Stephen Ray Vaughan (October 3, 1954 – August 27, 1990) was an American musician, singer, songwriter, and record producer, and one of the most influential guitarists in the revival of blues in the 1980s.
Vaughan was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. He began playing guitar at the age of seven, inspired by his older brother Jimmie. He dropped out of high school in 1971 and moved to Austin the following year. He played gigs with numerous bands, earning a spot in Marc Benno's band the Nightcrawlers and later with Denny Freeman in the Cobras, with whom he continued to work through late 1977. He then formed his own group Triple Threat Revue, but he renamed them Double Trouble after hiring drummer Chris Layton and bassist Tommy Shannon. He gained fame after his performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1982, and his debut studio album Texas Flood charted at number 38 in 1983, a commercially successful release that sold over half a million copies. He headlined concert tours with Jeff Beck in 1989 and Joe Cocker in 1990, but he died in a helicopter crash on August 27, 1990 at the age of 35.
Vaughan received several music awards during his lifetime and posthumously. In 1983, readers of Guitar Player voted him Best New Talent and Best Electric Blues Guitar Player. In 1984, the Blues Foundation named him Entertainer of the Year and Blues Instrumentalist of the Year, and in 1987, Performance Magazine honored him with Rhythm and Blues Act of the Year. He won six Grammy Awards and ten Austin Music Awards and was inducted posthumously into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Musicians Hall of Fame in 2014. Rolling Stone ranked him as the 12th greatest guitarist of all time. In 2015, Vaughan and Double Trouble were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
|Stevie Ray Vaughan|
Stevie Ray Vaughan performing on the television series Austin City Limits in 1989
|Birth name||Stephen Ray Vaughan|
October 3, 1954|
Dallas, Texas, U.S.
August 27, 1990 (aged 35)|
East Troy, Wisconsin
Vaughan's ancestry has been traced back to his great-grandfather, Robert Hodgen LaRue. Robert LaRue had a daughter named Laura Belle, Vaughan's paternal grandmother. She married Thomas Lee Vaughan and moved to Rockwall County, Texas, where they lived by sharecropping.[nb 1] On September 6, 1921, they had a son named Jimmie Lee Vaughan.
Steve's father Jim Vaughan, also known as Big Jim, dropped out of school at age sixteen, and enlisted in the United States Navy during World War II. After his discharge, he married Martha Cook on January 13, 1950. Stephen Ray Vaughan was born on October 3, 1954, in Dallas, Texas; he was three-and-a-half years younger than his brother Jimmie (born 1951). Big Jim secured a job as an asbestos worker, an occupation that involved rigorous manual effort. The family moved frequently, living in other states such as Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Oklahoma before ultimately moving to the Oak Cliff section of Dallas. A shy and insecure boy, Vaughan was deeply affected by his childhood experiences. His father struggled with alcohol abuse, and often terrorised his family and friends with his bad temper. In later years, Vaughan recalled that he had been a victim of his father's violence. His father died on August 27, 1986, exactly four years before Vaughan's own death.
In the early 1960s, Vaughan's admiration for his brother Jimmie resulted in him trying different instruments such as the drums and saxophone.[nb 2] In 1961, for his seventh birthday, Vaughan received his first guitar, a toy from Sears with Western motif.[nb 3] Learning by ear, he diligently committed himself, following along to songs by the Nightcaps, particularly "Wine, Wine, Wine" and "Thunderbird".[nb 4] He listened to blues artists such as Albert King, Otis Rush, and Muddy Waters, and rock guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix and Lonnie Mack, as well as jazz guitarists including Kenny Burrell. In 1963, he acquired his first electric guitar, a Gibson ES-125T, as a hand-me-down from Jimmie.
Soon after he acquired the electric guitar, Vaughan joined his first band, the Chantones, in 1965. Their first gig was at a talent contest held in Dallas' Hill Theatre, but after realizing that they could not perform a Jimmy Reed song in its entirety, Vaughan left the band and joined the Brooklyn Underground, playing professionally at local bars and clubs. He received Jimmie's Fender Broadcaster, which he later traded for an Epiphone Riviera. When Jimmie left home at age sixteen, Vaughan's apparent obsession with the instrument caused a lack of support from his parents. Miserable at home, he took a job at a local hamburger stand, where he washed dishes and dumped trash for seventy cents an hour. After falling into a barrel of grease, he grew tired of the job and quit to devote his life to a music career.
In May 1969, after leaving the Brooklyn Underground, Vaughan joined a band called the Southern Distributor. He had learned The Yardbirds' "Jeff's Boogie" and played the song at the audition. Mike Steinbach, the group's drummer, commented: the kid was fourteen. We auditioned him on 'Jeff's Boogie,' really fast instrumental guitar, and he played it note for note." Although they played pop rock covers, Vaughan conveyed his interest in the addition of blues songs to the group's repertoire; he was told that he wouldn't earn a living playing blues music and the band parted ways. Later that year, bassist Tommy Shannon walked into a Dallas club and heard Vaughan playing guitar. Fascinated by the skillful playing, which he described as "incredible even then", Shannon borrowed a bass guitar and the two jammed.[nb 5] Within a few years, they began performing together in a band called Krackerjack.
In February 1970, Vaughan joined a band called Liberation, which was a nine-piece group with a horn section. Having spent the past month briefly playing bass with Jimmie in Texas Storm, he had originally auditioned as bassist. Impressed by Vaughan's guitar playing, Scott Phares, the group's original guitarist, modestly became the bassist. In mid-1970, they performed at the Adolphus Hotel in downtown Dallas, where ZZ Top asked them to perform. During Liberation's break, Vaughan jammed with ZZ Top on the Nightcaps song "Thunderbird". Phares later described the performance: "they tore the house down. It was awesome. It was one of those magical evenings. Stevie fit in like a glove on a hand."
