Handy Blues Foundation’s Blues Entertainer of the Year award. Despite his troubles with substance abuse, Stevie and Double Trouble continued to tour and record. Their third studio effort, Soul to Soul, was released in 1985, and it peaked on the Billboard charts at No. 34. Outside of the music, Stevie’s personal life was falling apart. His marriage to Lenora Darlene Bailey, whom he married in 1979, was close to disintegrating, and his diet of cocaine and alcohol was increasing steadily.
As the band continued touring, they were gearing up to release their fourth album, this one a compilation of live performances dubbed Live Alive. The schedule and the substances were about to rip the floor out from under Stevie.
I was running out of gas and there were no pumps inside. It was getting to a point where … you know, you can’t give somebody a dollar if you ain’t got one. You can try all you want, but if you’re out of gas, you just cannot give anymore. This was around the time we were mixing the Live Alive album. It was a real crazy period for all of us, because for a long time we had a schedule that was just completely out of hand.
In the latter half of 1986, Double Trouble was on a world tour, making a stop in London for a performance. As Stevie ripped into his guitar, he blacked out and fell off the stage. The incident was a wake-up call, and, in September of that year, he entered a treatment facility under the care of Dr. Victor Bloom. During his month-long stay in the facility, family, friends, and even Eric Clapton showed up to offer the bluesman support during his recovery. It would take a while, but, with a support system in place, and the principals of Alcoholics Anonymous powering his motions, Stevie began to rise above the fog of addiction. The next year was a time of recovery for Stevie, as he relaxed his schedule in order to focus on overcoming his demons. By 1988, Stevie Ray Vaughan was ready to make a comeback. Unfortunately, the road ahead would be cut short.
Gone Too Soon
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble went back to work during the final years of the decade. While headlining several concerts, the band began work on what would be their final studio album, In Step. The album was released in 1989, went gold, and earned the band a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Recording. The track “Wall of Denial” addressed Stevie’s battles with substance abuse.
No matter what the trouble we carry ’round inside
We’re never safe from the truth, but in the truth we can survive
When this wall of denial comes tumblin’ down
Down to the ground
On Aug. 27, 1990, Stevie and Double Trouble were joined onstage at a concert at the Alpine Valley Musical Theater by Eric Clapton, Jimmie Vaughan, Buddy Guy, and Robert Cray. Eerily, the day before the concert, Stevie recalled a dream to his bandmates in which he witnessed his own funeral. After the concert, four helicopters were awaiting the musicians to take them back to Chicago. At about 1 a.m., the helicopter that Stevie was on made its ascent amid a heavy fog that had fallen over the area. Only a half-mile after takeoff, Jeff Brown, the pilot of the helicopter, banked to the left and crashed into a ski slope. Everyone on board was killed instantly. Stevie’s brother, Jimmie, was tasked with identifying the body.
The year of his death was supposed to be a happy one for Stevie. He had just finished recording his first studio album with his brother, but he wouldn’t live to see its release. More than 1,500 people attended Stevie’s funeral, and he was laid to rest at Laurel Land Memorial Park in Dallas. It was a sad ending for not only a legendary musical career, but for a man who had overcome the deadly drift of addiction.
“You know,” he said in his 1988 interview with Guitar World, “there’s a big lie in this business. The lie is that it’s okay to go out in flames. But that really doesn’t do anybody much good.”
Stevie probably didn’t go out on the terms he wanted to, but, then again, very few of us do. What matters is the significance of the time spent on this Earth, and, for Stevie Ray Vaughan, he won a battle that many never succeed in. Besides his contributions to music, Stevie was a warrior willing to walk through the flames in order to pursue his passion. For that, he should be revered.