My first impression of Stevie Ray Vaughan was that he did not have a real singing voice. It was one of those voices that people who were real good at something else, like writing (Dylan, Leonard Cohen), guitar (Jimi Hendrix) or angst (Cobain) were allowed to sing their own songs because, well, it kept it real. For this reason, I stayed away from him until it was almost too late. Listening to KXRX in the late 1980’s and early 90’s, I was exposed to his intricate fretwork on the In Step album. Before long, I was hooked. Loving what I heard pushed me to study more about who he was and what he did. This being before the internet, my only recourse was the library. There I would read up on artists I liked, whether it was books like Rolling Stone’s complete reviews, old issues of Rolling Stone and Billboard magazine. From there I often was pointed to other works that might be good, including those done by artists that influenced my subject.
In this case, my research led me to discover that I had been a fan of SRV’s work before I even knew who he was. Just before he broke through to the blues and guitar loving world (which I was not a part of at the time), he played on David Bowie’s Let’s Dance album, pushing it to 3x more record sales than he’d ever experienced in his earlier 2 decade career. To be fair, Bowie’s never sold as many records since, either. His work on that album, and on the 3 hits in particular (the title track, China Girl and Modern Love) is one of the two most striking things about the work, the other being Bowie’s decidedly middle-aged paramour vocal styling.
From there, SRV started the recording career with his longtime band, Double Trouble, releasing a series of increasingly excellent albums. Each album stands on its own for tight playing, great lyrics and remarkable guitar. My reaction to Vaughan’s voice was more out of ignorance rather than an understanding of music, or the blues in particular. My journey through the past revealed how much I had to learn and how much knowledge and appreciation SRV had for his forebears.
Through SRV, I discovered a doorway to the blues. I had peeked once in a while before, with music by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and the duo of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Led Zeppelin had started out as a tribute band to the blues, even if they did not pay tribute through royalties for many years. SRV was different. He was a student who became the master, while staying in the blues ballpark.
Whenever people told me how much they liked Jimi Hendrix, I could only tell them that all of his best songs were done better by Stevie Ray. He loved Jimi more than I did. I would not listen to him at all, were it not for Stevie Ray.
The first time I remember seeing SRV play was on the video for Superstition, a cover of Stevie Wonder’s classic. I wasn’t paying too much attention when it was released, but I should have. The original was a great song that Vaughan made even better. To find out later that it was live is even more revealing. This is his band: Tommy Shannon, Chris “Whipper” Layton and Reese Wynans, at the top of their game. No one, though, was as intense as SRV.
Stevie’s brother, Jimmie, went further up the charts and into my mind around this same time with Tuff Enuff, a song by his band, The Fabulous Thunderbirds. I spent many hours playing this song on my walkman in the summer of my 15th year. I couldn’t afford the album, though. I just recorded it off of the radio. They had one more minor hit after that, but I didn’t hear about them until I discovered that in the wake of his successful return to health (which is what In Step was about), SRV and Jimmie took the opportunity to make an album together. I, along with the rest of the world, were waiting for this album to be released when a helicopter accident claimed his life in August of 1990.
The subsequent months did not stop my discovery of SRV. I bought all of his albums, and bought all of the reissues. The posthumous collections and live albums. I even saw the Arc Angels live, with Charlie Sexton and Doyle Bramhall II. I have enjoyed them all thoroughly to this day.
My views will include songs from all walks of his career, even if it was a one off with someone or a song from a soundtrack. If you are sensing a theme here, it’s true. I will be singing the praises of Doyle Bramhall a lot. I am sure that Vaughan would have done the same. He even patterned his vocal style after his best friend. He only released 3 albums himself so far, but someday I will give him his own article.
My favorite Stevie Ray Vaughan songs:
- Change It – Soul to Soul: “Get away from the blind side of life / Honey, I want you to be by my side / Me and my back door moves ain’t no more…no more” This lyric says more about the state of SRV before sobriety than any other. There is a resonance when one ponders the strong possibility that it’s writer (Bramhall) was writing in some small way about the singer. This is the song I associate with their friendship more than any other. The video is iconic, Stevie was a guitar God, even while he sang about his own frailty.
- Life By The Drop – The Sky Is Crying: A song so sad because it’s such a relief. The journey “away from the blind side of life,” had been made, and their friendship survived. The good times were in the distance ahead. “Time’s been between us….A means to an end / God it’s good to be here walkin’ together my friend.” Then time just stopped.
- Couldn’t Stand The Weather – Couldn’t Stand The Weather: The title track to the second album is a daunting musical adventure. It’s blues, with a jazz tint. It’s riff acts like it’s sneaking across an open dark field, stopping occasionally to avoid the spotlight. Then “…it’s time to get ready for the storm.” It’s a song so cool, it even survived the goofy as hell video and those goggles.