Attending Justin F. Kimball High School during the early 1970s, Vaughan's late-night gigs contributed to his neglect in his studies, including music theory; he would often sleep during class. His musical career pursuit was disapproved by many of the school's administrators but he was also encouraged by many people, including his art teacher, to strive for a career in art.[nb 6] In his sophomore year, he attended an evening class for experimental art at Southern Methodist University, but left when it conflicted with rehearsal. Vaughan later spoke of his dislike of the school and stated he had to receive a daily note from the principal about his grooming.
In September 1970, Vaughan made his first studio recordings with the band Cast of Thousands, which included future actor Stephen Tobolowsky. They recorded two songs, "Red, White and Blue" and "I Heard a Voice Last Night", for a compilation album, A New Hi, that featured various teenage bands from Dallas. In late January 1971, feeling confined by playing pop hits with Liberation, Vaughan formed his own band, Blackbird. After growing tired of the Dallas music scene, he dropped out of school and moved with the band to Austin, Texas, which had more liberal and tolerant audiences. There, Vaughan initially took residence at the Rolling Hills Country Club, a venue that would later become the Soap Creek Saloon. Blackbird played at several clubs in Austin and opened shows for bands such as Sugarloaf, Wishbone Ash, and Zephyr, but could not maintain a consistent lineup. In early December 1972, Vaughan left Blackbird and joined a rock band named Krackerjack; he performed with them for less than three months.
In March 1973, Vaughan joined Marc Benno's band, the Nightcrawlers, after meeting Benno at a jam session years before. The band featured vocalist Doyle Bramhall, who met Vaughan when he was twelve years old. The next month, the Nightcrawlers recorded an album at Sunset Sound Recorders in Hollywood for A&M Records. While the album was rejected by A&M, it included Vaughan's first songwriting efforts, "Dirty Pool" and "Crawlin'". Soon afterward, he and the Nightcrawlers traveled back to Austin without Benno. In mid-1973, they signed a contract with Bill Ham, manager for ZZ Top, and played various gigs across the South, though many of them were disastrous. Ham left the band stranded in Mississippi without any way to make it back home and demanded reimbursement from Vaughan for equipment expenses; Ham was never reimbursed.[nb 7]
In 1975, Vaughan joined a six-piece band called Paul Ray and the Cobras which included guitarist Val Swierczewski and saxophonist Joe Sublett. For the next two-and-a-half years, he earned a living performing weekly at a popular venue in town, the Soap Creek Saloon, and ultimately the newly opened Antone's, widely known as Austin's "home of the blues".[nb 8] In late 1976, Vaughan recorded a single with them, "Other Days" as the A-side and "Texas Clover" as the B-side. Playing guitar on both tracks, the single was released on February 7, 1977. In March, readers of the Austin Sun voted them as Band of the Year. In addition to playing with the Cobras, Vaughan jammed with many of his influences at Antone's, including Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin, Jimmy Rogers, Lightnin' Hopkins, and Albert King.
Vaughan toured with the Cobras during much of 1977, but near the end of September, after they decided to strive for a mainstream musical direction, he left the band and formed Triple Threat Revue, which included singer Lou Ann Barton, bassist W. C. Clark, and drummer Fredde Pharaoh. In January 1978, they recorded four songs in Austin, including Vaughan's composition "I'm Cryin'". The thirty-minute audio recording marks the only known studio recording of the band.
In mid-May 1978, Clark left to form his own group and Vaughan renamed the band Double Trouble, taken from the title of an Otis Rush song. Following the recruitment of bassist Jackie Newhouse, Pharaoh quit in July, and was briefly replaced by Jack Moore, who had moved to Texas from Boston; he performed with the band for about two months. Vaughan then began looking for a drummer and soon after, he met Chris Layton through Sublett, who was his roommate. Layton, who had recently parted ways with Greezy Wheels, was taught by Vaughan to play a shuffle rhythm. When Vaughan offered Layton the position, he agreed. In early July, Vaughan befriended Lenora Bailey, known as "Lenny", who became his girlfriend, and ultimately his wife. The marriage was to last for six and a half years.[nb 9]
In early October 1978, Vaughan and Double Trouble earned a frequent residency performing at one of Austin's most popular nightspots, the Rome Inn. During a performance, Edi Johnson, an accountant at Manor Downs, noticed Vaughan. She remembered: "I'm not an authority on music- it's whatever turned me on - but this did." She recommended him to Manor Downs owner Frances Carr and general manager Chesley Millikin, who was interested in managing artists, and saw Vaughan's musical potential. After Barton quit Double Trouble in mid-November 1979, Millikin signed Vaughan to a management contract. Vaughan also hired Robert "Cutter" Brandenburg as road manager, whom he had met in 1969. Addressing him as "Stevie Ray", Brandenburg convinced Vaughan to use his middle name on stage.
In October 1980, bassist Tommy Shannon attended a Double Trouble performance at Rockefeller's in Houston. Shannon, who was playing with Alan Haynes at the time, participated in a jam session with Vaughan and Layton halfway through their set. Shannon later commented: "I went down there that night, and I'll never forget this: it was like, when I walked in the door and I heard them playing, it was like a revelation. 'That's where I want to be; that's where I belong, right there.' During the break, I went up to Stevie and told him that. I didn't try to sneak around and hide it from the bass player [Jackie Newhouse] - I didn't know if he was listening or not. I just really wanted to be in that band. I sat in that night and it sounded great." Almost three months later, when Vaughan offered Shannon the position, he readily accepted.
On December 5, 1979, while Vaughan was in a dressing room before a performance in Houston, an off-duty police officer arrested him after witnessing his usage of cocaine near an open window. He was formally charged with cocaine possession and subsequently released on $1,000 bail. Double Trouble was the opening act for Muddy Waters, who said about Vaughan's substance abuse: "Stevie could perhaps be the greatest guitar player that ever lived, but he won't live to get 40 years old if he doesn't leave that white powder alone." The following year, he was required to return on January 16 and February 29 for court appearances.
