Having sneaked backstage at a C.W. Post College concert on Long Island in 1979, my buddies and I furtively moved around the backstage area, not wanting to attract any attention and look like we belonged. We did not want to get kicked out.
Trying to appear as if we were deep in appropriate backstage conversation, we looked over and there was the target of our admiration and backstage list shenanigans, Stevie Ray Vaughan (SRV) on a pay phone, deep in conversation. He wore the hat, slung low over his eyes and when he finally hung up (it seemed like forever as we waited) and walked our way, his sparkly eyes fixed upon us and he said, "How y'all?"
We chattered like excited schoolgirls in his wake and to this day, have a story for the ages.
There are lots of grizzled rock 'n rollers like me with stories like that about Stevie Ray. He was that kind of guitarist: part Hendrix, part Clapton, part B.B. King and had oh so many influences. Jeff Beck, Albert King, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Buddy Guy, Billy Gibbons, Johnny Winter and so many others. SRV caught the attention tidal wave of blues rockers from Texas to Taiwan, from Dallas to Dresden and from Austin to Adelaide by reflecting his Blues/Rock influences and then influencing many others. Even Kirk Hammett of Metallica was taken with the SRV style, as evidenced by this Guitar World article.
There are tons of photos of SRV but one is the most iconic, the most profound of them all. It's referred to as "Last Call."
Photo credit: Copyright © 1997 - W.A. Williams
Truth be told, there never was a 'last call' for Stevie Ray Vaughn ... he was taken away from the world far too quickly; too abruptly. After one last, tremendous encore, he went out with a blaze of glory in a fiery helicopter crash--swept away by a terrifying storm.
I've heard from those who were there, that SRV's last concert in Alpine Valley, Wisconsin was unusually strong and presciently good. Playing with the Blues/Rock creme de la creme, Vaughn gave it one last Stratocaster-shredding.
The "Last Concert" Poster
Photo Credit: Unknown
SRV's last performance of "Sweet Home Chicago" with Clapton,
Guy, Cray (not pictured) and his brother Jimmie must've beggared belief (look at all them Strats!)
So it was with a heavy heart and great expectations, that I recently attended the 19th Annual SRV Remembrance Ride and Concert in Arlington, Texas. Shon Beall is on the board of the SRV tribute which is a non-profit (501c3) and began almost 20 years ago. "This event has turned into a Texas tradition by bringing together the motorcycle community along with the general public to this one-of-a-kind special event in Stevie's name for the past 19 years," Beall told me. "Having the support of the community, the musicians, volunteers with Stevie's family & friends has been so important. Coming together every year to celebrate his birthday in such a unique way by raising money for the SRV Memorial Scholarship Fund that was founded by Martha Vaughan is a true honor." (Martha is SRV's mom; see her serve SRV lunch here.)
The great cast of performers paying homage to SRV was supported admirably by SRV tribute performer (he really does look and play like SRV) Tommy Katona and his band, Texas Flood. Katona and his band acted as the back-up band for almost everybody except headliner, Johnny Winter.
Tommy Katona channels SRV
Kayla Reeves is too young to have known SRV; he died before she was born. But this sad fact didn't prevent her from putting on a smokin' SRV set which belied her 20 years. Reeves got a strong Texas response from her set of "Little Wing," "Pride and Joy" and Hendrix's "Foxy Lady"--a very appropriate tune for Reeves as she is stunning. Being a Texas girl into music, Reeves told me that SRV had a huge impact on her and the evolution of her music. In addition to writing and performing her own original music, Reeves also lends her voice and guitar skills to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra part of the year. Starting with TSO when she was 17, Reeves had to be legally emancipated for the tour.
Reeves could perhaps be the most profound example of SRV's legacy--that a young lady not even born at his passing could be positively impacted by his living, highlights the power and might of a personality and performer such as Stevie Ray Vaughn.
