Before the phrase was used for a video game, before it became slightly ironic to be super good at your instrument, before you knew what every guitarist ate for breakfast on Instagram, before Lil Wayne made a “rock” album, we used to have Guitar Heroes. Men — and a few women — who stalked the highways of the world slinging their six strings up and down the road, who could be identified by a single riff, and sometimes by a single name. Clapton. The Three Kings. Muddy. Prince. Hendrix. Robert. Van Halen.
The Age of the Guitar Heroes ended, give or take a Nevermind, on Aug. 27, 1990, when the last mythical guitar giant left this astral plane via a tragic helicopter crash outside Troy, Wisconsin. Stevie Ray Vaughan was the last musical myth we’ll maybe ever have, the last guy who seemed more tall tale than physically tall. Every story about him — like every story about B.B. and Muddy and Hendrix — feels apocryphal, impossible, improbable. Did Stevie Ray Vaughan really drop out of playing on David Bowie’s Let’s Dance tour because he held Bowie up for money? Did he really record all of his debut album in a day at Jackson Browne’s studio, of all places? Did he really jump onstage with Albert King as a teenager? He’s the last guitarist who conceivably could have the “He sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads” story told about him, and have people believe it.
Stevie Ray Vaughan was the last of a dead breed, a blues guitarist continuum that stretched from Robert Johnson and Son House to the electrified blues of the ’50s, the British Invasion of the ’60s, the fallow era for the blues that was the ’70s and, finally, to the MTV ’80s via Vaughan. There have been blues guitarists since, but none that loom large over the genre like Stevie did, none that have entered classic rock radio in the same way. But he was also on the cusp of something, just truly coming into his own, newly sober, when his helicopter went down when leaving Alpine Valley after a show. He’s not only a Guitar Hero, he’s a What If? too.
Vaughan had already done his 10,000 hours by the time he released his debut LP, Texas Flood, the most important, and definitely most impactful, blues album of the last 40 years. There isn’t even a record that comes close; the only one that challenges its supremacy is Couldn’t Stand the Weather, Stevie’s second album.
Texas Flood stands as singularly important, however, due to the aesthetic advancements it announces from the first bars of its first single and second song, “Pride and Joy,” a song that doesn’t so much start as it takes off, an opening riff hitting the solar plexus like a 747 engine to the dome. Stevie was the first blues guitarist to come of age in a post-rock world who seemed to absorb all its tendencies. This was blues music that could crush you like a Zeppelin live show, had more pyrotechnics than a WWF show in Madison Square Garden, had more flair than the New York Dolls, Kiss and Motley Crue combined, and sounded like the ’80s. Stevie and his band were notoriously so loud, the president of legendary blues label Alligator Records passed on them, more than once. Texas Flood sounded like stocks and bonds, it sounded like a New Day in America, it sounded like cocaine bought cheap from someone with a connection to Escobar himself. It was blues daring enough to sound big and, for lack of a better term, badass, but also pay homage to the forebears who came before it. It was a veritable blues camel going through the eye of a needle, a once-in-a-lifetime moment of the perfect performer coming at the perfect time. Every blues album since has had to at least wrestle with its existence, a looming comet over everything every blues guitarist has done since.
But that mythical story and aura shrouds the man at its center. Because, after all, Texas Flood is, ultimately, the story of a Texas boy ascending, making his way from Austin to the world, thanks to his guitar.
Born in Dallas in 1954, Vaughan and his older brother Jimmie were blues-obsessed kids raised on the Texas blues, a genre more-or-less insular from the wider blues world, as its greatest performers — Freddie King, Lightnin’ Hopkins and T-Bone Walker — were able to make a tidy living touring the juke joints of the Lone Star State. Eventually, the swing associated with Texas blues would be absorbed into Chicago blues via the great migration, but Texas boys remained the best at capturing its true spirit; if Chicago blues could swing, Texas blues swang, rhythmically woozy and as unique as sonic explorations made by Texas rap producers like DJ Screw decades later.
The Vaughans studied the greats of Texas Blues, and incorporated one giant from outside to their canon: Albert King, whose string-bending prowess always spoke the lingua franca of Texas Blues as much as it spoke the Delta. This combo made the brothers titans of the Texas blues scene almost instantly.
By the early ’70s, both Vaughans had committed their entire lives to studying blues records and playing guitar, and both moved to Austin, Texas, where country artists like Doug Sahm and Willie Nelson had recently moved and kicked off a boom in the city’s music scene. The Vaughans became fixtures of Austin’s blues scene, playing local clubs like Antone’s, where the owner frequently pushed for Stevie especially to join visiting luminaries like Albert King and Muddy Waters on stage. He often blew them away, and his reputation in Austin became so big, it seemed like it’d be just a matter of time before the world came calling. It didn’t.
