Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the death of blues rock guitar great Stevie Ray Vaughan. On August 26th, 1990, he had just finished a monster show at the Alpine Valley ski resort in Wisconsin. Other players on the bill included his brother Jimmie, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy and Robert Cray. The concert ended with all the performers on stage for a rousing rendition of “Sweet Home Chicago.” That would be Stevie Ray’s last song.
After the show the performers boarded helicopters to fly back to Chicago. They were going to meet up and play a gig at Buddy Guy’s club. Stevie, his pilot and two others never made it. Flying through unfamiliar terrain on a foggy night, the pilot crashed into the ski slope. Stevie Ray Vaughan was 35.
The ski slope that wasn’t seen in the fog.
In a strange turn of events, his death is what got me into taking up the guitar. As so often happens after the death of a musician, radio stations play their music more frequently. I guess hearing them somehow softens the blow. Listening to his music I became attracted to his Texas attitude to blues and rock. No one before or since sounds quite like him.
On August 27th, 1995, the 5th anniversary of Stevie’s death, I saw his older brother Jimmie perform in concert. The prior year he had released his first album since the accident. It contained a tribute song called Six Strings Down, the story of a guitar slinger called up to heaven too early, and meeting other blues icons such as Jimi Hendrix and Albert Collins. As Jimmie sang that song on a sweltering summer night on the Camden waterfront, the emotions were still raw. Tears and sweat merged to form a river of pain. It was the most emotional performance I’ve ever seen at a concert.
On a recent road trip I stopped in at Alpine Valley to see the place where Stevie Ray last performed. The concert stage looked like dozens of others that welcome summer touring shows. But this one felt different. It hosted the last live performance of a music legend. The gloomy sky, laden with gray storm clouds, mirrored how I felt as I stood in the empty arena.
The concert stage at Alpine Valley.
As I got into my car and drove away, the sky finally opened up and the rains came pouring down. I flipped on the wipers and slid in a CD I had brought along for the trip; the opening notes of The Sky Is Crying filled the car as Stevie once again wailed away on his battered old Fender Stratocaster.
A week earlier I visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. It surprised me that Stevie Ray Vaughan is still not enshrined there. Rolling Stone magazine has already selected him as the 7th greatest guitarist of all time. Not bad for a scruffy kid from Oak Cliff, Texas. Maybe the anniversary of his early death will shine a new light on Stevie Ray’s brilliant career.
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What are some of your memories of Stevie Ray?