If there is a God, he has a peculiar sense of timing. In 1990, after a long, painful struggle against the demons drink and drugs, Stevie Ray Vaughan was sober, straight and in control. He'd certainly come a long way since 1986, when he literally fell off a London stage, his body shattered by excessive chemical intake. But four years of painful rehab later, he'd just released `In Step', arguably his finest album yet, rekindled his friendship with brother Jimmie whilst recording the `Brothers' album and was playing better than ever - Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray and Jimmie Vaughan, who jammed with him on the evening of 26 July 1990, would tell you that. Yet the next day, Stevie Ray Vaughan was gone for good - killed in a helicopter crash, 36 days before his 36th birthday and four years to the day after his father died.
Having seen the undignified cash-in which tarnished Jimi Hendrix's artistic legacy, Jimmie Vaughan - as co-executor of his brother's estate - was determined the same thing would not happen to Stevie Ray. Both `91's `The Sky Is Crying', compiled from various studio sessions, and the live album `In The Beginning' from 1992 offered new insights into Stevie's art. The latest Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble release is `Greatest Hits' - no surprises here, apart from a version of the Beatles' `Taxman'. A rather unusual choice of cover...?
`Several years ago, it was either `86 or `87, Michael Jackson was doing an animated movie for which he wanted to use all Beatles songs,' recalls Tommy Shannon, Double Trouble bassist and Stevie's longtime friend. `All these different musicians were doing Beatles' songs so we did `Taxman'. Something happened and the movie never came out so it's been sitting in the can for several years. We took a listen to it and thought it sounded real good and decided to put it on the record.'
`But there's nothing else like `Taxman' that we're holding back,' adds Double Trouble drummer Chris Layton. `The only exception to that would be that we did record the show we did at Carnegie Hall way back in `84 which has got a whole different feel - it's got a horn section, a second drummer and Jimmie Vaughan is playing rhythm guitar on it. That might appear on the box set that we'll probably do in the next year and a half or so but it hasn't been planned out. We're just taking it one record at a time...'
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble was always a hell of a lot more than a blues virtuoso plus a couple of blokes on bass and drums who happened to be in the right place at the right time. Tommy Shannon had already tasted fame with Johnny Winter before he even saw Stevie: `We were just hicks from Texas then, almost overnight, I was living in a huge house in New York. When we broke up I flew back to Dallas where I used to live and there was this club there called The Fog. It was strange - it was the same place I met Johnny Winter. I think my first night back in Dallas I went on down The Fog just to check it out. I walked in and there was this young guitar player - I just couldn't believe it. He sounded incredible! I looked over and there was this little kid, Stevie. He must have been about 14 or 15, looking up to all the big guys around him, and I was thinking, "God, he's already better than them!" But he was very humble about it, always wanting to learn.
`He even had his own sound back then. He was still young and drawing all of his influences from different guitar players - you could tell that - but he already had that Stevie touch, something that set him apart from other guitar players. It's strange - sometimes you can hear a guitar player play just one note and you go, "Well, that guy is special" - you just feel immediately. There was something really different and special about him.' Chris Layton didn't hear Stevie until a few years later, by which time he'd honed his skills to a terrifying level. `I was going through a club called the Soap Creek Saloon. A friend of mine was playing in a band and he asked me to come out several times to see what I thought of them. I could hear this really great guitar player playing above the band - I could just hear him through the wall and I walked in and saw it was this guy, Stevie. I guess he was 20 then, and incredible. It was the first time I'd seen somebody, I think maybe ever, that I really thought was a really gifted musician. Sure, I'd seen big bands in concert before but I'd never really seen anybody that really played like this person did.'
When Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble started gigging the songs the songs that would make their way onto their `Texas Flood' debut they already had the distinct feeling that blues rock was never going to be flavour of the month in the early 1980s.
`We kinda sensed we had a struggle on our hands when we started,' remembers Shannon. `At the time we were trying to get a record deal and all the labels said, "No - blues won't sell." They just wouldn't have anything to do with us. Thank God for John Hammond (Senior) - he discovered Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, all the old blues people - and he told Epic, "Give `em a deal - let me help them out." So Epic did that just on his track record, so `Texas Flood' came out and it just took off. The record company didn't expect it to but it did.'
