How One Man’s Talent Saved the Blues in America

Stevie Ray Vaughan with his iconic music note guitar strap and flamboyant outfit.

He was absolutely 100-proof, pure blues. Albert Collins, Muddy Waters – the essence of that was in everything he played. More than the Allman Brothers, he was straight-down-the-line blues.” It doesn’t get more prestigious than Greg Allman (the surviving brother of the Allman Brothers) saying that your music had more “blues” than his own. Anyone who’s picked up an Allman brothers record and listened to such songs as “Whipping Post”, “Midnight Rider”, and “Ain’t Wastin Time No More” (recorded in honor of his recently deceased brother Duane). But it was true at the time, and Greg realized the importance behind what Stevie was doing. For anyone who doesn’t know who Stevie Ray Vaughan was, I pity your musically deprived soul on a truly deep level. Stevie Ray Vaughan was regarded as one of the best guitarists as all time, if not the best by some of his fans. He has received praise from all of the biggest names in the game, from BB King, to Eric Clapton, and even Buddy Guy. They all revered his ability to play the guitar like a mad man, seemingly tapping into some kind of stream of inspiration without effort at all, stringing together chords and progressions effortlessly. Stevie could play inspirational guitar for hours on end without a pause to consider what he was going to do next, which even the legendary Eric Clapton admits during the tribute that “I didn’t get to see or hear Stevie play near often enough, but every time I did I got chills and knew I was in the presence of greatness. He seemed to be an open channel and music just flowed through him. It never seemed to dry up.”, which is something “Stevie never had to do”. For any keen readers that have made it this far in the blog and noticed that he is constantly referred to in the past tense, congratulations, you’ve figured it out, Stevie is no longer with us. He was in fact killed before his talent had time to fully mature, and this is why all blues legends who play throughout his tribute came together for one show. After a night of playing a show alongside such greats as Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, and Eric Clapton on a warm night on the 27th of august in 1990, he passed away in a helicopter crash as he left the venue. Anyone familiar with American folk music from America’s 60’s is aware of the idea of “the day the music died”, which was originally coined by Don Mclean in his song “American Pie”. Well, this is certainly one of those scenarios where many artists felt that “the music” had died. Why? How could just one artist’s passing be responsible for the feeling that “Music” itself had died? Simple. It has a lot to do with the musical and social climate of the time, and perhaps for most listeners, it won’t be until they realize what pop music at the time sounded like in comparison to what Stevie Ray Vaughan was playing that they will recognize the importance of his popularity during that time.

The 80’s were a strange, strange time for music in America. Disco influenced music flooded clubs all over America, with catchy drum kits, synths, and catchy, often over dramatic vocals that lyrically really didn’t say much. This is the time where Michael Jackson was starting to take off as the solo king of pop, putting out hits like Rock With You and Billie Jean, One of the most iconic songs of the times, Sweet Dreams by the Eurhythmics is the poster child for some of the billboard top 100 hits of the time.

The same year that that song began rocking dance halls around the country, a new voice started getting louder and louder in the Blues scene, and that voice belonged to Stevie Ray Vaughn. His music couldn’t get any further away from what the club heavy scene of the 80’s was conducive to, but regardless his releases found critical acclaim. It wasn’t long before his talent began to show through on his album “Texas Flood”, with his signature style of guitar shining throughout the entire song on such iconic originals like Pride and Joy.

His loves for the blues is evident throughout the entire song, and the listener can hear it in every guitar strum and every verse he sings. This was the soul that mainstream music had so readily cast off, and it became huge in the south, and it spread quickly.

 

Being a Texas native, many of the musicians throughout his tribute convey to the listener their surprise that a young white man fromyu Austin, Texas was responsible for the music they were hearing. Eric Clapton even stated that “The first time I heard Stevie Ray, I thought, ‘Whoever this is, he is going to shake the world.’ …That doesn’t happen to me very often…I mean, about three or four times in my life I’ve felt that way, in a car, listening to the radio, where I’ve stopped the car, pulled over, listened, and thought, I’ve got to find out before the end of the day, not, you know, sooner or later, but I have to know NOW who that is.” For such a talented guitarist like Eric Clapton (originally a member of the band Cream, he now sponsors his own guitar festival ) to have given him such attention on the very first song he heard by Stevie Ray Vaughan, it means a lot in terms of that guitarists talent and style as a guitarist. When his debut solo album came out in 1983 he was on stage with Albert King just a few months later, one of the most easily recognizable names in all of blues music at the time.

