A piece of my heart died 27 years ago when a helicopter carrying Stevie Ray Vaughan slammed into the side of a mountain in East Troy, WI. He was my favorite guitar player and I made time to see him whenever he played in my area. Between the years of 1984 through 1990 I saw him seven times. In those six years, there were two that I saw him twice in a year and one year he was off the road.
He had just got finished playing a great show at Alpine Valley Amphitheater with some of his amazing friends, who included Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Buddy Guy and his brother, Jimmie Vaughan. As the show wrapped up, fog set in. Vaughan boarded a helicopter bound for Chicago following the stellar performance and within minutes after take off he was gone. Clapton would lose two crew members including his road manage and the pilot died also. Stevie Ray Vaughan died instantly in the early morning hours of August 27, 1990. This was the same day, Vaughan lost his father several years earlier. This is the day I pray for Jimmie Vaughan the most.
His brother was a superstar still on the rise when that accident dimmed his tone forever. The sounds he made bending notes, and the fire he ignited for the blues scene was like nothing anyone from my generation had seen. I had heard about Hendrix many of years but he died before I was even a toddler. In 1982, I was already an avid follower of the Rolling Stones and subscribed to a monthly fan newsletter that covered the Rolling Stones on the road, in the studio and everywhere. They had a personal assistant Bill German that offered their fan base a monthly issue of Stones news via his publication, Beggar’s Banquet. In those issues from the early 80’s SRV appears several times and it was where I learned about his appearance on the scene. He was photographed with Mick Jagger and Ron Wood the first time and he appeared in June of 1982 in another issue later in the following year posing with Mick alone.
David Bowie would also learn about this music prodigy through his friends the Stones, and would approach him following a festival performance overseas. At that show the band was booed for their performance but the caught the attention of Jackson Browne and Bowie that night. More proof that we should never listen to the critics and haters. Stevie Ray would have his first professional recording experience with the recording of Let’s Dance, David Bowie’s early 80’s return to the pop charts. As the two were about to set out on tour, Vaughan’s manager took his talent off the bus and made it his priority to get Stevie’s Band up and out there.
Within a few months Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, a name taken from an Otis Rush song, came on to the scene. They were signed by Epic Records and release their debut album Texas Flood in 1983. The opening track “Love Struck Baby” turned listeners on their ears. He had a raw, yet clean sound that grabbed you by the ears and made you pay attention. The second song would be his first release “Pride n Joy” was so popular it helped the band bust through the barrier set up between the blues and rock n roll.
Stevie Ray Vaughan hailed from Dallas Texas and his was like most things that come from that state, he was a BIG deal. He made his mark on the Austin music scene and after several band efforts he would end up in the trio that would help him fly. He was influenced most as a boy by watching his big brother Jimmie Lee Vaughan play guitar at home. By seven years old he was sneaking into his brother’s room to mess around on this guitars and by the age of 12 he was already forming a bands in his garage. By the time he was 15 he was getting the taste of money for making music and by the time Vaughan was 17 he walked away from high school and went on to educate and inspire the world about music on level few have achieved.
He was a musician’s musician and he had an appealing tone that truly grabbed your attention. Well, he did mine and I am not even a musician! I never stopped paying attention to him. In fact, I still talk to him like we were friends. Now that he is in a better place, I still feel his presence in my life. In 1990, I was on a mission after seeing him for the sixth time. I wrote Vaughan a letter in April of that year. I mailed it out with the hopes of hearing something in return.
He was back in New Jersey later that year in July. I got my tickets for the double bill of Stevie Ray Vaughan with Joe Cocker. I contemplated walking my young pretty self backstage that night. I wanted to ask him myself if he received my letter. Something told me not to bother him…there would be other opportunities…Lesson #1: Tomorrow’s not promised! That would have been my last opportunity. He died just five weeks later.
As it would turn out, Vaughan had a close encounter that night he played in the Garden State. He had a show at an amphitheater in Holmdel, NJ. It was at that show that a piece of stage scaffolding collapsed right near where Stevie and his fiance was standing seconds before. That mishap would take out three of Vaughan’s precious and priceless guitars including his trademark #1 and #2 guitars. His guitars were shipped out to his guitar tech Cesar Diaz in PA and he would be reunited with them later that month.
It has been written that SRV had a premonition of his death and a dream of attending his own funeral. He shared that story with his band mates before taking the stage to give a stellar and what turn out to be his best and final performance of all.
When the news broke, I heard it fall from Kurt Loder’s mouth on the morning MTV news. It was a moment I won’t ever forget. I was wearing the shirt I bought at his last NJ show, brushing my long hair down when I heard the news. I sat on my couch and cried. I cried like I lost a brother myself that day. It was even worse…I lost a part of my soul. So much emotion ran through me, it was like a whirlwind of every note I saw him play hitting me at once. I was numb. It took me weeks to accept it as a reality.
For many reasons I feel he never left. In late November 1983 I was packing my house and getting ready for a move. While packing up my bedroom, I came across a box with that letter I wrote to Stevie Ray Vaughan. It was the draft version of the letter I mailed. It was handwritten and straight from the heart. On the pages I confessed my love for him and explained my desire to tour with the band to tell their story to the world. It was my thought that I could write a monthly publication for the band’s fan base and compile stories for the biography. I spoke of his music and filled him with praise for committing to a life of sobriety and inspiring so many others.
When I found it, I opened it, read it fully, cried, closed it and put it back in the box. As with all things in this life, we must go on. Later that week his face would appear on the front of a music magazine published weekly and sold at newsstands in NJ. The EC Rocker was also The Aquarian Weekly and published by Arts Weekly in Montclair, NJ. I would take that issue to my college professor and ask her to set up an interview at the publication, to serve for my internship. She did, and I would be granted access to the coolest job I ever had working for another.