During the final court date, on April 17, 1980, Vaughan was sentenced with two years probation and was prohibited from leaving Texas. Along with a stipulation of entering treatment for drug abuse, he was required to "avoid persons or places of known disreputable or harmful character"; he refused to comply with both of these orders. After a lawyer was hired, his probation officer had the sentence revised to allow him to work outside of the state. The incident later caused him to refuse maid service while staying in hotels during concert tours.
Although popular in Texas at the time, Double Trouble failed to gain national attention. The group's luck progressed when record producer Jerry Wexler recommended them to Claude Nobs, organizer of the Montreux Jazz Festival. He insisted the festival's blues night would be great with Vaughan, whom he called "a jewel, one of those rarities who comes along once in a lifetime", and Nobs agreed to book Double Trouble on July 17.
Vaughan opened with a medley arrangement of Freddie King's song "Hide Away" and his own fast instrumental composition, "Rude Mood". Double Trouble went on to perform renditions of Larry Davis' "Texas Flood", Hound Dog Taylor's "Give Me Back My Wig", and Albert Collins' "Collins Shuffle", as well as three original compositions: "Pride and Joy", "Love Struck Baby", and "Dirty Pool". The set ended with boos from the audience. People's James McBride wrote:
He seemed to come out of nowhere, a Zorro-type figure in a riverboat gambler's hat, roaring into the '82 Montreux festival with a '59 Stratocaster at his hip and two flame-throwing sidekicks he called Double Trouble. He had no album, no record contract, no name, but he reduced the stage to a pile of smoking cinders and, afterward, everyone wanted to know who he was."[nb 10]
According to road manager Don Opperman: "the way I remember it, the 'ooos' and the 'boos' were mixed together, but Stevie was pretty disappointed. Stevie [had] just handed me his guitar and walked off stage, and I'm like, 'are you coming back?' There was a doorway back there; the audience couldn't see the guys, but I could. He went back to the dressing room with his head in his hands. I went back there finally, and that was the end of the show." According to Vaughan: "it wasn't the whole crowd [that booed]. It was just a few people sitting right up front. The room there was built for acoustic jazz. When five or six people boo, wow, it sounds like the whole world hates you. They thought we were too loud, but shoot, I had four army blankets folded over my amp, and the volume level was on 2. I'm used to playin' on 10!" The performance was filmed and later released on DVD in September 2004.
On the following night, Double Trouble was booked in the lounge of the Montreux Casino, with Jackson Browne in attendance. Browne jammed with Double Trouble until the early morning hours and offered them free use of his personal recording studio in downtown Los Angeles. In late November the band accepted his offer and recorded ten songs in two days. While they were in the studio, Vaughan received a telephone call from David Bowie, who met him after the Montreux performance, and he invited him to participate in a recording session for his next studio album, Let's Dance. In January 1983, Vaughan recorded guitar on six of the album's eight songs, including the title track and "China Girl". The album was released on April 14, 1983 and sold over three times as many copies as Bowie's previous album.
In mid-March 1983, Gregg Geller, vice president of A&R at Epic Records, signed Double Trouble to the label at the recommendation of record producer John Hammond. Soon afterward, Epic financed a music video for "Love Struck Baby", which was filmed at the Cherry Tavern in New York City. Vaughan recalled: "we changed the name of the place in the video. Four years ago I got married in a club where we used to play all the time called the Rome Inn. When they closed it down, the owner gave me the sign, so in the video we put that up behind me on the stage."
With the success of Let's Dance, Bowie requested Vaughan as the featured instrumentalist for the upcoming Serious Moonlight Tour, realizing that he was an essential aspect of the album's groundbreaking success. In late April, Vaughan began rehearsals for the tour in Las Colinas, Texas. When contract renegotiations for his performance fee failed, Vaughan abandoned the tour days before its opening date, and he was replaced by Earl Slick. Vaughan commented: "I couldn't gear everything on something I didn't really care a whole lot about. It was kind of risky, but I really didn't need all the headaches." Although contributing factors were widely disputed, Vaughan soon gained major publicity for quitting the tour.
On May 9, the band performed at The Bottom Line in New York City, where they opened for Bryan Adams, with Hammond, Mick Jagger, John McEnroe, Rick Nielsen, Billy Gibbons, and Johnny Winter in attendance. Brandenburg described the performance as "ungodly": "I think Stevie played every lick as loud and as hard and with as much intensity as I've ever heard him." The successful performance earned Vaughan a positive review published in the New York Post, asserting that Double Trouble outperformed Adams. "Fortunately, Bryan Adams, the Canadian rocker who is opening arena dates for Journey, doesn't headline too often", wrote Martin Porter, who claimed that after the band's performance, the stage had been "rendered to cinders by the most explosively original showmanship to grace the New York stage in some time."
After acquiring the recordings from Browne's studio, Double Trouble began assembling the material for a full-length LP. The album, Texas Flood, opens with the track "Love Struck Baby", which was written for Lenny on their "love-struck day". He composed "Pride and Joy" and "I'm Cryin'" for one of his former girlfriends, Lindi Bethel, and are both musically similar, but their lyrics are two different perspectives of their prior relationship. Along with covers of Howlin' Wolf, The Isley Brothers, and Buddy Guy, the album included Vaughan's cover of Larry Davis' "Texas Flood", a song which he became strongly associated with. "Lenny" served as a tribute to his wife, which he composed at the end of their bed.