The implications of Stevie’s popularity were as far reaching as the influence of the music he was playing had been for years. During the 80’s there was a resurgence of race issues that had otherwise been improving since the civil rights movement of the 60’s had gained popularity. With the emergence of the so called “war on drugs” and “crack epidemic”, people began to notice the difference in cultural values that were brought about through either growing up in the predominantly white suburbs, or the much more culturally diverse urban areas. As such, there began to develop two different kinds of pop music, one genre that was seemingly made to reach out to the European, white suburbs, and one for the urban culture. Euro pop, which is essentially exactly what it sounds like, catchy drum kit beats laced with tons of synth and other nontraditional elements to songs. The 80’s also delivered such rock and roll offshoots like “glam metal” and “new wave” to the suburbs, which consisted of “pinch” harmonics and over the top guitar distortion (and a lot of men dressed in very, very questionable cloths, with even more questionable hair styles). On the other side the urban areas got R&B music, along with the early beginnings of rap and hip hop genres to nod their heads to. The reason that Stevie Ray Vaughan’s music became so popular at the time was because he was making Blues music, which is the common ancestor of both Rock and Hip Hop music. His talent grabbed people’s attention, and his style and energy kept it. Because Blues was responsible for essentially all pop music at that time, it allowed him to gain critical and widespread acclaim more readily than any other artist at the time had really experienced besides the King of Pop himself, and Stevie Ray Vaughan was trying to make pop music. He just made really damn good Blues music and found common appreciation on both sides, which held implications for not only him, but the genre as a whole.

Rendition of Stevie Ray Vaughan in sever of his colorful outfits

The idea of a white guy from Austin Texas emerging as one of the most prominent figures in the Blues guitar scene was something new. Sure Eric Clapton had been in the guitar scene for a while holding it down for all the Caucasians, but his style of guitar was more technical, relaxed and thought out. Stevie Ray Vaughan let loose with a barrage of musical notes from his first song to his last, striking notes with fingers of lightning that rang out like thunder. His style caught the attention of a younger crowd than Eric Clapton, and he managed to pull in them in with his energy and passion, while being able to keep within the boundaries of blues music that brought in the older crowds. It was this combination that helped bring Blues back in the 80’s helping it rise back into popularity after feeding off of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s popularity. However Stevie was lucky, because being black in the 1980’s as a musician limited your audience, while being white did not.

The cover of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s first album

The reason I even have to mention this benefit due to skin color is because of the impact that Ronald Reagan’s presidency had on the status of race relations in the United States. Ronald Reagan cut funding to almost all civil rights programs, leaving many organizations to fend for themselves. The racial gap that developed during this time can be seen through the development of two distinct styles of music, one for affluent members of society and one for lower class, which at the time had VAST differences in terms of ethnic make ups for both groups. Thus it was fitting that Stevie Ray Vaughan helped bring the blues back to the mainstream, because he brought along with him a host of African American artists that had previously had little exposure among the white community. However as Stevie began to play shows and gain more and more notoriety and draw attention to the genre, fellow artists such as Robert Cray, Buddy Guy, and Art Neville (who actually wrote a song about Stevie’s death that his brother Jimmie performs at the end of the tribute).

Art Neville’s song for Stevie Ray Vaughan, “Six Strings Down”

 

The way that Stevie Ray Vaughan revitalized the blues genre in the 80’s is something that has always struck a personal chord in me. While it is plain to see that he is one of the most talented and inspired artists of his time, he was also a very driven entertainer, and was extremely into showmanship, something that is sometimes lacking with popular musicians today (DJ’s getting paid large sums of money to press play on a song then fade over at a predetermined time). Stevie could be seen playing guitars forwards and backwards, with no gap or drop off of performance in between. At the same time he dominated the spotlight, he also chose to share it with his co-performers throughout the show, letting each member of his band get time to shine. He was focused on the experience that the viewer had at each show, something that I feel is not always present in modern day music, with many artists simply going out each night on tour and playing the same show they played at the tour stop before. True musicians make it an effort to get the audience involved with the show, and he could turn a stage like Carnegie hall into a “stomping, hollering roadhouse”. He was a class act through and through, who would be devastated by even a few boos from the crowd, which is exactly what he got after his live at Monteux performance, which to any contemporary viewer was an absolute musical rampage that some members of the crowd just weren’t ready for yet. As I watched the tribute and listened to all of the legendary names talk about their impact experiences with Stevie, I could tell that they all had genuine love and respect for the man, proving to the viewer that through all the publicity and attention, he remained a down to earth, straightforward man. That part of his personality really drew me to him when I had to decide what to write about, because I feel that is the most important part of a musician. They have to love not only the music they make, but the people that making that music puts them in touch with, young and old, musician or non-musician, the connection between the artist and their audience plays a vital role in how they impact the world, and Stevie Ray Vaughan was definitely in the music scene to bring people joy and entertainment and not for himself. That, makes a true artist, and makes his passing a true tragedy in the history of music. One of my favorite quotes from Stevie Ray really sums up the idea that I’ve been trying to get across about him as a musician, and his ability to see people as just people, and how he tried to bridge the gap in between the worlds he had to live in, “But between sets I’d sneak over to the black places to hear blues musicians. It got to the point where I was making my living at white clubs and having my fun at the other places.”

Stevie Ray Vaughan playing behind his back

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