Kayla Reeves portrayed seductive interpretations of SRV and Hendrix
Buddy Whittington is a Dallas and Stratocaster mainstay. When I referred to him as "Mr. Whittington," he promptly corrected me saying. "That's my dad. I'm just 'Bud' with a truly strong Texas accent. "Buuuuddd ..."
Buddy Whittington manhandles another--here's a surprise--Stratocaster
Jimmy Wallace is one Strat-shredding, Texas son of a gun
Jim Suhler knows his way around a Strat and a slide
And finally, after everybody paid their homage to SRV ... here comes one John Dawson Winter III.
As you might imagine, this SRV tribute had almost entirely Fender Stratocasters amongst all the SRV performing faithful. There was nary a Les Paul in attendance. The only Gibson I saw played was the legendary 1964 Gibson Firebird played by Johnny Winter and we can make an exception for that beautiful-sounding instrument.
The only Les Paul I saw all day; it never got played
Ever wonder why SRV's legendary Stratocaster guitar is called "Lenny?" Me too. The Strat was a birthday gift from his wife Lenora--Lenny--and SRV made it famous from there on in, playing it right into the annals of Rock/Blues heaven.
Cowboy's Dancehall is in Arlington, Texas, an exploding Dallas suburb. Arlington is where the Texas Rangers (MLB) have their stadium as well a Six Flags amussement park and to top it all off, the colossal new stadium where the Dallas Cowboys (NFL) play. Cowboy's had a goodly number of vendors set-up around the cavernous confines and they were selling everything from biker t-shirts and belt buckles to oriental artifacts and incense.
Along the way, I stumbled upon a most interesting character in Lori Ann Fitzgerald, a local artist who always gets her way with Blues and Rock subjects. She's painted or drawn everybody from U2, Clapton, Buddy Guy, Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray to Emmitt Smith, Jerry Lewis and Tim Conway. Though she first starts her art works on a non-paid basis, she usually ends up being commissioned by her famous subjects to do more paintings for or of their families or moms. When I first saw her, she was busy as a bee, drawing an SRV portrait from a live shot of him to be given to a lucky raffle winner later that day.
Being a "Bike Ride" and concert, this crowd was predominantly bikers out to have a good time. Back in the late 1970s, when at a concert in a NYC nightclub, a group of about 20 Hell's Angels came and sat down at the same table with me and a buddy--virtually taking over the table. While my friend was nearly dying of apoplexy, I was chatting with these motorcycle-riding behemoths. I had the best time getting to know them and it seemed as if the key was not being afraid or nervous around them. That said, the audience included a strong contingent of general rock 'n rollers, music lovers and Texas Blues aficionados. The crowd was very into the performers but mellow too--I never saw any hostilities much less altercations or fights, as one might imagine in a biker crowd. Everybody was so into remembering SRV that it was a solemn yet fun event.
THE ARTIST COMMENTARY
Jim Suhler: "I met Stevie Ray a couple of times, saw him play six or eight times but never got to play with him. (Spoken with the kind of severe disappointment only another guitar shredder could have.) My dad owned and operated a jewelry store in Dallas for close to 50 years and in the summer of 1989, Stevie came in the store to have a watch repaired and obviously, I knew who he was. He and my dad started talking, I was 28 and playing guitar not doin' much but trying to figure it out and it turned out in the conversation that we had some Vaughns as cousins from Oak Cliff (a Dallas neighborhood that spawned SRV) including a Jim Vaughn but as they talked, it turned out there was no relation ... which I was disappointed about. Then, my dad said to Stevie, 'Well, do you have any advice for my son, he's a musician too?' At the time I was mortified my dad would ask that question but Stevie Ray said, 'Yeah, keep it clean.' Which is good advice. (I asked Suhler what this meant as in clean guitar with no effects.) No, no he was in recovery at that time and I think that is where the richest part of his legacy is; as great as his music was, it was to help people out of the darkness, he was kinda a ray of light for a lot of people and continues to be and I think that was the coolest thing about his whole story. Those were his exact words, 'Keep it clean' and I'm gettin' a chill hearing those words again. Quick follow-up: Stevie never came back for that watch at my dad's jewelry shop. So about two months before his death, Stevie's playing in Dallas at Fair Park, I take his watch to him, get backstage and he's very amused that I'm even there bringing him his watch--he was very polite, a very sweet, soft-spoken man. And I'm not big on vibes and auras and stuff like that but I swear on everything that's holy to me that when Stevie walked up to me he radiated a light, he had an aura about him. And I don't even like to say things like that because people say 'Yeah, sure,' but he was a big inspiration to me."