Texas Flood featured cover art by illustrator Brad Holland, who is known for his artwork for Playboy and The New York Times. Originally envisioned with Vaughan sitting on a horse depicting a promotable resemblance, Holland painted an image of him leaning against a wall with a guitar, using a photograph as a reference. Released on June 13, 1983, Texas Flood peaked at number 38 and ultimately sold half a million copies. While Rolling Stone editor Kurt Loder asserted that Vaughan did not possess a distinctive voice, according to AllMusic senior editor Stephen Thomas Erlewine, the release was a "monumental impact". Billboard described it as "a guitar boogie lovers delight". Agent Alex Hodges commented: "No one knew how big that record would be, because guitar players weren't necessarily in vogue, except for some that were so established they were undeniable ... he was one of the few artists that was recouped on every record in a short period of time."
On June 16, Vaughan gave a performance at Tango nightclub in Dallas, which celebrated the album's release. Assorted VIPs attended the performance, including Ted Nugent, Sammy Hagar, and members of The Kinks and Uriah Heep. Jack Chase, vice president of marketing for Epic, recalled: "the coming-out party at Tango was very important; it was absolutely huge. All the radio station personalities, DJs, program directors, all the retail record store owners and the important managers, press, all the executives from New York came down- about seven hundred people. We attacked in Dallas first with Q102-FM and [DJ] Redbeard. We had the Tango party - it was hot. It was the ticket." The Dallas Morning News reviewed the performance, starting with the rhetorical question; "what if Stevie Ray Vaughan had an album release party and everybody came? It happened Thursday night at Tango ... The adrenalin must have been gushing through the musicians' veins as they performed with rare finesse and skill."
Following a brief tour in Europe, Hodges arranged an engagement for Double Trouble as The Moody Blues' opening act during a two-month tour of North America.[nb 11] Hodges stated that many people disliked the idea of Double Trouble opening for The Moody Blues, but asserted that a common thread which both bands shared was "album-oriented rock". Shannon described the tour as "glorious": "Our record hadn't become that successful yet, but we were playing in front of coliseums full of people. We just went out and played, and it fit like a glove. The sound rang through those big coliseums like a monster. People were going crazy, and they had no idea who we were!" After appearing on the television series Austin City Limits, the band played a sold-out concert at New York City's Beacon Theatre. Variety wrote that their ninety-minute set at the Beacon "left no doubt that this young Texas musician is indeed the 'guitar hero of the present era.'"
In January 1984, Double Trouble began recording their second studio album, Couldn't Stand the Weather, at the Power Station, with John Hammond as executive producer and engineer Richard Mullen. Layton later recalled working with Hammond: "he was kind of like a nice hand on your shoulder, as opposed to someone that jumped in and said, 'let's redo this, let's do that more.' He didn't get involved in that way at all. He was a feedback person." As the sessions began, Vaughan's cover of Bob Geddins' "Tin Pan Alley" was recorded while audio levels were being checked. Layton remembers the performance: "... we did probably the quietest version we ever did up 'til that point. We ended it and [Hammond] said; 'that's the best that song will ever sound,' and we went; 'we haven't even got sounds, have we?' He goes, 'that doesn't matter. That's the best you'll ever do that song.' We tried it again five, six, seven times- I can't even remember. But it never quite sounded like it did that first time."
During recording sessions, Vaughan began experimenting with other combinations of musicians, including Fran Christina and Stan Harrison, who played drums and saxophone respectively on the jazz instrumental, "Stang's Swang". Jimmie Vaughan played rhythm guitar on his cover of Guitar Slim's "The Things That I Used to Do" and the title track, the latter of which Vaughan carries a worldly message in his lyrics. According to musicologist Andy Aledort, Vaughan's guitar playing throughout the song is marked by steady rhythmic strumming patterns and improvised lead lines, with a distinctive R&B and soul single-note riff, doubled in octaves by guitar and bass.
Couldn't Stand the Weather was released on May 15, 1984, and two weeks later it had rapidly outpaced the sales of Texas Flood.[nb 12] It peaked at number 31 and spent 38 weeks on the charts. The album includes Vaughan's cover of Jimi Hendrix's song, "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)", which provoked inevitable comparisons to Hendrix. According to Allmusic editor Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Couldn't Stand the Weather "confirmed that the acclaimed debut was no fluke, while matching, if not bettering, the sales of its predecessor, thereby cementing Vaughan's status as a giant of modern blues." According to authors Joe Nick Patoski and Bill Crawford, the album "was a major turning point in Stevie Ray Vaughan's development" and Vaughan's singing improved.
On October 4, 1984, Vaughan headlined a performance at Carnegie Hall that included many guest musicians. For the second half of the concert, he added Jimmie as rhythm guitarist, drummer George Rains, keyboardist Dr. John, Roomful of Blues horn section, and featured vocalist Angela Strehli.[nb 13] The ensemble rehearsed for less than two weeks before the performance, and despite the solid dynamics of Double Trouble for the first half of the performance, according to Patoski and Crawford, the big band concept never entirely took form.[nb 14] Before arriving at the engagement, the venue sold out, which made Vaughan extremely excited and nervous as he did not calm down until halfway through the third song. A benefit for the T.J. Martell Foundation's work in leukemia and cancer research, he was an important draw for the event. As his scheduled time slot drew closer, he indicated that he preferred traveling to the venue by limousine to avoid being swarmed by fans on the street; the band took the stage around 8:00 p.m. The audience of 2,200 people, which included Vaughan's wife, family and friends, transformed the venue into what Stephen Holden of The New York Times described as "a whistling, stomping roadhouse".
Introduced by Hammond as "one of the greatest guitar players of all time", Vaughan opened with "Scuttle Buttin'", wearing a custom-made mariachi suit he described as a "Mexican tuxedo".[nb 15] Double Trouble went on to perform renditions of The Isley Brothers' "Testify", The Jimi Hendrix Experience's "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)", "Tin Pan Alley", Elmore James' "The Sky Is Crying", and W. C. Clark's "Cold Shot", along with four original compositions including "Love Struck Baby", "Honey Bee", "Couldn't Stand the Weather", and "Rude Mood". During the second half of the performance, Vaughan performed covers by Larry Davis, Buddy Guy, Guitar Slim, Albert King, Jackie Wilson, and Albert Collins. The set ended with Vaughan performing solo renditions of "Lenny" and "Rude Mood".
