You Can Take the Boy Out of Texas, but You Can't Take Texas Out of Blues' Golden Boy Stevie Ray Vaughan
"Stevie Ray Vaughan," he twanged. "From Austin, Texas." He didn't say much more. He didn't need to. David Bowie snatched him up, stuck him on his '82 Let's Dance LP and wanted to take him on the road. Mick Jagger held a private audition for him in New York. Jackson Browne jammed with him all night and gave him free use of his L.A. studio. The subsequent album was deemed the hottest blues debut in years; the next went gold in the U.S., Canada and even New Zealand.
For a kid who failed music theory in high school, the past two years have been a wild ride from the outhouse to the "in" house, from local legend to stardom, from sleeping on club floors to playing Carnegie Hall. If Stevie's dizzy from this sudden height, it ain't showin'. At the moment he's sitting cross-legged underneath a cloud of cigarette smoke within the dimly lit confines of Antone's, Austin's hottest blues joint. It's 3 a.m., most of the band has gone home, and Stevie's still onstage, zinging blues licks off the wall, the sound bouncing left, right and out into the night. Not more than 24 hours earlier, two feathery-costumed L.A. "Yanks" had announced this year's Grammy nominees, and for the second year in a row, Stevie, 30, was nominated in two categories.
Blue smoke from his cigarette curls toward the ceiling. The red cowboy hat is tipped down low, obscuring his face. He's wearing a red jacket, jeans and white fur-covered boots that he picked up in Norway. He pauses to extinguish his cigarette, then fires yet another blazing torrent of flame that rides the walls and sets a table of onlookers to laughing. "Shoot," says Paul Ray Henry, 42, a local blues old-timer, "that ain't nuthin'. You shoulda seen Stevie when he was 12. He could play a cigar box with strings on it."
Stevie slides his lean, 5'11", 150-pound frame behind the wheel of his '82 rented Cadillac, places a glass brimming with a double shot of Beefeater on the dash and says, "C'mon, man, let's ride." The ride is going to be short. Up a street, over a bridge, down an intersection or two—and back to Antone's, his second home.
On the way, he pops a tape into a newly purchased portable cassette player. Howlin' Wolf's voice croaks over the car interior. This Caddy ain't bad, though not as nice as that "new" 75 red Chevy Caprice he just bought that's got his name painted across the door on the driver's side. Stevie's gone through enough heaps to start a junkyard. There was his '64 Cadillac—"a beautiful car, but the engine and transmission was just shot to hell"—a '63 Ford Falcon, a '68 Riviera that gathered weeds in the engine before he junked it, and a mid-'60s Chrysler New Yorker he picked up for $30. "The guy told me if I would go and get a booster pump for the brakes and put it on, he'd help, just so long as I got that car outta his sight."
Stevie pulls up to Antone's and says, "Wait a minute. I got to brush off my dogs." He strokes his Norwegian boots with a comb, then heads inside to see friends, including his "best friend in the world," guitarist Denny Freeman. ("Denny's an oddity around here," Paul Ray says. "He can read music") Also hanging out are vocalist Angela Strehli, who performed with Stevie at his October 1984 sold-out Carnegie Hall debut; Paul Ray, who once let Stevie and his guitar-playing older brother, Jimmie Lee, set up shop in the closet of his cramped Dallas apartment when the three played in a band called the Cobras; and club owner Clifford Antone, whose only house rule is: "So long as the music's playin', we don't never close."
Stevie jumps onstage to trade licks with Angela. They go at it rough-and-tumble for a good 45 minutes, then head to the back office for respite. Stevie stumbles in first, grabs a beer, winks. Angela's right behind him. "Stevie," she says, "you play louder than God." Laughs all around.
Stevie's first wife is named First Wife. She's a '59 Stratocaster Rosewood with '58 Gibson jumbo bass frets and a left-hand vibrato switch. His second wife is named Charlie. She's white, from Dallas, with a purple glint to her and only one volume and tone knob. His third wife is named Lenny, a human being he married Dec. 23, 1979 in the dressing room of a club called the Rome Inn just before a gig. "Her father came that night and he told me, 'I got a surprise for you. All the relatives are coming tonight.' I said, 'I got a surprise for you—we're getting married tonight.' " A minister friend performed the ceremony. Stevie's take for the evening: $5. All his musician friends got in free.
"We wanted to spend Christmas together," explains Lenny, 31. The two, who have no children, recently purchased a home on eight and a half acres in Valente, 35 miles northwest of Austin. While searching for this haven, Stevie took to carrying Lenny across the threshold of every house they considered buying, but his back couldn't take it.
"Do you ride a wheelbarrow?" he asked her one day.
"I rode one as a kid," she said. "You ever ride one?"
"Naw. I rode my Silvertone amp."
Stevie rode that Silvertone and whatever else he could find down whatever trails Jimmie Lee—now 33 and lead guitarist with the popular Texas band, the Fabulous Thunderbirds—could cut. At the ripe old ages of 12 and 15, the two worked gigs, scouted clubs, traded guitars and hung out in every Dallas blues spot they could find, black or white. "Never had no trouble in black clubs," Stevie says. "Why should I? We was makin' music, man. We was havin' fun."
Stevie's dad, Jimmie Lee, a retired asbestos worker, and mom, Martha, a secretary for a Dallas ready-mix cement plant, found it difficult at first to understand why their two children were so infatuated with playing guitars at all hours of the night. They've long since become the biggest Vaughan fans of all. "I can't tell you what my parents mean to me," Stevie says. "What they've done for me, my brother. We have a lot to pay back for."
At 17, in his senior year, he left high school. Miffed by the Top 40 music scene in Dallas clubs, he struck out for Austin—still following in Jimmie Lee's tracks. Stints in the Blackbirds, Texas Storm and the Cobras followed. Stevie strummed away the years in bits and pieces—from 10 p.m. 'til 6 each morning—in Texas joints like The Fox, The Funky Monkey and The Cellar, accompanied by dancing strippers and bartenders serving up fake alcohol. Once, for a couple of months, he slept on the floor of a club, near the radiator. Not so bad, he decided: "I was playin' my music and havin' fun."
In 1977 he formed Triple Threat, which eventually evolved into the current Double Trouble—Stevie, Johnny Winter alumnus Tommy Shannon, 36, and drummer Chris "Whipper" Layton, 29. The trio might still be playing the same old gigs had not Stevie's manager, Chesley Milliken, sent longtime friend Mick Jagger a videotape of Stevie performing live. Jagger was so impressed that he arranged for a much-publicized private audition at New York's Danceteria in the spring of 1982. At the same time, Milliken persuaded producer Jerry Wexler to book Stevie at Switzerland's prestigious Montreux festival, where his 10-minute performance of Flood Down In Texas so rocked the house that the Atlantic recording received a Grammy award for this year's Best Traditional Blues Recording.
With material from his last two albums (a third is scheduled for release in June), he sold out all last year in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and across the U.S., slaying guitar-starved audiences with rousing, to-the-death solos and a rasping soul voice that bespeaks a man who's met the blues personally. Comparisons with other guitar greats, particularly Jimi Hendrix, are inevitable.
"What I'm trying to do is take everything that's ever excited me and put it together," Stevie says. "The problem with this music is that record companies don't recognize it enough, and a lot of the great players before me—and even now—aren't getting the credit they deserve. I'll go back to bars before I ever go commercial, because it's important to keep this music alive."