Twenty-nine years ago today, Texas blues-rock guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan’s life came to a sudden and tragic end when the helicopter he was traveling in crashed in bad weather conditions. Though he was only 35 years old and a relative newcomer to the world stage—he’d only released four studio albums at the time of his death—he had packed a lot of living in the twenty years since he started playing music, and even more living the seven years since his debut album, 1983’s Texas Flood. That album lends its name to the first in-depth biography of Vaughan’s brief but influential life.
Stevie was born in 1954 in Dallas, the younger of two sons. His older brother Jimmie picked up the guitar at an early age, which inspired Stevie to do the same; for his seventh birthday, he was given a cheap guitar from Sears. Even though his home life was impoverished and often violent thanks to his father’s alcoholism and anger issues, he formed a deep bond with his older brother, who guided him in a musical direction, introducing him to and helping him learn about blues music. When young Stevie dropped out of high school in 1971 to pursue his musical career, it was done in part to follow Jimmie to Austin. Jimmie would form his band The Fabulous Thunderbirds in the mid-1970s, and Stevie would do the same with Double Trouble.
Double Trouble would work the live circuit around Texas for several years, and though they seemingly could not arouse label interest, it was to their benefit; Stevie would build up a reputation for being both one hell of a guitar player, as well as a man who couldn’t resist the self-destructive temptations on offer to touring musicians. Throughout Texas Flood, those interviewed were quite concerned that Vaughan’s habits would derail him before he had a chance to be heard by the rest of the world, and no matter how good one might be onstage, a raging drug and alcohol habit would be a turn-off to the music industry.
Yet a one-two combination of an impressive gig at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in 1982 and what would become an ill-fated appearance playing the ripping guitar solo on David Bowie’s 1980s hit “Let’s Dance” would soon opened the doors for him. He would sign to Epic Records in 1983, and Texas Flood, which was taken from recordings at Jackson Browne’s studio over Thanksgiving weekend the previous year, would be a surprising hit record. At a time when the music world was being dominated by teen pop and the first stages of hair metal, the Texas blues of “Pride & Joy” would have never been considered likely to be a MTV hit—but it was.
Life for Vaughan and the success that followed came hard and heavy at Vaughan. The story told in Texas Flood enters into a tense, roller-coaster ride of self-destruction that seemed destined to end suddenly and tragically. Unfortunately, it did—and not in the way one would have anticipated.The friends and family interviewed for Texas Flood find his death to be all the more tragic, as he had cleaned up his act, he had fallen in love again, and he had finished work on an album he’d always wanted to make—Family Style, a record with brother Jimmie that was scheduled for release mere weeks before the helicopter crash that claimed his life on August 27, 1990.
Texas Flood may have a tragic ending, but it’s a story that offers some sense of redemption along the way, and the healing power of music is hard to deny. Furthermore, this is essentially a love story—of a brother’s love for his sibling, of a man’s love of music, and the love the world bestowed upon this gone but never-to-be-forgotten hot-shot guitar slinger from the outskirts of Dallas.