The Dallas Times-Herald wrote of the performance at Carnegie Hall as; "was full of stomping feet and swaying bodies, kids in blue jeans hanging off the balconies, dancing bodies that clogged the aisles."[nb 16] The New York Times asserted that, despite the venue's "muddy" acoustics, their performance was "filled with verve", and Vaughan's playing was "handsomely displayed". Jimmie Vaughan later commented: "I was worried the crowd might be a little stiff. Turned out they're just like any other beer joint." Vaughan commented: "We won't be limited to just the trio, although that doesn't mean we'll stop doing the trio. I'm planning on doing that too. I ain't gonna stay in one place. If I do, I'm stupid." The performance was recorded and later released as an official live LP. The album was released on July 29, 1997 by Epic Records; it was ultimately certified gold.
Immediately after the concert, Vaughan attended a private party at a downtown club in New York, which was sponsored by MTV, where he was greeted by an hour's worth of supporters. On the following day, Double Trouble made an appearance at a record store in Greenwich Village, where they signed autographs for fans.[nb 17] In late October 1984, the band toured Australia and New Zealand, which included one of their first appearances on Australian television—on Hey Hey It's Saturday—where they performed "Texas Flood", and an interview on Sounds. On November 5 and 9, they played sold-out concerts at the Sydney Opera House. Upon returning to the US, Double Trouble went on a brief tour in California. Soon afterward, Vaughan and Lenny went to the island of Saint Croix, on the US Virgin Islands in the Caribbean Sea, where they had spent some time vacationing in December. The next month, Double Trouble flew to Japan, where they appeared for five performances, including at Kosei Nenkin Kaikan in Osaka.
In March 1985, recording for Double Trouble's third studio album, Soul to Soul, began at the Dallas Sound Lab. As the sessions progressed, Vaughan became increasingly frustrated with his own lack of inspiration. He was also allowed a relaxed pace of recording the album, which contributed to a lack of focus due to excesses in alcohol and other drugs. Roadie Byron Barr later recalled: "the routine was to go to the studio, do dope, and play ping-pong." Vaughan, who found it increasingly difficult to be able to play rhythm guitar parts and sing at the same time, wanted to add another dimension to the band, so he hired keyboardist Reese Wynans to record on the album; he joined the band soon thereafter.
During the album's production, Vaughan appeared at the Houston Astrodome on April 10, 1985, where he performed a slide guitar rendition of the US national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner"; his performance was met with booing. Upon leaving the stage, Vaughan acquired an autograph from former player for the New York Yankees, Mickey Mantle. Astrodome publicist Molly Glentzer wrote in the Houston Press: "as Vaughan shuffled back behind home plate, he was only lucid enough to know that he wanted Mickey Mantle's autograph. Mantle obliged. 'I never signed a guitar before.' Nobody asked Vaughan for his autograph. I was sure he'd be dead before he hit 30." Critics associated his performance with Jimi Hendrix's rendition at Woodstock in 1969, yet Vaughan disliked this comparison: "I heard they even wrote about it in one of the music magazines and they tried to put the two versions side by side. I hate that stuff. His version was great."
Released on September 30, 1985, Soul to Soul peaked at number 34 and remained on the Billboard 200 through mid-1986, eventually certified gold.[nb 18] Critic Jimmy Guterman of Rolling Stone wrote: "there's some life left in their blues rock pastiche; it's also possible that they've run out of gas." According to Patoski and Crawford, sales of the album "did not match Couldn't Stand the Weather, suggesting Stevie Ray and Double Trouble were plateauing". Vaughan commented: "as far as what's on there song-wise, I like the album a lot. It meant a lot to us what we went through to get this record. There were a lot of odds and we still stayed strong. We grew a lot with the people in the band and immediate friends around us; we learned a lot and grew a lot closer. That has a lot to do with why it's called [Soul to Soul]."
After touring for nine and a half months, Epic requested a fourth album from Double Trouble as part of their contractual obligation. In July 1986, Vaughan decided that they would record the LP, Live Alive, during three live appearances in Austin and Dallas. On July 17 and 18, the band performed sold-out concerts at the Austin Opera House, and July 19 at the Dallas Starfest. They used recordings of these concerts to assemble the LP, which was produced by Vaughan. Shannon was backstage before the Austin concert and predicted to new manager Alex Hodges that both Vaughan and himself were "headed for a brick wall". Guitarist Denny Freeman attended the Austin performances; he called the shows a "musical mess, because they would go into these chaotic jams with no control. I didn't know what exactly was going on, but I was concerned." Both Layton and Shannon remarked that their work schedule and drugs were causing the band to lose focus. According to Wynans: "Things were getting illogical and crazy."
The Live Alive album was released on November 17, 1986, and the only official live Double Trouble LP made commercially available during Vaughan's lifetime, though it never appeared on the Billboard 200 chart. Though many critics claimed that most of the album was overdubbed, engineer Gary Olazabal, who mixed the album, asserted that most of the material was recorded poorly. Vaughan later admitted that it was not one of his better efforts; he recalled: "I wasn't in very good shape when we recorded Live Alive. At the time, I didn't realize how bad a shape I was in. There were more fix-it jobs done on the album than I would have liked. Some of the work sounds like [it was] the work of half-dead people. There were some great notes that came out, but I just wasn't in control; nobody was."
In 1960, when Vaughan was six years old, he began stealing his father's drinks. Drawn in by its effects, he started making his own drinks and this resulted in alcohol dependence. He explained: "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." According to the authors Joe Nick Patoski and Bill Crawford: "In the ensuing twenty-five years, he had worked his way through the Physicians' Desk Reference before finding his poisons of preference—alcohol and cocaine."