It would take a decade of gigging in Austin for Stevie’s big break, as he played often, and got opportunities opening for Muddy Waters on tour — during which, a cop caught him doing cocaine and he faced charges, according to Alan Paul and Andy Aledort’s biography, Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan — but the blues wasn’t selling so no label was scouting for Stevie at the time. That changed, however, when Jerry Wexler — the same man who discovered Willie and Doug Sahm’s country music haven in Austin and signed them — recommended Stevie to the bookers of the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1982, which had a blues stage. Stevie flew to Switzerland with his band, called Double Trouble, and the group was equally booed and cheered as they ripped through standards like Freddie King’s “Hide Away.” They were loud, brash and confident, which didn’t always jive with the attitude of the stuffy folks in the crowd at Montreux.
Despite the mixed reaction, things were never the same after the festival. First, at night in one of the hotels housing the artists, Double Trouble played an impromptu set in the bar, which became the stuff of legends. According to Paul and Aledort’s biography, Jackson Browne’s bassist stumbled into the band playing, and immediately called the rest of the band, including Jackson, and none of them could believe what they were hearing. The volume was immense, but everyone realized that Stevie and his band were stars in waiting.
Second, off his set at Montreux, Stevie was hired by David Bowie and producer Nile Rodgers to lend his flair to the lead single off what would become David Bowie’s biggest album in America, Let’s Dance. Within minutes and just a take, Stevie would launch his popular career; as recounted to Paul and Aledort, he said of his contribution to “Let’s Dance,” “I just sprayed Albert King all over the fucker,” and he played guitar solos on the rest of the album.
And, finally, Vaughan and Double Trouble were “discovered” by John Hammond — “I signed Bob Dylan” John Hammond — who recommended the band to the head of Epic Records, which eventually signed Vaughan. He’d remain on the label for the eight years of his major recording career. But first, he had to make his debut. Thankfully, he already had one in the can.
In between blowing the socks off artists in their hotel, and being signed by Epic Records, Vaughan and Double Trouble took Browne up on a tossed off offer in Montreux to drop by his studio in L.A. for three days of free recording if they wanted. Over Thanksgiving Weekend in 1982 — the band had “off” for the holiday — Vaughan, bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Chris Layton laid down a 10-song demo that captured everything magical about the band in that moment. It captured their raw power, and Stevie practically jumps out of the speakers and points at himself; it’s the sound of an immense talent doing his thing to the highest level.
Texas Flood opens with “Love Struck Baby,” one of six Stevie Ray Vaughan originals on the album, and probably its most traditional-leaning. Its up-tempo groove and machine gun lyrics in the verses fit in alongside ZZ Top’s Eliminator and the work of George Thorogood. It’s not until “Pride and Joy” that you realize something else is happening here: 40 years later, it struts like peak-era Hendrix, has more fireworks than the Fourth of July, and might as well be Stevie’s calling card, his main contribution to the spectral blues catalog. You’ve heard this in a bar — both this version, and cover versions by bands playing that night — if you’ve sought a cold beer in the last four decades.
Though his originals brought him to MTV — “Love Struck Baby” was in regular rotation on the then-new network — Stevie’s incredible selection of covers is what made him part of the blues lineage, and cemented his place in it. On Texas Flood, he toe-dips into covering Jimi Hendrix, as he tackles “Testify,” a song by the Isley Brothers that featured a pre-military service Hendrix on the axe on his first-ever recording (Stevie would later cover “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” on Couldn’t Stand the Weather; do yourself a favor and watch one of the clips of him doing this live right now. We’ll wait.) He covers Buddy Guy’s loopy “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and the title track allows Stevie to pay homage to his Texas blues forebears. Even though the original song was played on by Chicago bluesmen, he made it into a song about Texas pride, and turned the slow blues crawler into a showcase for himself, as he wields his guitar like it’s a singing siren, concerned over who might be lost in the floodwaters of the Brazos.
Texas Flood never broke the top 30 — it peaked at No. 38 — and no Stevie Ray Vaughan album would before The Sky Is Crying, a posthumous album released in 1991. For the eight years he was a public-facing Guitar Hero, Stevie Ray Vaughan did something that no other bluesman could in the era: He made the blues seem alive, an ongoing musical concern that wasn’t best made by men long-dead or on Social Security (no disrespect meant). He was the blues made current, and for that, he’ll go down in the pantheon of greats, a man responsible for turning fans of Boy George and Michael Jackson onto Albert King. Texas Flood was the first book of his blues bible, one that is still worth devotion today.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.