Of course, John Hammond wasn't the only influential person impressed by Stevie's skills - after Double Trouble's performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival (a highly impressive booking for a band without even one album to their name) David Bowie was bowled over by Stevie and asked him to play on `Let's Dance'. An unlikely combination on paper, Stevie pulled out his best Albert King licks and added an earthier dimension to the Dame's polished pop. With `Let's Dance' Bowie's biggest album in years, acclaim for Vaughan was instant. As Billy Idol's guitarist Steve Stevens remembered, `After `Let's Dance' appeared, I noticed how producers and non-guitarists kept mentioning Stevie Ray; his sound and style became a real reference point for them. That's important because so much of the time only guitarists absorb waht another player is doing. Stevie Ray's sound and aura became appealing to everybody. The only other time I'd noticed that happen was with Hendrix.'
However, as Stevie prepared to tour with Bowie - a golden opportunity for worldwide exposure after years of playing small clubs - things started to turn sour.
Chris Layton: `My understanding was that David wanted Stevie to play for a weekly rate instead of a per show, playing three shows per week. As the tour schedule started to develop they were doing four, five sometimes six nights in a row. Stevie wasn't happy with that - he had been told one thing and something else was happening and they hadn't tried to straighten it out. He was kind of a man of principle. The other part of it was that originally David Bowie had approached Stevie with the idea that Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble would open the shows for David Bowie. But that fell through. On top of that Bowie said from then on any publicity dealing with Stevie's own personal career had to be funnelled through Bowie's management and Stevie couldn't say anything to the press without first okaying it with David Bowie's management. He didn't like that at all.
`Stevie wanted to talk to David about all these things but David was on a small vacation before the tour started. He said, "Well, I need to talk to him." They said, "Well, where he's at there's no phones. Nobody can call him and he can't call anybody." Stevie just felt that that was a flat out lie. He couldn't see David getting ready to embark on a big, world tour like that with a lot of communication needed to go on between a lot of parties when he was off on holiday somewhere for ten days where nobody could talk to him and he couldn't talk to anybody. So Stevie basically said, "Screw it, I'm outta here. Too many things have gone wrong, too many things are totally different from what you said they were originally going to be and so I'm just outta here."'
`To me, that was really a show of Stevie's true character,' opines Shannon. `He didn't want to leave us behind `cause he loved what he was doing and our band was like a family - real close. We didn't have any records out or anything so the Bowie thing was really the only real success he'd had up until then. But towards the end of the rehearsals he just said "I can't do it" and he bowed out, which I think is incredible if you stop and think about it. It's like he couldn't turn his back on what he loved just for the sake of success. That's the kind of person he was. But it didn't make him cynical about the business at all.' Rather than shooting himself neatly in both feet, quitting the Bowie tour actually turned out for the best, since it left Stevie and Double Trouble free to tour in support of the `Texas Flood' album, with sales of that album eventually surpassing everyone's expectations. The front cover portrayed Stevie as a mean `n' mood guitar slinger; the back cover saw his carefree, boyish smile as he shared a joke with the band and John Hammond. So which was closer to the real Stevie Ray?
`Well, he's both of those things,' says Shannon. `He's a person you really had to get to know. Everybody knows how beautiful his music is but if they could meet him they would realize his spirit was even more beautiful. He grew up, so to speak, but some things in him never changed - his kindness, his honesty, his humility. He always wanted to do the right thing. And he was always real passionate about what he did.
`He was a very spiritual person, especially after we got clean and sober. His life was dedicated to spirituality as was my own. It was kinda like a journey we were on together. It was so much better after going through all those years together of drinking and getting high and finally finding a spiritual path to follow. We were both growing and changing and it was just a wonderful thing.'
`He didn't get successful and start becoming some dictator,' adds Chris, `or turn into an asshole because he was famous. He was the same kind of guy he'd always been. He believed that what goes around comes around and definitely believed that there was a higher power but without being specific about it. If you want, I guess if you want to boil it down to the ten commandments - if you follow those you can be very spiritual without being identified with a particular label.'
And as for the legendary sibling rivalry between Stevie and his elder brother Jimmie? `Yeah, I was aware of what people said,' says Tommy, `but to tell you the truth I don't believe it ever existed. Stevie always respected his big brother and looked up to him all the way since I've known him. And Jimmie Vaughan, if you get to know him, he didn't have any need to try and compete with anybody. Especially his own brother - he was proud of Stevie.'