While Vaughan asserted that he first experienced the effects of cocaine when a doctor prescribed him a liquid solution of the stimulant as a nasal spray, according to Patoski and Crawford, the earliest that Vaughan is known to have ingested the drug is in 1975, while performing with the Cobras. Before that, Vaughan had briefly used other drugs such as cannabis, methamphetamine, and Quaaludes, the brand name for methaqualone. After 1975, he regularly drank whiskey and used cocaine, particularly mixing the two substances together. According to Hopkins, by the time of Double Trouble's European tour in September 1986, "his lifestyle of substance abuse had reached a peak, probably better characterized as the bottom of a deep chasm."
At the height of Vaughan's substance abuse, he drank 1 US quart (0.95 L) of whiskey and used one-quarter of an ounce (7 g) of cocaine each day. Personal assistant Tim Duckworth explained: "I would make sure he would eat breakfast instead of waking up drinking every morning, which was probably the worst thing he was doing." According to Vaughan: "it got to the point where if I'd try to say "hi" to somebody, I would just fall apart crying. It was like solid doom."
In September 1986, Double Trouble traveled to Denmark for a one-month tour of Europe. During the late night hours of September 28, Vaughan became ill after a performance in Ludwigshafen, Germany, suffering from near-death dehydration, for which he received medical treatment. The incident resulted in his checking into The London Clinic under the care of Dr. Victor Bloom, who warned him that he was a month away from death. After staying in London for more than a week, he returned to the United States and entered Peachford Hospital in Atlanta, where he spent four weeks in rehabilitation; Shannon checked into rehab in Austin.
In November 1986, following his departure from rehab, Vaughan moved back into his mother's Glenfield Avenue house in Dallas, which is where he had spent much of his childhood. During this time, Double Trouble began rehearsals for the Live Alive tour. Although Vaughan was nervous about performing after achieving sobriety, he received positive reassurance. Wynans later recalled: "Stevie was real worried about playing after he'd gotten sober...he didn't know if he had anything left to offer. Once we got back out on the road, he was very inspired and motivated." The tour began on November 23 at Towson State University, which was Vaughan's first performance with Double Trouble after rehab. On December 31, 1986, they played a concert at Atlanta's Fox Theatre, which featured encore performances with Lonnie Mack.[nb 19]
As the tour progressed, Vaughan was longing to work on material for his next LP, but in January 1987, he filed for a divorce from Lenny, which restricted him from any projects until the proceedings were finalized. This prevented him from writing and recording songs for almost two years, but Double Trouble wrote the song "Crossfire" with Bill Carter and Ruth Ellsworth. Layton recalled: "we wrote the music, and they had to write the lyrics. We had just gotten together; Stevie was unable to be there at that time. He was in Dallas doing some things, and we just got together and started writing some songs. That was the first one we wrote." On August 6, 1987, Double Trouble appeared at the Austin Aqua Festival, where they played to one of the largest audiences of their career. According to biographer Craig Hopkins, as many as 20,000 people attended the concert. Following a month-long tour as the opening act for Robert Plant in May 1988, which included a concert at Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens, the band was booked for a European leg, which included 22 performances, and ended in Oulu, Finland on July 17. This would be Vaughan's last concert appearance in Europe.
After Vaughan's divorce from Lenora "Lenny" Darlene Bailey became final, recording for Double Trouble's fourth and final studio album, In Step, began at Kiva Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, working with producer Jim Gaines and co-songwriter Doyle Bramhall. Initially, he had doubts about his musical and creative abilities after achieving sobriety, but he gained confidence as the sessions progressed. Shannon later recalled: "In Step was, for him, a big growing experience. In my opinion, it's our best studio album, and I think he felt that way, too." Bramhall, who had also entered rehab, wrote songs with Vaughan about addiction and redemption. According to Vaughan, the album was titled In Step because "I'm finally in step with life, in step with myself, in step with my music." The album's liner notes include the quote; "'thank God the elevator's broken," a reference to the twelve-step program proposed by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
After the In Step recording sessions moved to Los Angeles, Vaughan added horn players Joe Sublett and Darrell Leonard, who played saxophone and trumpet respectively on both "Crossfire" and "Love Me Darlin'". Shortly before the album's production was complete, Vaughan and Double Trouble appeared at a presidential inaugural party in Washington, D.C. for George H. W. Bush. In Step was released on June 13, 1989, and eight months later, it was certified gold. The album was Vaughan's most commercially successful release and his first one to win a Grammy Award. It peaked at number 33 on the Billboard 200, spending 47 weeks on the chart. In Step included the song, "Crossfire", which was written by Double Trouble, Bill Carter, and Ruth Ellsworth; it became his only number one hit. The album also included one of his first recordings to feature the use of a Fuzz Face on Vaughan's cover of the Howlin' Wolf song, "Love Me Darlin'".
In July 1989, Neil Perry, a writer for Sounds magazine, wrote: "the album closes with the brow-soothing swoon of 'Riviera Paradise,' a slow, lengthy guitar and piano workout that proves just why Vaughan is to the guitar what Nureyev is to ballet." According to music journalist Robert Christgau, Vaughan was "writing blues for AA...he escapes the blues undamaged for the first time in his career." In October 1989, the Boca Raton News described Vaughan's guitar solos as "determined, clear-headed and downright stinging" and his lyrics as "tension-filled allegories".
On Monday, August 27, 1990, at 12:50 a.m. (CDT), Vaughan and members of Eric Clapton's touring entourage boarded a Bell 206B helicopter (registration N16933) at Alpine Valley Resort in East Troy, Wisconsin, to travel to Midway International Airport in Chicago, after he concluded an all-star encore jam session at Alpine Valley Music Theatre. A return flight was scheduled for later that night, but when the encore finished, Vaughan was eager to return to Chicago and made the decision to leave immediately. The designated helicopter originally had three seats available, but Vaughan ultimately took the last remaining seat. The helicopter crashed into a nearby ski hill shortly after takeoff.