"Stevie used to play in the small clubs in Dallas like St. Christopher's and Al's Bamboo and stuff but the first time I saw him was at the Bronco Bowl right when "Texas Flood" came out and Eric Johnson opened up for him--he melted my face."
"How's it going playing with George Thorogood?" I asked Suhler. "It's goin' great; I'm entering my 15th year, it's goin' well. George is like playing with Lightnin' Hopkins because he changes when he wants to so you have to really have to watch him and pay attention to what he's doing because he'll jump to a four-chord when it's not there; much in the fashion of a John Lee Hooker. He knew Robert Junior Lockwood and Lockwood told him, 'You play it right cuz you play it wrong,' meaning, you know, he wasn't really academic about it, he goes for the feel thing."
I told Suhler, "I've been thinking a lot about the next generation of SRVs like Kenny Wayne Shepard, Jonny Lang and Joe Bonamassa who might be following in SRVs footsteps and keeping his style alive, do you prefer one of those three?" "I prefer Joe," Suhler said but was quick to add, "but I think the premise is flawed to look for the next Stevie; it's like Bob Dylan said, 'don't look for me because I'll look like something else. I won't look like me;' in other words, don't look for the troubadour with a guitar strumming G-chords. It could be anybody with that ability to touch people, it's the spirit of it and the fire and the passion."
"What kind of watch was it that Stevie Ray dropped off at your dad's jewelry shop?" "Oh, it was a really old, old watch with diamonds and jewelry on it. It was a valuable watch and I wish I had kept it--but no I don't!!--because I'm glad I got to give it back to him."
Kayla Reeves: "My family we're native Texans, we've been in Texas since way back in the day and my mama's always had a lot of pride for people that made it here in Texas. Stevie was always this big icon like Johnny Winter too. And he just meant so much to me. Even as a kid, I guess I was three years old and I migrated to his sound. My mama would say, "Where are my CDs; where is my Stevie Ray CD?" And she'd be cleaning up my bedroom and she'd find her Stevie Ray, Eric Clapton and Etta James all in my toy box. I could sing the solos, lick for lick back to her and he's always had this tone and the type of musician he was, he could never read music and just played from his heart. He's a genuine Texas legend, big time."
Buddy Whittington: "When I go down to Austin and see that statue, I think that's a pretty good day's work for a guy from Oak Cliff to end up like that. We just did "Tick Tock" (my favorite SRV song after "Texas Flood") and the first time I heard that song was at the coverage of his funeral. Such a beautiful song. You know, it was just one of those things that you just know that him and Jimmie (Jimmie Vaughn, SRV's brother) would've just gone on and toured with that song and it would've catapulted both of them. I thought since we're remembering him today, I thought that might be a good one to remember him with. I never did meet him but saw many times, of course. He used to play at Blossoms downstairs in Fort Worth but I think the first time I saw him was in the Will Rogers Auditorium where they have the rodeo and it was the worst sounding room in the world. ("Good reverb," I tried wittily interjecting.) "A little too good. It was like you don't hear the fundamental until next Tuesday (laughingly)."