On February 4, 1994 I would start my first day at work as an intern for the paper I read weekly to keep up with bands around the area. There are no words for my enthusiasm at this point. When I returned a couple of days later for day two, I was roaring and ready to conquer the rock n roll world. In reality, I called clubs to get their schedule for my boss and editor Keith Lyle.
After several weeks of doing this in a well-organized manner, my editor fell ill and asked me to cover a show. From that moment on I would also hit the scene running and never looked back. I went out nearly every night after that seeking live music sounds. Long before my internship was complete, I took over writing the column called Bea Flatte, and being true to my love for the blues, I would soon fill the space with news about blues acts as well as local cover bands.
Those efforts would lead to me having my own blues column for the paper. “Boogie n Blues” covered the local, regional and national blues scene each week. Though that was fun and always amazing, the highlight of my time working for the publication came in early 1995, when my editor approached me about doing a cover story. Bob Makin had the idea of doing a story about SRV and Jimi Hendrix, 5 and 25 years after they died. The article was called Crossroads and it was the first tribute and first cover story I would ever write and publish.
Years later that article would appear in a book on Stevie Ray Vaughan called Stevie Ray Vaughan Day After Day, Night After Night, His Final Years, written by Craig Hopkins and forwarded by Texas slinger Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top.
In writing that article I interviewed many people about playing with Stevie Ray Vaughan. I had an opportunity to reach Jimmie Vaughan, but I never took it because I could not get through the pain of talking to him about his brother. I don’t know if I regret this decision entirely. On the fifth anniversary of his brother’s death, I would meet Jimmie Vaughan briefly and give him a copy of my article. He shared the stage with Etta James and BB King that night and he was on fire playing through his emotions, at the Sony Blockbuster Amphitheater in Camden New Jersey. There was not a dry eye in the house when he offered his own version of “The Sky Is Crying.” Personally I remember losing it when he launched into his own tribute song “Six Strings Down” which I used as an opening to my article.
In writing this article I would get to know and become friends with Jeff Healey, who was a dear friend and huge admirer of Stevie Ray Vaughan. After our phone interview about SRV we would meet in person a few months later, when Healey was out in support of his blues release “Cover To Cover.” Jeff and I would remain in touch, mostly via email, which is interesting since he was blind, and sometimes by phone, until he got sick in 2007. He lost his battle to cancer and the world lost another great blues stringer in March 2008. I mourn both of their losses.
My love for the blues and my connection to Stevie Ray Vaughan is on a soul level. Loving his music has inspired me to do much of the work I do today for other brilliant guitar players. This has been most true since he left this earth.
One day in April I covered a blues festival at one of my favorite venues in NJ, the Stanhope House is a historic landmark and it opened its door to live rockin blues as tradition would have it. When new owners stepped in and offered a First Annual Blues Festival, I called friends and took flight to cover the event. It was on that day I would meet a guitar player that would finally help heal the numbing loss of SRV. And as crazy as it might sound, it was like he was with me in the room that day and asked me what I thought? Crazier things have happened ya know! Ted Wielgopolski was destined to be a part of my life. Back then he was the Young Gun and a young badass hailing from the back woods valleys and coal mountain region of Pennsylvania.
In the beginning of our journey, he was well on his way to living his life on the road and married to music at age 21. I was vested in growing my career as a music journalist at the age of 25. However, when we met it was immediate, magical and very matter of fact! It took only one meeting to know we wanted to work together more. I would become his personal assistant, helped grow his fan base and created the promotion campaigns that marketed his band projects.
I would spend the next eleven years devoted to his story and promoting his guitar. Teddy Young and The Aces are still making music in the same region of the world as when I met them and they have a new recording out this year. Getting over Ted has offered me much the same anguish as Stevie’s death. Though there are sure signs that SRV was apart of arranging that encounter.
Leaving that chapter in my life, left my soul devoid of music and my heart numb from the pain. As time has marched on, I devoted my time to the only son I have and put away the dreams of writing and depicting killer guitar sounds on hold. But I did it with the promise of returning to music.
Once my son started planning for college, I started scoping out a plan to make my return to music. Having been my own boss for so long, I decided that instead of joining a newspaper staff with my talents for covering live music, I would create my own publication. This blog comes to you each week because of my crazy love and connection to music. The man who fueled it most was Stevie Ray Vaughan.
When my son and I made our last move, which returned me to my mother’s home, I found that note again. I read it again and even cried again. Within months after reading that letter I was well on my way to becoming a blogging fool. Just as history repeats itself, several months in I would meet a guitar player that would stop me dead in my damn tracks with his talent and sound. Enter in my world Adam Hill and you find another deep connection that killer guitar mastery that blends genres and makes sounds that beg for your attention. Today I work hard to promote Hill’s efforts throughout the state of NC. I do it out of my deep love for his music. That is what happens when you inspire people.
I know he hailed from Texas and we lost him in Wisconsin, but Stevie Ray Vaughan has been alive in my heart since the day I saw him play on stage on a Pier in NYC. I have taken him with me everywhere, since that day he etched his name on my soul with his signature guitar playing. He inspired my mind, and helped to inspire me becoming the person I am today. I wanted to be Stevie Ray’s, Bill German and write the stories of his life, but God had a different plan.
Now I write stories of other bad ass guitarists and help to keep music alive by connecting people to via valuable promotions. My hard work on the music scene is a constant tribute to the dreams this man created for me in the mid 1980’s and took with him 27 years ago.
Today we mourn the man who helped ignite the Texas music scene again, as we pray for the people suffering in the Texas Flood happening now in his home state!