Vaughan and the four others on board - pilot Jeff Brown, agent Bobby Brooks, bodyguard Nigel Browne, and tour manager Colin Smythe - were all killed. Most fans in the area were unaware of the initial impact, but according to a catering director at the resort, she remembered hearing a boom and felt her trailer shake. The helicopter was identified as being owned by Chicago-based company Omniflight Helicopters. Initial reports of the crash falsely claimed that Clapton had also been killed in the accident.
According to findings from an inquest conducted by the coroner's office in Elkhorn, Vaughan suffered from "massive internal and skull injuries", in addition to severe trauma and rib fractures. The coroner theorized that all five victims were killed instantly, given the severity of their injuries. The bodies were taken to the morgue at Lakeland Medical Center in Elkhorn, where they were kept for relatives and friends to help identify them.
As the subsequent investigation determined, when the aircraft departed, it was operated in foggy weather conditions and visibility was reportedly under two miles, according to a local forecast. The National Transportation Safety Board report stated: "As the third helicopter was departing, it remained at a lower altitude than the others, and the pilot turned southeasterly toward rising terrain. Subsequently, the helicopter crashed on hilly terrain about three-fifths of a mile from the takeoff point." It indicated that the pilot was not qualified to fly the helicopter in foggy weather conditions at night (instrument meteorological conditions). Brown's Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) records showed that he was qualified to fly by instruments in an airplane, but not in a helicopter. Toxicology tests performed on the victims revealed no traces of drugs or alcohol in their systems.
Vaughan's funeral services were held on August 31, 1990, at Laurel Land Cemetery in Dallas, Texas. His body was set in a wooden casket that quickly became adorned with bouquets of flowers, which was carried in a white hearse. An estimated 3,000 mourners were in attendance at the procession. Among attendees at the public ceremony were Jeff Healey, Charlie Sexton, ZZ Top, Colin James, and Buddy Guy. Vaughan was entombed under a grave marker that reads: "Thank you... for all the love you passed our way."
Vaughan's music took root in blues, rock, and jazz. He was influenced by the work of artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Albert King, B.B. King, Freddie King, Albert Collins, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Buddy Guy, Howlin' Wolf, Otis Rush, Guitar Slim, Chuck Berry, and Muddy Waters. According to nightclub owner Clifford Antone, who opened Antone's in 1975, Vaughan jammed with Albert King at Antone's in July 1977 and almost "scared him to death", saying that "it was the best I've ever saw Albert or the best I ever saw Stevie". While Albert King had a substantial influence on Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix was Vaughan's greatest inspiration. Vaughan declared: "I love Hendrix for so many reasons. He was so much more than just a blues guitarist — he played damn well any kind of guitar he wanted. In fact I'm not sure if he even played the guitar — he played music."
In 1987, Vaughan listed Lonnie Mack first among the guitarists he listened to, both as a youngster and as an adult. Vaughan owed much of his guitar technique to Mack, saying, "I got a lot of my fast stuff from Lonnie" He observed in live performance that Mack was "ahead of his time". Mack recalled his first meeting with Vaughan in 1978:
We was in Texas looking for pickers, and we went out to see the Thunderbirds. Jimmie was saying, 'Man, you gotta hear my little brother. He plays all your [songs].' He was playing a little place called the Rome Inn, and we went over there and checked him out. As it would be, when I walked in the door, he was playing 'Wham!' And I said, 'Dadgum.' He was playing it right. I'd been playing it wrong for a long time and needed to go back and listen to my original record. That was in '78, I believe.
Vaughan's relationship with another Texas blues legend, Johnny Winter, was a little more complex. Although they met several times, and often played sessions with the same musicians or even performed the same material, as in the case of Boot Hill, Vaughan always refrained from acknowledging Winter in any form. In his biography, "Raisin' Cain", Winter says that he was unnerved after reading Vaughan stating in an interview that he never met or knew Johnny Winter. "We even played together over at Tommy Shannon's house one time." Vaughan settled the issue in 1988 on the occasion of a blues festival in Europe where both he and Winter were on the bill, explaining that he has been misquoted and that "Every musician in Texas knows Johnny and has learned something from him".  Asked to compare their playing styles in an interview in 2010, Winter admitted that "mine's a little bit rawer, I think." 
Vaughan owned and used a variety of guitars during his career. His guitar of choice, and the instrument that he became most associated with, was the Fender Stratocaster, his favorite being a 1963 body, with a 1962 neck, and pickups dated from 1959. This is why Vaughan usually referred to his Stratocaster as a, "1959 Strat." He explained why he favored this guitar in a 1983 interview: "I like the strength of its sound. Any guitar I play has got to be pretty versatile. It's got a big, strong tone and it'll take anything I do to it." Vaughan also referred to this instrument as his "first wife," or, "Number One." Another favourite guitar, was a slightly later Strat he named 'Lenny' after his wife, Lenora. While at a local pawn shop in 1980, Vaughan had noticed this particular guitar, a 1965 Stratocaster that had been refinished in red, with the original sunburst finish peeking through. It also had a 1910 Mandolin inlay just below the bridge. The pawn shop was asking $300 for it, which was way more than Vaughan had at the time. Lenny saw how badly he wanted this guitar, so she got six of their friends to chip in $50 each, and bought it for him. The guitar was presented to him on his birthday in 1980, and that night, after bringing "Lenny" (the guitar, and wife) home with him, he wrote the song, "Lenny." He started using a borrowed Stratocaster during high school and used Stratocasters predominantly in his live performances and recordings, although he did play other guitars, including custom guitars.