Jimmy Wallace: "I grew up in Oak Cliff with Stevie and we knew each other since we were little kids. He went to Kimball and I went to Carter high school and he played in a band with some Carter and Kimball guys and I did the same; we used to rehearse at garages across the alley from each other. We were on the same album together called "A New High" and we each played on two songs. So I kept in touch with him through the years and he came down to the Dallas International Guitar Show through the years. We used to do an Oak Cliff reunion and even when he was a big deal, he showed up at the reunion with all his buddies he grew up with and we all got up and played. That's just who he was; he loved to play music and it was never about the money just the music. He was just a great guy; this is a wonderful celebration of his life and his gift musically and what he contributed to the world. It's a great thing to be a part of."
Johnny Winter: "I knew Stevie pretty good but my bass player, Tommy (Shannon, of Double Trouble) ending up playing with him. We never played together on stage but we jammed a lot together at Tommy's apartment in Austin. Stevie Ray was a great guitar player. I liked him a lot and loved his music."
Winter has a new CD coming out in December with a number of stellar guest such as Eric Clapton, Joe Perry, Mark Knopfler, Dusty West and Dr. John on separate songs. Winter's bassist Scott Spray said, "Joe Perry said that if it wasn't for Johnny he wouldn't have picked up a guitar and that it was a huge honor to play on this album."
I asked Winter, "It seems to me you might've had an epiphany at some point going from straight ahead, hard-driving Rock 'n Roll to Blues; was there something that motivated that?" "Yeah, I never really wanted to do the Johnny Winter And stuff; my manager wanted me to do that. I always hated it. I hated it. It turned me into a junkie. I couldn't stand it. (I said, "God, I loved the s#&% outta that.") I know everybody did. I hated it. Me and Rick (Derringer) played all over each other, the drummer couldn't play blues at all. I hated that, man. I did not like it--the worst time I ever had playing music. (I said, "It seemed like you were having so much fun like 'People keep askin' me, where's your brother?'") It seemed like I was havin' fun because I was so high all the time, I didn't even know where I was." To be certain, Johnny is having fun now playing the Blues.
Stevie Ray had legions of friends and admirers; other musicians he jammed with; people he touched and who touched him. But perhaps there was no closer friend than a guy named Cutter. Cutter "Cee" Brandenburg was Stevie Ray Vaughn's road manager and friend, who also literally wrote the book on SRV. Entitled "You Can't Stop A Comet," the book is more endearingly a collection of SRV stories rather than a biography.
"I first met Stevie at a sock hop in Candy Square in 1969," Cee began when I asked him to start at the beginning. "I had just graduated from high school the year before and had been travelling all over the country seeing Jimi Hendrix play. When I came back to town, I started hearing about this kid who could play like Hendrix; I didn't believe it. They used to have Friday night sock hops for all the kids and when I walked into that hall and heard this 15-year old kid play his guitar, I couldn't believe it. Stevie was this little, skinny kid playing a big, red Gibson guitar that almost covered him up. He had lost his ride home and asked me for a lift--we talked about Hendrix the whole way home to his house. He asked me for a ride to school the next day and then, when I dropped him off at school and driven him all over creation, he asked me to pick him up after school ... I had to laugh hard!"
"Stevie was always 'fretting' with his left hand. You'd be talking to him and he'd be there nervously fretting his hand, constantly. One time, he was standing and talking with Eric Clapton and he was doing it. So, I said to him, 'Stevie, I'll bet you $500 you can't sit here for 10 minutes and talk to me without fretting your hand.' He just laughed and said, 'Cee, I could but you don't have $500!'" Cee is full of these kinds of stories about SRV.
"Before Stevie made it big with the release of his Texas Flood album--which really broke him big--money was tight and we were all struggling. We got invited to play at Montreux and I didn't go but Stevie did with his guitar tech. When he came back, he was upset and depressed, telling us, 'I think I fucked up.' Chris (Layton, SRV's drummer) told me, 'Some people booed us there in Switzerland.' Well, we all tried to lift his spirits and when we went in to see Charley Wirz (of legendary Dallas and SRV guitar shop, Charley's Guitar Shop)--Stevie really loved that man--so, Charley really wanted to see how Stevie did in Switzerland. When Stevie told him he got booed, Charley came up to us and draped his arms around our shoulders and told Stevie, 'Don't worry little brother, you can't stop a comet.'" And that's how Cee got the title for his book on SRV.