Layton: `They didn't really communicate that much. For all the time that Stevie and I were together it wasn't like Jimmie was hanging around very much. I'd heard stories about they had sibling rivalry like any family does but I didn't really know what it was `cause I didn't witness any of it. They weren't around in the same place that much `cause they were on the road so much.'
On the road was, of course, where Stevie made his reputation, taking the blues to the people. Although Stevie struck a balance between reinterpreting blues covers and performing his own material, a lot of his audience who were more rock fans than blues fans didn't realize how much Stevie drew upon his blues heritage. According to Tommy, the band's situation `kinda reminded me of when Cream came out back in the `60s and they were doing some of those old songs that for some reason I thought they had written. But then I joined Johnny Winter and he kinda educated me in the blues. To his credit, Stevie always tried to make it real clear to people; when he'd go to sing a song he'd say, "This song is written by so-and-so." And any time any of those people were in town he'd bring them up to have them play with the band.'
Writing an `original' blues may seem a contradiction in terms but Stevie drew on his day-to-day experiences to inspire his songs and add a personal and heartfelt touch. `Something would happen during the day such as Stevie and his wife would be getting along great so he'd sit down and `Pride And Joy' came out,' recalls Shannon. `Then a little later on they had a fight and he wrote `I'm Cryin'' which is the same song except with different lyrics.
`To me, Stevie could go deep and he could go high. He could play traditional blues and then turn around and do a Hendrix song or some really cool rockin' song like `Superstition'. So we'd play some blues standard and then maybe follow it with `Voodoo Child' or something - the younger people in the audience could relate to `Voodoo Child' and they'd see it's not that much different from some old blues songs. In the end they just kind of went together.'
Like Hendrix, Stevie would never play a song the same way twice, as the numerous SRV bootlegs still available testify. Shannon reckons this was `half the fun of playing with Stevie. He just went where he wanted to go and it was always a challenge just to be there with him and pick up on it. It wasn't like we ever sat down and said, "Oh, it's got to go exactly like this." If Stevie was going to drop the volume in a song we'd just have to listen closely, pick up on it and drop with him. But he had this mountain of amps out there and sometimes even with the monitors in front of us we had a hard time hearing what everyone was doing exactly but we got used to it. It really didn't affect the show that much! We didn't even use a set list most of the time, never mind plan songs out.'
Double Trouble were a marvellously dynamic group, supporting Vaughan to the hilt as he tore through songs like `Testify' but also able to drop to a whisper on songs like `Tin Pan Alley', where the rhythm section is so quiet and skeletal it's almost like they've popped out for a quick tour of the local sights. `We all had dynamics in mind and it came pretty naturally to us all,' says Layton. `We played loud so much of the time that when we did something real quite people were amazed by it. Which I guess is something good about dynamics.'
`There's a feel Tommy and I get when we play together - I play behind the beat and he plays behind me! It's all his doing - it's all his fault. Tommy's got a theory about it - it's a concept of playing that comes from him but no matter where I play he always plays a little bit behind me. That's pretty much the way it's always been!'
Having played hundreds of gigs over the years, some dates are remembered for reasons other than musical ones, particularly their Reading Festival appearance in `83. `There were loads of people throwing these bottles of piss in the air!' wails Shannon, `and we were just afraid of getting hit! It was pretty rowdy. I can't remember how we played but I remember I'd never seen so many people dressed in black!'
Despite the power of Vaughan and Double Trouble on a concert stage only one official concert video of Stevie Ray Vaughan has been released so far - `Live At The El Mocambo' - though it luckily caught the band on a superb night. `I thought that video came out great,' offers Shannon. `I remember playing that night and I thought, "Yeah, that was a good night," but I didn't realize how good it was until I actually saw that tape. I went, "Damn, we're rockin' on that!"' `The music in our shows never really changed from one type of show to another,' comments Chris. `It wasn't like, "Oh, this is just a club gig" and "Wow, now this is a big gig so let's play different." I remember the gig that came out as `In The Beginning' mainly because it was being recorded by a radio station and broadcast live as we played - that was the first time we had done something like that so it was pretty exciting. It was just like, "Hey guys - this is really neat!"'
`I particularly remember a couple of early, small gigs - one at the Rome Inn in Austin and another at Stubb's in Lubbock. They were the kind of gigs were everything was just perfect and you can do anything and it will work - it was an almost transcendental experience, not just a small club gig. Everyone was playing together as one and it felt like there was a week or so in between the beats. Pretty amazing!'