One of the custom guitars—nicknamed "Main"—was built by James Hamilton of Hamiltone Guitars in Buffalo, New York. It was a gift from Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. Gibbons had commissioned Hamilton to build the guitar in 1979. There were some delays, including having to re-do the mother of pearl inlay of Vaughan's name on the fretboard when he changed his stage name from Stevie Vaughan to Stevie Ray Vaughan. The guitar was presented to him by Jim Hamilton on April 29, 1984. Jim Hamilton recalls that Stevie Ray Vaughan was so happy with the guitar that he played it that night at Springfest on the University of Buffalo campus. It remained one of the main guitars he used on stage and in studio. Vaughan made some alterations to the guitar, including replacing the bronze color Gibson knobs with white Fender knobs, as he preferred the ribbing on the Fender knobs. The pickups had to be changed after the guitar was used in the "Couldn't Stand the Weather" video, in which Stevie and "Main" were drenched with water, and the pickups were ruined. The guitar was also used in the "Cold Shot" video.
Vaughan bought many Stratocasters and gave some away as gifts. A sunburst Diplomat Strat-style guitar was purchased by Vaughan and given to his girlfriend Janna Lapidus to learn to play on. Vaughan used a custom set of uncommonly heavy strings, gauges .013, .015, .019, .028, .038, .058, and tuned a half-step below standard tuning. He played with so much tension that it was not uncommon for him to separate his fingernail from the quick movement along the strings. The owner of an Austin club recalled Vaughan coming into the office between sets to borrow some super glue, which he used to keep fingernail split from widening while he continued to play. The super glue was suggested by Rene Martinez, who was Stevie's guitar technician. Martinez eventually convinced Stevie to change to slightly lighter strings. He preferred a guitar neck with an asymmetrical profile (thicker at the top) which was more comfortable for his thumb-over style of playing. Heavy use of the vibrato bar necessitated frequent replacements; Vaughan often had his roadie, Byron Barr, obtain custom stainless steel bars made by Barr's father. Vaughan was also photographed playing a National Duolian, Epiphone Riviera, Gibson Flying V, as well as several other models. Vaughan used a Gibson Johnny Smith to record "Stang's Swang", and a Guild 12-string acoustic for his performance on MTV Unplugged in January 1990. On June 24, 2004, one of Vaughan's Stratocasters, the aforementioned "Lenny" strat, was sold at an auction to benefit Eric Clapton's Crossroads Centre in Antigua; the instrument was bought by Guitar Center for $623,500.
On the acoustic side, Vaughan played a Guild F-412 12-string guitar.
Vaughan was a catalyst in the revival of vintage amplifiers and effects during the 1980s. His loud volume and use of heavy strings required powerful and robust amplifiers. Vaughan used two black-face Fender Super Reverbs, which were crucial in shaping his clear overdriven sound. He would often blend other amps with the Super Reverbs, including black-face Fender Vibroverbs, and brands such as Dumble, and Marshall, which he used for his clean sound. While his mainstay effects were the Ibanez Tube Screamer and a Vox wah-wah pedal, Vaughan experimented with a range of effects. He used a Fender Vibratone, designed as a Leslie speaker for electric guitars, and provided a warbling chorus effect, which can be heard on the track "Cold Shot". He used a vintage Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face that can be heard on In Step, as well as an Octavia. The Guitar Geek website provides a detailed illustration of Vaughan's 1985 equipment set up based on interviews with his guitar tech and effects builder, Cesar Diaz.
Vaughan throughout his career revived blues rock and paved the way for many other artists. Vaughan's work continues to influence numerous blues, rock and alternative artists, including John Mayer, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Mike McCready, Albert Cummings, Los Lonely Boys and Chris Duarte, among others. Allmusic's Stephen Thomas Erlewine described Vaughan as "the leading light in American blues" and developed "a uniquely eclectic and fiery style that sounded like no other guitarist, regardless of genre". In 1983, Variety magazine called Vaughan the "guitar hero of the present era".
In the months that followed his death, Vaughan sold over 5.5 million albums in the United States. On September 25, 1990, Epic released Family Style, an LP the Vaughan brothers cut at Ardent Studios in Memphis, Tennessee. The label released several promotional singles and videos for the collaborative effort. In November 1990, CMV Enterprises released Pride and Joy, a collection of eight Double Trouble music videos. Sony signed a deal with the Vaughan estate to obtain control of his back catalog, as well as permission to release albums with previously unreleased material and new collections of released work. On October 29, 1991, The Sky Is Crying was released as Vaughan's first posthumous album with Double Trouble, and featured studio recordings from 1984–1985. Other compilations, live albums, and films have also been released since his death.
On October 3, 1991, Texas governor Ann Richards proclaimed "Stevie Ray Vaughan Commemoration Day", during which a memorial concert was held at the Texas Theatre. In 1993, a memorial statue of Vaughan was unveiled on Auditorium Shores and is the first public monument of a musician in Austin. In September 1994, a Stevie Ray Vaughan Memorial Run for Recovery was held in Dallas; the event was a benefit for the Ethel Daniels Foundation, established to help those in recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction who cannot afford treatment. In 2005, Martha Vaughan established the Stevie Ray Vaughan Scholarship, awarded by W.E. Greiner Middle School to students who intend to attend college and pursue the arts as a profession.
Vaughan won five W. C. Handy Awards and was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2000. In 1985, he was named an honorary admiral in the Texas Navy. Vaughan had a single number-one hit on the Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart for the song "Crossfire". His album sales in the US stand at over 15 million units. Family Style, released shortly after his death, won the 1991 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album and became his best-selling, non-Double Trouble studio album with over a million shipments in the US. In 2003, Rolling Stone ranked him seventh among the "100 Greatest Guitar Players of All Time". He also became eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, but did not appear on a nominations roster until 2014. He was inducted in the RRHOF alongside Double Trouble in 2015. Guitar World Magazine ranked him as no. 8 in its list of The 100 Greatest Guitarists.
In 1994 the city of Austin, Texas erected the Stevie Ray Vaughan Memorial on the hiking trail beside Lady Bird Lake.