It's funny how sometimes what seems like a bad thing in life can turn out to be a great thing in the end. In Montreux, SRV got to meet many music industry execs and stars such as Jackson Browne and David Bowie (later, Bowie would ask Stevie Ray to play on tour with him and on the wildly popular Bowie song, "China Girl"). Jackson Browne--and this is a crucial moment in the evolution of SRV--told Stevie at Montreux that "the people who were booing you, will be applauding you someday soon." Then Browne offered an escape hatch to Stevie, who again, had little money at the time. Cee remembered, "Jackson said to Stevie, 'Please come to my house and you can record an album for free in my studio.' We had no money for recording or mastering or anything else at the time, so this was a God-send." The result? A demo recorded in three days which somehow made it into the hands of record producer, John Hammond who discovered Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Bruce Springsteen amongst many others. The resulting album, "Texas Flood" landed SRV on the charts and in the public consciousness.
"Another time," Cee recalled, "I was working in an old folk's home and would go up there to get my paycheck once a week. We were gigging on weekends at that time but had nothing on weekdays, so Stevie came along with me to pick up my check. At the home, there was an old, black man who had a guitar that had only a few old strings and really wasn't playable. Well, Stevie started talking to him and started playing old Robert Johnson songs with him. Stevie loved that old man and pretty soon, he was regularly coming to pick up my check with me--he wouldn't miss a trip over there to play with that man--and don't you know, pretty soon, that guitar had new strings and was all perfect."
"Stevie was without a doubt the most humble, sweet man I ever met in my life," Cee said. "Would you say you and Stevie were best friends in the world?" I asked. "Stevie and I were as close as two people can be," Cee finished sounding as if he was still missing his friend and would forever.
With all supporting artists playing two or three SRV songs, this concert was a great cross-section of different artists and different styles interpreting Stevie Ray's music. For me, Buddy Whittington's version of the SRV's "Tick Tock" was a real, superior highlight. The aforementioned Kayla Reeves two SRV songs ending with the Hendrix tune was also electrifying. Jim Suhler's version of "Boot Hill" was stupendous.
Paul Nelson is Johnny Winter's guitarist and road manager. This guy can really play guitar and has played with an amazing string of famous guitarists. He opens Winter's set by coming out first and launching into an extraordinary, scorching set of Strat leads to warm-up the crowd for Johnny. He proves he's no slouch on a Strat with this incendiary display and I wish he played more leads during Winter's set.
Then, after this inspiring guitar work ... "Here's Johnny!!"
Opening up with a steam-rolling "Johnny B. Goode," Winter took no prisoners from the beginning.
The Johnny Winter set included all the standards from "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" and "Jumpin' Jack Flash" to "Bony Moronie" and Dylan's iconic "Highway 61 Revisited."
Versions of "Got My Mojo Workin'," Ray Charles' "Blackjack" and Howlin' Wolf's "Killing Floor" really got the blues fans going hard and strong.
Winter welcomed Dallas guitarist and Billy Gibbons' friend Lance Lopez onstage to hit some screeching guitar notes
Of particular note to Rolling Stones' fans like me, was an extraordinary Winter' version of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" which then segued beautifully into "Gimme Shelter" and finally another song the Stones covered, "It's All Over Now."
As Johnny Winter's guitar chords evaporated into the Dallas night, I couldn't help seeing a similarity to how his hat hung down, over-shadowing his eyes, just like Stevie Ray's did. It was a nice tip of the hat to SRV.
When all the remembering and tribute-paying was said and done, I was left with two enduring images of Stevie Ray Vaughn. The first was the one and only time I saw him play on Long Island all those years ago. The second was this ...
Photo Credit: Mark Lanegan
All Photo Credits are Bill Robinson except as otherwise noted