My interview with Stevie Ray Vaughan the month before his death

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JULY 19, 1990

By Steve Newton

On the honker from Montreal, Stevie Ray Vaughan is a tad disoriented. It’s 7:30 p.m. his time, but he’s still rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “I just woke up,” he explains. “Hope I’m not late. I looked at my watch and realized that I didn’t get a wake-up call.”

No problem, Stevie—everybody knows that blues-rockers need their sleep, especially if they’ve got a cross-country tour with Joe Cocker to rest up for. Vaughan and Cocker have been flip-flopping on a double-bill, the same one that brings them to the Pacific Coliseum this Sunday (July 22). They’ve been taking turns closing the show; this particular night it’s Stevie’s turn to shut things down in Montreal. But wouldn’t he rather close the show every night?”

“Well…today I’d rather close,” laughs Vaughan, ever the diplomat. “I like alternating, I really do. It just takes the pressure away. There’s not a big ego deal, you know, everybody gets treated the same. Plus every other night you don’t have to follow anybody!”

Vaughan admits that, if you’ve gotta open for somebody, it might as well be a rock veteran of Cocker’s stature.

“I’d never seen him live before, but I’ve always liked what he does. And we have a lot of the same influences—I’m a Ray Charles fan too! I just like the way he treats a lot of songs. I’m getting a chance to know him a lot better on this tour.”

At the age of 35, Vaughan has managed to meet—and play with—a lot of big names since storming onto the music scene in ’83 with the debut Texas Flood LP. He lived out a childhood fantasy when he co-produced and played on several tracks of pioneering guitar hero Lonnie Mack’s ’85 album, Strike Like Lightning. And he got to play a couple of times with Muddy Waters before that legend of the blues passed on. As a matter of fact, Vaughan is at a loss to think of someone that he hasn’t been able to jam with yet.

“I’ve been really lucky,” he claims, “gettin’ to jam with most the people I’ve listened to. So I don’t know…that’s a toughie. I guess Little Milton—I’ve never got to play with him before. He’s killer.”

But it hasn’t been all older bluesmen that Vaughan has managed to cross Strats with, though. When he played the Orpheum a couple of years back, he was joined by local hero Colin James, who Vaughan had previously taken under his wing and invited to tour with his band, Double Trouble.

“He’s a great musician and singer,” lauds Vaughan. “We really liked the guy himself, and saw the spirit that he had. Shoot, anybody would take him in!”

Vaughan says that he heard an advance cassette of James’s new album, Sudden Stop, a few months ago, but hasn’t had much time lately to check out any other up-and-comers on the blues horizon.

“I really haven’t had time to look up!” chuckles Vaughan. “Lately I’ve been paying a lot of attention to this record that I’m workin’ on with my brother, tryin’ to finish that up.”

The album in question is the yet-untitled release by Stevie and Jimmy Vaughan, former guitarist for the Fabulous Thunderbirds. The LP, which is expected to be out in September, should be quite the treat for fans of reckless blues guitar. A live appearance by the two bros would be even better.

“We’ve thrown the idea of touring around,” says Vaughan, “and we probably will do some dates. But Jimmy left the Thunderbirds about a month ago so he could take a break from the road, so if we decide not to do’em for a while, I would understand that.

“And I wouldn’t mind havin’ a little break myself,” he adds. “I’m not planning on quittin’ anything, I would just like to have a few months to take a look and see what I want to write about. Sometimes that makes me feel better, when I stop and take the time to be a person, instead of just a robot that’s on the road.”

Vaughan says he’s in no rush to get another Double Trouble album out; in concert he’s still favouring tunes from last year’s In Step album. As well as originals like the flat-out “House Is Rockin'” and jazz-inflected “Riviera Paradise”, the LP features a number of tunes from the ’60s. There’s Willie Dixon’s “Let Me Love You Baby” from ’61, Howlin’ Wolf’s “Love me Darlin'” from ’64, and Buddy Guy’s “Leave My Girl Alone” from ’65. Those were good years for the blues, Vaughan figures.

“I like that era of blues a lot, and I just happened to catch those songs along the line. It seems like, for some reason, around that time people stopped listening. What I think it was, was that the record companies, not long afterwards, decided to make more money with something…else.”

In Step was dedicated to the memory of John Hammond—the elderly chap with the massive grin pictured laughing it up with Stevie and his band on the back cover of Texas Flood. Hammond got Double Trouble its first record deal, and was executive producer of the band’s first three albums. His keen sense for pure talent has brought some of the world’s greatest recording artists into the public eye.

“I really respect the man,” says Vaughan with a solemn tone. “I respect him for what he did for us, but I respect him as much—and probably a lot more—for what he did for music in general, the kind of person he was…I mean he came up with all kinds of people: Bessie Smith, Billy Holiday, Charlie Christian, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Springsteen—you can go on and on.”

Above the liner note acknowledgement of Hammond as “a true hero” is another, more mysterious message: “Thank God that the elevator is still broken!”

“That has to do with somethin’ that keeps some of us alive,” says Vaughan. “It’s got to do with the program that I’m in that helps keep me sober—a ‘use the step’ program. It’s kind of an inside joke.”

Vaughan’s previous cocaine habit was no laughing matter, however—for a while there it looked like he might follow his mentor Hendrix into drug-induced oblivion. But he says he’s been true to the program for nearly four years now, and that he’s been taking life “one day at a time” since then. He certainly sounds like he’s enjoying life, hearty bursts of laughter punctuating most of his conversation. And he says that he doesn’t have much trouble getting inspired to perform these days, even without the stimulants.

“You never can tell what kinda turns a gig’s gonna take, but I try to play the best that I possibly can every night. And besides, I would hate to get caught playing my last gig not trying, you know what I mean? If it was the last one it sure would be a drag if I didn’t try.”

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2 responses to “My interview with Stevie Ray Vaughan the month before his death

  1. WITHOUT A DOUBT A GREAT GUITAR PLAYER BUT EVEN MORE A VERY GENUINE PERSON. I HOPE THE ELEVATOR IS BROKEN WHEN I GO SO I CAN MEET HIM.

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