Not every outing for the band is so fondly remembered. Considering the troupe's personal problems at the time of making the `Live Alive' album, it's pretty amazing they managed to play at all.
Shannon: `It might sound OK to some people - even an OK night for us was still pretty good - but we could all tell things weren't right. `Live Alive' was from the days when Stevie and I were using drugs and drinking a lot and it's kind of like you have to hit a bottom before you can start climbing back up. And not too long after that we both hit our bottom.' In the end much of what you hear on `Live Alive' was the result of overdubbing at various studios purely because the band's original performance was considered so below par. It was at this point the band as a whole realised the substance abuse had to go...
`At first drugs might help your creativity to a certain extent,' reflects Shannon. `But in the long run they make you think you're playing real good when in reality you're not. If you really notice the first record we did where we were clean and sober was `In Step' and all of our playing was a lot better on that than on the past records. But the sex, drugs, rock `n' roll thing... That used to be a big thing back in the `60s and `70s when people kind of expected you to be that way. Nowadays it's not like that at all, it's a lot more serious. Bands don't want someone in the band who's so screwed up they can't play, you know. And the business people don't want to deal with them. You can't get away with that anymore.'
Shannon and Layton were in a unique position to observe how Stevie's playing developed over the years.
`Well, he was kinda more like a straight blues guitarist when I first saw him,' says Chris. `He always liked jazz - `50s jazz, like swing jazz and blues. He listened to that stuff, even though he liked Hendrix and all that kind of stuff. But I think playing in the trio, Double Trouble, he really stretched out, just kinda got more into that kinda wild guitar playing and louder volume and playing more stuff... I think it's probably where he developed playing rhythm and lead at the same time, like he did on `Pride And Joy'. Because he had to - it was the only chording instrument in the band. Most of the other bands he had been in had another guitar player or maybe a Hammond and a sax player so there wasn't so much of a load that he had to carry. From the trio on, it was like chords, melody, rhythm, the whole thing... He kinda rose to the occasion - he could do all of those things at the same time, magically.'
Shannon: `He developed the same way as anyone else develops really - by listening and practising and playing. But Stevie also put his whole life and heart into it. His tone also evolved with his playing - he started using bigger strings to get a fatter sound but he also had his own special touch. I`ve seen him walk in a club when we were out on the road and sit in with a band and playing through some little funky amp and some real funky guitar and it still sounded great because of his technique.'
With the benefit of hindsight, and no matter how well Vaughan was playing at the time, there were several ominous signs in the summer of 1990. Some Stevie's guitars were badly damaged, Stevie was spooked by a fan who gave him an enveloped containing parts of Jimi's grave marker...
`Yeah, but I had no idea anything like that might happen,' reflects Tommy. `When I look back on it now I say to myself it seems like I might have seen some of the signs but at the time I really didn't and thought nothing of those things. I was really shocked when it happened and devastated `cause he was the best friend I ever had in my life and to this day I still love him. I`m not over it by any means.'
`We talked about doing the next record the night that he died,' remembers Chris, `but the only thing he said about it was that he was really excited about it. And we all were. We would have probably started within the following four or five months.'
Meanwhile, life goes on for Shannon and Layton. After the demise of the promising Arc Angels, they've formed a new band, Storyville. Tommy: `It's Chris, myself, Dave Grissom - who played with John Cougar Mellencamp and Joe Ely - and the other guitar player is David Holt who played with the Mavericks and Carlene Carter. Our singer is a new guy but he is unbelievable. So, it's a five-piece band, we've got lots of good songs, we're going to go into the studio hopefully in January and I'm real excited about it. It's not a blues band at all, it's very different from something you'd normally expect out of Chris and myself. Everybody gets along and there's a chemistry that works between us.'
Although the rhythm section have inevitably had to start over, their great pride and joy remains their time with Stevie Ray. Shannon enthuses that his fondest memory as a Double Troubler was, "the whole 10 years! It was all great,' while Layton reflects, `I'll just remember that he kind of amazed me every night. Every time we played I never got bored with him. He was so good. If you can imagine playing many times, many nights every year for almost 13 years you would think that anybody you play with might get kinda boring, you might get kinda tired of listening to `em... But he was always exciting to hear, every night.'
© Douglas J Noble 1996