It's hard to imagine someone else playing the blues for Stevie Ray Vaughan. He spent a short lifetime making the blues distinctly his.
Wielding an explosive electric guitar and a voice as parched as a West Texas windstorm, Vaughan created flat-out, high-volume music, winning the affection of blues traditionalists and rock-and-rollers alike. Nobody played harder, better or with more conviction. No one made the blues more real.
Vaughan, who died in a helicopter crash last week at age 35, was perhaps the first baby boomer to carve a place for himself in America's blues hierarchy. He played music for his generation, blending traditional blues forms with the raw power of rockers like his idol, Jimi Hendrix. He overwhelmed listeners with flawless guitar technique, dizzying improvisations and the sheer force of his performances.
But how Vaughan played was never as important as how he made you feel. An up-from-nothing Texan, Vaughan spent years on the Lone Star roadhouse circuit and never strayed far from his roots. He became a near legend in his adopted hometown of Austin and kept his music basic, stripped down and direct. It's a high compliment to call Vaughan and his backup group, Double Trouble, the ultimate bar band.
For me, Vaughan's music had always been the spiritual equivalent of straight bourbon, stuff to make boys feel like men and men feel like boys again. Vaughan at his best was just too hot for old folks; as long as he played I was never old.
Vaughan's life was a slightly updated version of the classic bluesman's biography. He grew up in a marginal Dallas neighborhood, the son of an asbestos worker and a secretary. He picked up the guitar from his older brother, Jimmie, and virtually never put it down again. After playing in a series of local bands, he dropped out of high school during his senior year and joined his brother in Austin.
Stevie became a regular on the Austin club circuit, and Jimmie joined a group called the Fabulous Thunderbirds, which had several national hits. (Jimmie recently struck out on his own.) But it was Stevie who, in a town full of musicians, developed a style that made him a local hero.
Vaughan's music was not for the faint of heart. His guitar solos were piercing and blindingly fast, his chords rich and deep enough to echo like any two average guitarists'. His raspy singing voice cut through lyrics like a chain saw. And he backed himself up with only a drummer and a bass player, the classic power trio of rock-and-roll.
From the beginning, Vaughan delighted blues purists with his feeling and instrumental virtuosity; his guitar seemed to be plugged directly into his nervous system. But for a generation raised on rock-and-roll, Vaughan fit naturally into a line of "guitar heroes" that included Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend, players whose big sounds were the ultimate manifestation of rock. Vaughan's playing got respect at the same time it moved teenage boys into seizures of "air guitar" frenzy.
His stage presence melded perfectly with his bigger-than-life sound. His guitar talked and, for the most part, he didn't. He wore wide-brimmed bolero hats and cowboy boots, and often dressed in black. On a recent album cover he topped off the ensemble with a Mexican serape, mimicking the look of Clint Eastwood's spaghetti-western gunfighter.
The world outside Texas discovered Vaughan about eight years ago through the efforts of the late John Hammond Sr., the legendary producer who helped develop the careers of Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and Bruce Springsteen. With Hammond's encouragement, Vaughan and his band appeared at Switzerland's prestigious Montreaux Festival in 1982, and according to one writer, "reduced the stage to a pile of smoking cinders." He quickly recorded an album with David Bowie and the next year released an album of his own, appropriately titled "Texas Flood."
The record was an immediate success, selling more than 500,000 copies, and began a steady stream of honors and achievements that would continue through this year. His second album would sell more than 1 million copies, and he would release three more. Vaughan won two Grammy Awards, in 1984 and 1990, and readers of Guitar Player magazine named him best electric blues player five times. Last year the magazine named him to its "Gallery of the Greats."
But national success changed only one thing about Vaughan's music: He played it in a better class of dives. Hours before he died last week he joined several guitarists, including Clapton and bluesman Robert Cray, in a concert before 30,000 people at a Wisconsin amphitheater. And in an era of MTV flash, when most rock stars act like Rockettes, Vaughan showed off the same way Hendrix did: He played his guitar with his teeth.
Vaughan came to Capital Centre last January to appear in an all-star concert that was part of President Bush's inaugural ceremonies; the event was put together by Lee Atwater, a high-profile blues aficionado who managed Bush's 1988 campaign. Bush appeared onstage just before Vaughan's segment, which closed the show.
Though success did not dilute Vaughan's music, it took a personal toll. In 1986, after passing out onstage in London, he acknowledged that he was addicted to drugs and alcohol. In typically laconic fashion, Vaughan told one interviewer, "I almost died, and it got my attention."
Both Vaughan and his drummer underwent apparently successful treatment. At recent concerts Vaughan proudly declared his band drug free; one of his recent songs, "Wall of Denial," recounts his struggle with addiction.
The timing of Vaughan's death was cruelly ironic. His associates say he was particularly optimistic about the future. His latest album, "In Step," had been received well by critics and the public. He had already completed an album with his brother, which is scheduled for release next month.
His most fitting tribute came in Austin, where the night after his death thousands gathered in a city park for a sort of blues requiem. And the most eloquent eulogy was delivered half a continent away by blues guitar legend Buddy Guy, who had played with Vaughan at his last concert.
"He played the blues like he wanted to play the blues," Guy said. "He played and put blues in places that we, even Muddy Waters, didn't do."