Stevie Ray Vaughan was truly a one-of-a-kind talent. With his utterly mind-blowing guitar chops and soul-drenched Southern singing voice, the Texas native’s abilities were undeniable. In spite of the fact that his professional career spanned just seven years, Vaughan cemented himself as one of the most influential guitarists of all time. The enormity of SRV’s ability and potential, as well as the huge amount of heartbreak and hardships he had overcome during his short life, are what made his death in a helicopter crash on this day in 1990 so tragic.
A shy, introverted child, Vaughan had his first drink at age 6 and was immediately intrigued by the escape that it provided. By the time he hit his teen years, he had developed a dependency on alcohol. As he explained in a 1988 Guitar World interview, “That’s when I first started stealing daddy’s drinks. Or when my parents were gone, I’d find the bottle and make myself one. I thought it was cool…thought the kids down the street would think it was cool. That’s where it began, and I had been depending on it ever since.” He was turned onto cocaine when a doctor prescribed him with a liquid solution of the stimulant as a nasal spray, and his use skyrocketed from there: At the height of his addiction, SRV reportedly drank a quart of whiskey and did upwards of a quarter-ounce of coke every day.
Stevie Ray Vaughan – “Scuttle Buttin”
On December 5, 1979, he was arrested for possession before a gig opening for blues legend Muddy Waters after an off-duty officer saw him using cocaine near an open window. Waters lamented the undeniable talent that was seemingly being thrown away, saying “Stevie could perhaps be the greatest guitar player that ever lived, but he won’t live to get to 40 years old if he doesn’t leave that white powder alone.”
After a near-overdose during his band Double Trouble’s 1986 European tour, a doctor at the German hospital where he was taken told Vaughan that he would be dead in a month if he didn’t change his habits. The guitarist finally heeded the warnings, checking himself into a rehab program and swearing off all mind-altering substances.
Now sober for essentially the first time in his life, Vaughan was worried about playing live and creating music without the crutch of drugs and alcohol. However, he quickly gained confidence as the band finished their 1986 Live Alive tour and began writing for In Step, Vaughan’s self-proclaimed favorite album Double Trouble ever made. The album’s name reflected Vaughn’s recovery and newfound lease on life. As he explained, “I’m finally in step with life, in step with myself, in step with my music.” This new Stevie was showing through in his music. His writing was more focused than ever. Without the drugs clouding his brain, his already incredible speed and dexterity on the guitar was improving rapidly, and the future looked bright. The sky was the limit for Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Stevie Ray Vaughan – “Paradise”/”Lenny”
[Video: SRV BRY]
On August 26, 1990, after playing two shows at East Troy, Wisconsin’s Alpine Valley Amphitheatre with Eric Clapton, Vaughan boarded a helicopter to Chicago along with three members of Clapton’s touring team. The conditions were hazy, and there was a low fog hanging over the area. Despite the weather, the pilot was instructed to fly over a 1000-foot ski hill. Just before 1am, the helicopter hit the mountain at an elevation of 850 feet, instantly killing everyone on board. Vaughan was only 35.
While Vaughan had heeded Muddy Waters’ warning and got off the drugs, he still did not make it to 40. His heartbreaking loss—especially in light of his life turn-around ahead of his death—is unspeakably tragic, leaving us to wonder what magic he could’ve created had his life not been cut so short.
Rest easy, Stevie. We miss you.
Stevie Ray Vaughan – “Life By The Drop”