Almost every rock music fan knows the name Stevie Ray Vaughan. And, even if the blues aren’t your thing, you’ve heard and probably loved his tunes.
One of the most influential electric guitarists of the 20th century, his skillful playing set the stage on fire. How he became a music legend is a fascinating story.
Join us as we discover the journey of this scrawny kid from Texas, taking the world by storm, one lick at a time.
Who Was Stevie Ray Vaughan?
Stevie Ray Vaughan (SRV) was born in Dallas in 1954. The younger brother of famous blues guitarist Jimmie Vaughan, he grew up in the city’s Oak Cliff area. His father, Big Jim, worked in asbestos by day and drank heavily by night, terrorizing his family and friends.
The Vaughan siblings sought comfort in music, with the oldest first taking up the guitar in the early 1960s. By Stevie’s seventh birthday, inspired by his brother’s success, he got his first acoustic instrument.
Stevie never liked school and instead preferred to work on music. Sitting by the radio, he copied licks by classic blues artists like Lonnie Mack until he knew them by heart. Building on that base, he also started working on songs by rock and roll artists like Jimi Hendrix and jazz players. By the time he got his first electric guitar in 1965, he was ready for the big time.
His hand-me-down Fender, a gift from Jimmie, led him to join his first band, the Chantones. Shortly after, at 13, he left them for the Brooklyn Underground and started playing local bars for cash. Even at that young age, his talent was impossible to ignore. He played with several other groups before joining his brother in Texas Storm.
Together, the brothers opened for ZZ Top in 1970, and in between sets, Stevie Ray Vaughan jammed with the band. Witnesses say it was a transcendental moment. He’d found his niche.
When he grew tired of the Dallas music scene, he moved to the legendary Austin music venues with his new band, Blackbird. SRV was a fixture at the blues bars in town for several years, playing with the Nightcrawlers and Paul Ray and the Cobras. Then, after modest success, he formed his band, Triple Threat Revue, in 1977.
The following year, the band changed again and became Double Trouble. It was this group, with Chris Layton on drums and Tommy Shannon on bass, that SRV finally found his crew.
While popular in Texas, the band didn’t launch onto the national stage until their stop at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1982. Even though the acoustic jazz crowd didn’t love them, a few significant connections came out of it.
New Doors Opened
Jackson Browne jammed with them the next night at the Montreux Casino until sunrise. After that, he gave them free access to his studio. David Bowie heard them and invited SRV to play on his hit record Let’s Dance the following year.
Famously, he left the opportunity to tour with Bowie on the table and decided to pursue the recordings made in Browne’s studio instead. What followed made the whole world pay attention.
Texas Flood, released in 1983, led Double Trouble to tour with The Moody Blues, which put them in front of legions of new fans. A second record, Couldn’t Stand the Weather, followed in 1984, and a third, Soul to Soul, in 1985.
A contractual obligation led them to release Live Alive. The album, compiled from recordings of three sold-out shows in Dallas and Austin, captured the pure energy of their concerts. However, SRV’s struggles with drugs and alcohol were impacting the band, and he took a break for rehab after the record’s release in 1985.
The band’s final record, In Step, came out in 1989 to great acclaim. They even played at George H. W. Bush’s inauguration that same year. Listeners loved the new confidence and positive outlook Vaughan brought with sobriety.
Sadly, SRV died tragically in 1990 after the album’s release.
His brother ensured their final recordings saw the light of day with a posthumous release, Family Style. It was the only time both brothers appeared on a record.
Even though Stevie Ray Vaughan’s life was cut short, his impact on the modern blues can’t be understated. Over his time in the limelight, he reshaped the genre and left his mark forever.
Who Influenced Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Music?
The legacy of Stevie Ray Vaughan is unmistakable. And while his spirited playing made him a legend, several notable musicians also played an essential role in shaping his sound.
His first influence, brother Jimmie, slept in the next room while growing up. The older Vaughan also found his way into music at a young age. Their mutual love of the blues kept them connected during their lives, and without him, SRV probably wouldn’t have picked up the axe at all.
Another influence, Jimi Hendrix, gave him his signature swagger. While the pyrotechnic rock guitarist’s playing inspired him, his attitude made a significant impression. At the time, most blues and rock musicians followed a predictable formula.
The blues, after all, is built on a 12-bar structure. By breaking out of the mold and taking space, his idol’s music was a life-changing shift.
As a youngster crouched by the radio learning to play, Stevie loved Lonnie Mack from the start. SRV learned every song and lick by heart. Mack’s faster, leaner style introduced techniques like tremolo picking and vibrato.
Combining these methods, along with several other influences, Stevie Ray Vaughan developed his unique style.
How Did Stevie Ray Vaughan Die?
Unlike many guitarists with substance abuse problems, he didn’t die from drinking and drugs. Instead, on Monday, August 27, 1990, Stevie Ray Vaughan perished in a helicopter accident.
He’d been playing with Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy at Wisconsin’s Alpine Valley Music Theatre late into the night. That evening, after an unbelievably good performance, SRV was headed back to Chicago. Joined by several of Clapton’s tour staff and an unqualified pilot, the men died when their craft crashed into a ski hill.
A Few of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Greatest Songs
Many of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s songs topped the blues charts in the United States throughout his career. And, while his live performances were something special, these recordings capture some of the magic.
Pride and Joy
One of their best-known songs, Double Trouble’s hit Pride and Joy, was the first single off of Texas Flood. Written for a new girlfriend, the tune brags about how much the singer loves his “sweet little baby.”
A classic Texas shuffle, the tune follows the traditional 12-bar blues pattern. SRV speeds things up, though, and uses the form as a framework to solo around.
One of the most popular numbers played by Stevie Ray Vaughan, Cold Shot, is off the Couldn’t Stand the Weather record. A breakup song for the ages, it chronicles a lost love. In contrast to Pride and Joy, it’s a bitter slap in the face.
Another Texas shuffle, the track features his signature choppy chord progressions interspersed with solos. In the tune, you can almost hear his instrument take on a personality as he jams.
Love Struck Baby
Written for his then-wife Lenny, Love Struck Baby is another great single from the Texas Flood record. Recorded in 1982 at Jackson Browne’s studio in Los Angeles, it became a fan favorite in the following years. Borrowing a page from Jimi Hendrix, Vaughan usually played part of the solo behind his head.
Unlike many blues rock soloists, SRV plays several notes simultaneously, returning to his jazz guitar influences. In some ways, the solo on this tune sounds like a swing guitarist laying it down.
Explore more of Vaughan’s best hits: 7 Greatest Stevie Ray Vaughan Songs.
Is There a Documentary About Stevie Ray Vaughan?
In 2023, director Kirby Warnock released a documentary called Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan: Brothers in Blues. Warnock grew up in the same circles as the boys. The film is a love letter to the family’s influence. After writing for Dallas music magazine Buddy, the creator recalls seeing them play together in the late 1970s.
With interviews from some of the biggest names in the blues music scene, you’ll have a new appreciation for their impact on the art form.
Watch the video: Brothers in Blues.
From a Small Texas Town to Eternal Fame
Without a doubt, Stevie Ray Vaughan is an American guitar legend. Playing with some of the biggest names in the blues, he became an icon and tragic hero. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, do yourself a favor and sit down with Double Trouble’s albums and get ready to go to school.
After his death, Eric Clapton called him a “channel” for something outside himself. Listening to SRV play, you can’t help but agree. The sky might be crying over his untimely departure, but his music lives on.