In Dallas two weeks ago, a couple from Finland stood silently at the grave of guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. After 20 minutes or so, the Finnish man reached into his pocket and walked to the tombstone. He took something out and clicked it across the letters in the name, then bent down and brushed his hand across the grass that covers Stevie Ray. An onlooker asked what he was doing, and the Finn opened his hand to reveal a stack of guitar picks. "Now I play better," he said in lilting English.
Richard Luckett, who witnessed the pick blessing, toured with Vaughan as a merchandiser for a year and a half. He was present at Alpine Valley, Wisconsin, that night in August 1990 when Vaughan died in a helicopter accident. "Stevie was a kind and humble man, considering how talented he was," Luckett said. "I never had the chance to say goodbye, which is why I went to the cemetery."
Many more mourners never met Vaughan, but felt a kinship with him through his stinging guitar solos and his knowing vibrato. Like the kinship Stevie Ray says he himself felt with his gods.
Every era has had its guitar heroes. The Fifties had Link Wray and Duane Eddy; in the Sixties it was Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton who were called "god"; the Seventies, a decade of virtuosity, found Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and John McLaughlin being worshiped. The Eighties belonged to Stevie Ray Vaughan, who made the blues palatable to suburban kids, as well as to the rabbit-fur jacket and Jack Daniel's crowd. After the release of his debut, Texas Flood, in 1983, Vaughan became a mainstay atop the Guitar Player magazine reader's poll. Though he received virtually no airplay, all his albums went gold or platinum and his concerts were almost unanimous sellouts. He inspired air-guitar solos like rain does umbrellas. The flashy Texan was the most important guitarist to emerge in the Eighties, and after his death his throng is more populous, more fanatical, than ever. Is it possible that Vaughan can also be the guitar hero of the Nineties? Besides having three books currently being written about him, Vaughan's recorded output is stronger than ever. Rush-released a month after his passing, Family Style, the uneven duet with brother Jimmie Vaughan, went platinum almost instantly, peaking at No. 6--no Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble album had ever reached higher than No. 31. What's more, November marked the birth of a new record by Vaughan and his band, The Sky Is Crying. One week after its release, the album entered the Billboard charts at No. 10. Vaughan has become much more popular after his death. That's called the "`Bobby McGee' Equation."
Unlike other posthumously released outtakes and jam sessions by Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, however, The Sky Is Crying ranks up there with Stevie Ray Vaughan's best albums. Sure, these previously unreleased studio tracks from 1984-89 smack of an attempt to cash in on the heightened interest in the tragic guitar god, but what makes this record special is that it's a relaxed tribute--not to Vaughan, but by Vaughan--to the guitarists who influenced him. Stevie Ray was, first and foremost, a fan; all great young blues guitarists are. You can't help but hear the ecstasy in his fingers and his underrated voice as he covers songs made famous by Albert King, Lonnie Mack, Jimi Hendrix, Kenny Burrell, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf.
Fourteen months before his death, I was asked to ghostwrite a story entitled "My Guitar Heroes by Stevie Ray Vaughan." We decided that Stevie would give a monologue about his idols, with occasional prodding by me, then I would translate his ramble to article form. Having interviewed Vaughan four years earlier, during his days of abusing drugs and alcohol, I knew how withdrawn he could be. His rehabilitation had been well-publicized, yet I still had trouble picturing Vaughan as anything but the painfully shy person whose whole life was the shapely peninsula of wood and wires he held in his hand.
When Vaughan started talking about his heroes, however, his speech was articulate and full of zest. Intervention on my part was almost completely unnecessary as he recounted important guitar players in his life. His first major influence was brother Jimmie, three and a half years older, who introduced Stevie to T-Bone Walker, Lightnin' Hopkins and John Lee Hooker, among others. Stevie was 9 at the time. "The first record I ever bought was `Wham' by Lonnie Mack," Stevie recalled. "I went into a record store and asked the guy at the counter to recommend a single with great guitar playing, and he played `Wham' for me. That was it, man. For the next few weeks, I listened to it over and over again." The new LP contains an explosive version of "Wham" that proves Stevie wasn't lying. His effortlessly fiery treatment sounds like it's a song he's always known.
Way back when, however, Jimmie got tired of hearing the same record blasting from his brother's room. So he started turning Stevie on to more complex music, like Kenny Burrell (mostly in collaboration with organist Jimmy Smith). Burrell is represented on The Sky Is Crying with "Chitlins Con Carne," which is soulful and soothing, though Stevie probably wouldn't have released it if he was still alive. "I love to listen to jazz, but I'm not good enough to play it," he said with his usual modesty.
Blues was always Vaughan's forte and, with vivid clarity, he remembered the day that he decided to become a blues musician. "I was 12 and working as a dishwasher at a restaurant near home," he said. "One of my jobs was to take out the trash and once when I was doing it, I slipped on something and fell about ten feet on top of a huge barrel where we put all the hot grease. Luckily, the lid was on it or I could've been scalded real bad. Well, the owner came out and saw that I had cracked the lid with my fall, so she started yelling at me. I could've been killed and all she cared about was her damn lid." Stevie quit right there and stomped home "as angry as I've ever been, before or since," he said. "I put on an Albert King record as loud as it would go and right then I decided that I was going to be like Albert King. I've never had another job besides guitar player since." The title track of The Sky Is Crying finds Vaughan aping every bend and stroke of King's version of the Elmore James tune.
One of the new record's most impressive renditions is an instrumental take on Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing," with Vaughan's white Stratocaster showing uncharacteristic restraint. Stevie--whose death wasn't self-inflicted by a crazed lifestyle, as his hero Jimi's was--seems to be saddened by the fate of his idol as he vibrates the strings. "When I was a teenager, Jimi was what did it for me," Stevie recalled. "He taught me how to play with emotion, how to find that one right note, the one that goes right to your knees." As a young adult, Vaughan dressed as Hendrix on Halloween and adopted other elements of Jimi's persona during the 364 other days of the year. Like the Fistful of Dollars hat. Like the scarves and kimono shirts. Like LSD, speed, heroin, cocaine and alcohol. "I wanted to be so much like Jimi that I almost died like him," Vaughan said.
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But he didn't die like Jimi.
"I put on an Albert King record as loud as it would go and right then I decided that I was going to be like Albert King."
Hendrix taught Stevie Ray "how to play with emotion, how to find that one right note, the one that goes right to your knees.