(photo: Robert Knight Archive)
The legacy of Stevie Ray Vaughan is not in his guitar playing. It’s in his heart.
The blues was not born with the Texan guitarist, but it was given a second life. Twenty-five years after his death at age 35 in a freak helicopter crash, many still find the blues synonymous with Vaughan’s name. Many also mistakenly think it died with him in that helicopter on Aug. 27, 1990.
Somehow during the quarter-century since Vaughan’s tragic passing, “blues” has become a bit of a dirty word. Make no mistake, there are still blues players among us: Jack White, Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, and Gary Clark Jr. are all modern-day bluesmen. The difference is… they won’t call themselves that. They bury their blues underneath a lo-fi wink and nod.
The biggest blessing of Stevie Ray Vaughan is that he put the blues first. He revered the tradition, he exalted his heroes (including his big brother Jimmie), and he publicly paid it forward. Everyone else called Stevie Ray Vaughan a “guitar hero” (a tired phrase). He called himself a blues musician.
…It’s the reason he showed up on the doorstep of Austin blues club Antone’s at age 21 to play with his mentor, Albert King. He was supposed to play one song. He played all night.
…It’s the reason he caught David Bowie’s attention when Stevie Ray played the famed Montreaux Jazz Festival in 1982.
…It’s the reason he walked away from David Bowie after playing on Bowie’s massive 1983 album Let’s Dance, turning down a tour so he could play with his own band Double Trouble.
…It’s the reason he was awarded a Blues Foundation Award in 1984 — the first white player to ever receive one.
…It’s the reason he shared the last gig of his life (at the Alpine Valley Resort in East Troy, Wisconsin, right before he boarded that helicopter) with greats like Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, and Robert Cray.
We are still astounded by Vaughan not because of his playing but because of his spirit. His heart told his fingers what to do.
Now, the downside of Stevie Ray’s legacy. It lives in every musician who confuses virtuosity with soul — who forgets that flamboyance is not the same as having something to say. Blues great (and Vaughan’s mentor)Albert King said it plainly: “There’s a lot of guitar players out here. They just play… they play fast, they don’t concentrate on no soul.”
Like Jimi Hendrix before him and every other fallen hero thrust into immortality, Vaughan has spawned a generation of wannabes, weekend warriors, and weak imitators. They all should watch this masterclass between the student and his teacher. It’s about space and tone.
The Lost Lessons
Anyone who cares about the blues should be grateful to Vaughan. I wish we had someone now who was brave enough to call himself a blues musician first. This music did not die with Stevie Ray Vaughan, but it is most definitely fading.
Vaughan’s memory should not be kept alive with tired guitar jams and note-for-note recreations of his solos. His legacy should be secured by bringing the blues back from the fringes. Twenty-five years later, it’s time we remember what Vaughan knew: That the blues is the most direct connection a musician can make to his heart. It’s music for those brave enough to tap into their soul instead of their ego. It’s a celebration of the spirit in all its unexpected beauty and pain.
Here’s my plea to Dan Auerbach, Jack White, John Mayer, Gary Clark, Jr., Benjamin Booker, and anyone who knows they are playing blues night after night, even if your fans don’t: Please, call yourself blues musicians. The music stays alive by calling it what it is. Stevie Ray knew this.
The blues did not die with Stevie Ray Vaughan. But it is up to us to keep it alive.
Here’s the final word: Stevie Ray and his big brother doing what they love.