- Crossfire – In Step: Written by the band as a plea for Stevie to get his life together. By the time it was recorded, he was on his way. He had moved into the next phase. From young hotshot to elder statesman. Or maybe it was the poncho. “…Trust nobody don’t be no fool….Whatever happened to the golden rule?…” This is so well sung, you almost forget the guitar work. I love the complete sound of the band on this one.
- Life Without You – Live Alive (LP) / In Step (extra tracks live): No one feels the word “Friend” the way SRV did. Perhaps the best guitar lyric he ever produced, for the untimely death of the man who made his Strat. As for written lyrics, try to top this “…The angels have waited for so long….Now they have their way / Take your place….”
- Wall of Denial – In Step: The guitar totally wins here, even if the singing is great. The way the guitar rises and falls is mesmerizing.
- Willie the Wimp (Live) – SRV: Almost sinful. The story is great, the guitar solo is searing, and then there is that shuffle. My oh my, what a shuffle.
- Look At Little Sister – Soul To Soul: I was in love with someone’s little sister at one point, and this song epitomized the scandal I felt. She knew what she was doing. I didn’t.
- Superstition – Live Alive: It starts off like an old jalopy that has trouble starting, and then Reese Wynans jumps in with that Garth Hudson like keyboard. Stevie takes this Wonder classic out, shakes it off, and goes roaring into the void.
- The House Is A Rockin’ – In Step: If this song was done by anyone else, it would be laughable. In the hands of SRV and Double Trouble, it is a party starter.
- Cold Shot – Live At Carnegie Hall: Blues to a Texas shuffle personified. This feels like an ice cold drink in the shade on a 100 degree day, heading into night. It’s a cover, but it sure doesn’t feel like one to me.
- You’ll Be Mine – Soul To Soul: I love the beautiful confidence here. A rollicking shuffle, an open heart and convincing guitar. His update of Willie Dixon retains the optimism and amps up the soul.
- Pride and Joy – Texas Flood: The first Texas Flood song to make an appearance. It is a signature SRV song, only Stevie Ray and Tom Petty (Here Comes My Girl) could come up with a description of his significant other that seems paternal without being condescending.
- Ain’t Gone ‘n’ Give Up On Love – Soul to Soul: Straight up blues. He’s talking through the bottle here and he sings this song like it was 100 years old.
- Travis Walk – In Step: Texas Shuffle hopped up on the kind of energy love of life can give. The band is tight and the riff is simple. ELP on steroids.
- Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) – Couldn’t Stand The Weather: I was listening to Couldn’t Stand the Weather one day while helping my girlfriend’s father in their garage. When this came on, he stopped what he was doing, stood still in the middle of the drive and listened straight through. When it was finished, he looked at me and said “He didn’t miss a note.” This is the most the man ever said to me, and it’s about as close as I ever arrived at a compliment from him.
- Tightrope – In Step: More 12 stepping from his recovery celebration album. It’s redundant, but, given his collaboration with Bramhall, it has great lyrics. “…There was love all around me / But I was looking for revenge / Thank God it never found me / It would have been the end…”
- Hard To Be – Family Style: “Roll now. Just…feel somethin'”
- The Sky Is Crying – The Sky Is Crying: Mayhaps this should be higher. You try knocking a few songs off their perch. This would be the top of most blues players repertoires.
- Long Way From Home – Family Style: The most rambunctious aggressive song from The Vaughan Brothers album. Doyle Bramhall lays the blues tracks. Stevie slowly drags his engine down them. Theirs was a marriage made in music heaven.
- Let Me Love You Baby – In Step: Sounding like this…most women would say he doesn’t have to beg.
- Mary Had A Little Lamb – Live Alive: Rips this song away from Buddy Guy. Never gives it back.
- Scuttlebuttin’ – Live At Carnegie Hall: Blistering is not a word that can do it justice. Starts off in such a supercharged fashion, it feels like a storm ripped the house of the hinges.
- Love Struck Baby – Texas Flood: So aggressively in love.
- Pipeline (with Dick Dale) – Back To The Beach Soundtrack: Stevie was the only one who could steal a song right out from you while giving reverence.
Stevie is the best guitar player I have ever heard. I dearly wish that I could have seen him play live. Something tells me that he would have been bigger now than ever. Better for me than his incredible Stratocaster skills was the passion and joy in his voice, and the resonance of his lyrics. Whenever I think of giving thanks, I think of Stevie Ray, and it always arrives as earnestly as possible. He always loved what he was gifted enough to do. So much so, he always worked on getting better.