This song changed my life. I’d finished college at Tulane in the spring of 1983, had knee surgery that summer, and still recuperating as fall approached I couldn’t think of anything better to do than revisit New Orleans (most people didn’t believe I’d actually graduated and wasn’t just there for a 5th year). It was the end of a Saturday night, and I was returning from a regular haunt, Fat Harry’s, getting a ride from my friend Cam, a genuine Texan and the only guy I knew with a pickup truck (which he called a Cowboy Cadillac). I laid down in the back of that flat bed, looking up at the stars as we cruised along St. Charles Avenue and feeling the impossible humidity of the Crescent City in late August. Cam yelled back for me to check out a new tape of this guitarist he knew from back home, and on came ‘Love Struck Baby.’ It was revolutionary. I’d certainly heard blues before, but I’d never heard anything like this, and for the instant impact it had on me, I don’t think I ever have since: this was my “Beatles on Ed Sullivan” moment. I’ve enjoyed many amazing guitar players in my life, but I’ve still never heard anyone like Stevie Ray.
I immediately got that transformative album, Texas Flood – which, incredibly, was recorded in just 2 days, and with no overdubs – listened to it over and over, then began going back in time, to the blues artists Stevie Ray had been inspired and influenced by – I’d say chiefly Lightning Hopkins and Albert King – and soon maniacally chasing all over the blues map, starting with the other two blues Kings, B.B. and Freddie, then Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland, Lonnie Mack, Johnny Winter, T-Bone Walker, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, Howlin’ Wolf, Son Seals, Roy Buchanan, Fenton Robinson, Gatemouth Brown, Gary Moore, Duke Robillard, Hound Dog Taylor, and on and on (and oh yeah, even some Jimi Hendrix). I was obsessed with the blues; hooked, fixated and engrossed with it for a solid 20 years. Texas Flood changed the direction of my musical life, and I’d still consider blues to be my #1 music category.
Interestingly though, besides my late night ride with Cam it might never have happened if not for a decidedly non-blues character by the name of David Bowie. Bowie saw Vaughan in 1982 at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, and later concisely said of his performance, “He completely floored me.” So Bowie recruited the largely unknown Vaughan to play on his next album, 1983’s Let’s Dance, and in some ways provided Stevie Ray his big break. You can hear SRV’s percussive guitar scratching as the very first sounds to open the album on the track ‘Modern Love’ and his distinctive playing and soloing on ‘China Girl’, ‘Let’s Dance’ and ‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire)’ among others. The momentous Texas Flood album would be released just two months later.
On August 27, 1990, after departing an all-star jam session on a foggy night in Wisconsin, Stevie Ray Vaughan was killed in a helicopter crash at age 35: this was my “Kennedy was shot” moment. He had put out just four studio albums, and had only recently become sober, conquering a long battle with alcohol and drugs. I’ll always remember being in my office when the news came on the radio, where I remained sitting stunned, silent for minutes, as co-workers wondered what had come over me. I’d seen Stevie Ray perform live, along with his sensational backing band Double Trouble, probably a dozen times, but at that moment had to instantly face that I never would again. When his next album was released only a month later – Family Style, a celebratory, first-ever collaboration with his brother Jimmie – it almost made it even more painful.
Naturally I wasn’t the only one to be so affected by him. None other than Eric Clapton, considered by many to be history’s greatest rock/blues guitarist, had much to say about SRV: “There was no one better than him on this planet. Really unbelievable. I don’t think anyone has commanded my respect more, to this day.” He also had a similar first listening experience to mine. “The first time I heard Stevie Ray, I thought, ‘Whoever this is, he is going to shake the world.’ I was in my car and I remember thinking, I have to find out, before the day is over, who that guitar player is. That doesn’t happen to me very often, that I get that way about listening to music. I mean, about three or four times in my life I’ve felt that way, in a car, listening to the radio, where I’ve stopped the car, pulled over, listened, and thought, I’ve got to find out before the end of the day, not, you know, sooner or later, but I have to know NOW who that is.” In describing his playing, Clapton said, “I remember being fascinated by the fact that he never, ever seemed to be…lost in any way…It was as though he never took a breather…or took a pause to think where he was gonna go next, it just flowed out of him. It’s going to be a long time before anyone that brilliant will come along again. I didn’t get to see or hear Stevie play near often enough, but every time I did I got chills and knew I was in the presence of greatness. He seemed to be an open channel and music just flowed through him. It never seemed to dry up.” And finally, Clapton has related this about Vaughan’s last shows: “We played on the same bill on his last two gigs. On the first night, I watched his set for about half an hour and then I had to leave because I couldn’t handle it! I knew enough to know that his playing was just going to get better and better. His set had started, he was like two or three songs in, and I suddenly got this flash that I’d experienced before so many times whenever I’d seen him play, which was that he was like a channel. One of the purest channels I’ve ever seen, where everything he sang and played flowed straight down from heaven. Almost like one of those mystic Sufi guys with one finger pointing up and one finger down. That’s what it was like to listen to. And I had to leave just to preserve some kind of sanity or confidence in myself.” I honestly don’t know what a mystic Sufi guy is but it sounds pretty impressive, and other than that it’s hard to improve on what Slowhand said. Still, I’ll give the last word about my Guitar Hero to the incomparable King Of The Blues, Mr. B.B. King (now, of course, also gone). “His ideas were limitless. He flowed. He was like water, constantly drippin’ with rhythm. It’s a loss not just to the music, it’s a loss to people as a whole. He was just such a nice man. I tell you the truth, it really hurts. The only thing that keeps me from crying is knowing the joy that he brought to us.”
In 1993 when my wife became pregnant with our first child and we found out it was going to be a boy, I actually suggested Stevie Ray for his name. Truthfully, I’m not 100% sure what would’ve happened if she’d agreed but…no, she wasn’t quite feeling it. Her perhaps somewhat lesser adoration of SRV aside, I had to admit that Stevie Ray matched up with the last name of ‘Goldstein’ probably would’ve been a bit much.
The Stevie Ray Vaughan memorial in Austin, Texas