This Day in History: August 27th- A Foggy Night and the Death of a Legend

This Day In History: August 27, 1990

Stevie-Ray-VaughanDallas, Texas, native Stevie Ray Vaughan grew up inspired to play guitar by his older brother Jimmie Vaughan (of the Fabulous Thunderbirds) and went the usual garage band route of most aspiring young musicians. He formed the band Double Trouble from the ashes of an earlier band in 1978, taking on both lead vocal and lead guitar duties.

The band grew an enormous following in the Austin area and attracted the attention of Jackson Browne and David Bowie. In 1983, Browne offered the band free studio time, and Bowie asked Stevie Ray to play guitar on his latest album “Let’s Dance.” Vaughan gladly accepted both offers. Later that year, Double Trouble landed a contract with Epic Records and recorded their debut album “Texas Flood” in less than a week.

Throughout the ‘80s, Stevie continued to give us a welcome, kick-ass alternative to hair- and boy-bands with classic rock-blues offerings like “Couldn’t Stand the Weather” and “Soul to Soul” (1984 and 1985), bringing some much needed bluesy-cool to the 1980s musical landscape with virtuoso guitar mastery arguably not seen since the glory days of Clapton and Hendrix. Stevie’s biggest triumph came in 1989 with “In Step,” Double Trouble’s biggest seller to date which won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Recording.

This brings us to the spring of 1990 when Stevie Ray got together with his brother Jimmie to record an album (“Family Style”) scheduled for release that fall. Meanwhile, Stevie and Double Trouble hit the road on a headlining North American tour. They had just wrapped up over three dozen gigs with guitar hero Jeff Beck when the band hooked up to do some dates with living legend Eric Clapton in East Troy, WI., on August 26, 1990.

After the show, in the early morning hours of August 27th, 35-year-old Stevie Ray Vaughan died when the helicopter he was riding crashed. There were no survivors. It took many hours for an air patrol team to locate the accident site, but getting to the crash sooner wouldn’t have helped. Autopsies revealed everyone died on impact.  Vaughan himself had multiple injuries that would have been individually fatal, including transection and dissection of the aorta, skull fractures, and a ruptured spleen and liver. Eric Clapton and Jimmie Vaughan had the unenviable task of identifying Stevie Ray’s and Clapton’s business team’s bodies.

It also should be noted that, contrary to rumors that began circulating almost immediately after the tragedy and persist to this day, Stevie Ray did not take a seat meant for Eric Clapton at the last minute. Rather, after the show when Vaughan, Jimmy, and Jimmy’s wife Connie tried to catch one of the four helicopters waiting to depart back to Chicago, they discovered their seats had been taken by Bobby Brooks, Nigel Browne, and Colin Smythe, members of Eric Clapton’s crew.  Vaughan was anxious to get back to Chicago as soon as possible, so took the last seat and left Jimmy and Connie behind.  The helicopter crashed shortly after takeoff when the pilot, Jeff Brown, accidentally ran it into a ski slope at a high speed.

At the time, the helicopter was at an altitude of around 850 feet, with the mountain being around 1000 feet tall.  It is thought the pilot had been attempting to take the helicopter around the mountain, rather than over it, but misjudged his position due to thick fog and darkness (it was about 1:00am).  Thus, he couldn’t see the mountain and was relying solely on instruments to navigate.  The helicopter did bank sharply just before crashing, so he probably at the last moment realized his mistake.

Stevie Ray Vaughan was buried in his hometown of Dallas, Texas on August 30, 1990. Among those present to pay their respects were Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Wonder, Jackson Browne and ZZ Top. The following year, Texas Governor Ann Richards declared Stevie’s birthday, October 3, “Stevie Ray Vaughan Day” in Texas. To celebrate, a blues concert and motorcycle rally is held to raise money for the Stevie Ray Vaughan Memorial Scholarship Fund. A fitting tribute to a musician whose name was, and is, worthy of being spoken with the true greats, despite the fact that he was really only just getting started.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Amazingly, this wasn’t the only death of a guitar legend Eric Clapton was loosely associated with in some way. Clapton was good friends with Jimi Hendrix and was supposed to meet him on the night of Hendrix’ death at a Sly and the Family Stone concert.  Clapton had bought him a guitar which was made for a lefty (Hendrix usually just played right handed guitars upside down).  However, Hendrix never got that guitar, having not show up to meet Clapton that night. Clapton later stated: “The next day, I heard that he had died. He had passed out, stoned on a mixture of booze and drugs, and choked on his own vomit. It was the first time the death of another musician really affected me. We had all felt obliterated when Buddy Holly died, but this was much more personal. I was incredibly upset and very angry, and was filled with a feeling of terrible loneliness… I went out in the garden and cried all day because he’d left me behind. Not because he’d gone, but because he hadn’t taken me with him. It just made me so fucking angry. I wasn’t sad, I was just pissed off.
  • Clapton was also supposedly one of the last people to see another of his good friends and famed guitarists, Duane Allman, before he died in a motorcycle crash in 1971 after swerving to avoid a truck and having his Harley land on top of him.
  • One of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s first bands when he was 14 years old was Cast of Thousands.  This band’s lead singer was future actor Stephen Tobolowsky (19 years of age at the time), who has since appeared in Heroes, Glee, CSI, Miss Congeniality 2, Sneakers, Kingpin, and Groundhog Day, among many others (I stopped counting at 112 movies and TV shows he’s appeared in, usually with very minor roles. In reality, it’s estimated he’s been involved in some capacity in around 200-400 movies and TV shows).
  • Tobolowsky passed up the role of Al on Home Improvement.  At the time, his wife was pregnant and he didn’t have much money.  They offered him $16,000 per episode to play that role, which he was excited to take until they told him the pilot might not be filmed for six months, but their contract had a stipulation that he’d have to be exclusive to the show while working for them, which meant he might only get paid $16,000 during a six month span for the one episode and maybe nothing after if the show wasn’t picked up.  Thus, with his child on the way, he turned down the role and took a few minor movie offers.  While this seemingly cost him millions of dollars in terms of what he would have earned on Home Improvement, some of the roles he took during the Home Improvement run launched his career as an A-list staple “guest star” type actor, including his memorable role in Groundhog Day.  BING!!!!
  • When he was quite young, Stevie Ray Vaughan took a job as a dish washer at a dairy mart, making 70 cents per hour.  He stated of this, “When I was about twelve, I had been a dishwasher for a while, and part of my job was to clean out the trash bin. That involved standing on these big 55-gallon barrels with wooden lids on them, where they’d put all the hot grease.   One day I was out there cleaning out the bin, having a blast, and the top broke and I fell in. Just as I finally got out—I’d been up to my chest in grease—they came with two fresh hot vats of boiling grease and I got out just in time. If I’d taken a break later, I would have been a fried guy! The woman fired me because I broke the lids on the barrel, and right then and there I decided, ‘Wait a minute. This is not what I want to do. I want to play guitar like Albert King!’ And that’s the last job I’ve had other than playing guitar. So, thank you, Albert, for helping me there.”
  • Jimi Hendrix joined the army, not because he wanted to be a soldier, but because he didn’t want to go to jail.  He was arrested for riding around in stolen cars (twice) and the second time they told him he could spend two years in prison or join the army, he chose to enlist in the army and was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division.  This didn’t last long though as he was constantly getting in trouble for sleeping while on duty and disregarding rules and regulations.  His commanding officers finally requested that he be discharged, which he was.
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  • J. F. Gecik

    The lengthy and explicit quotation of Eric Clapton (concerning the death of Jimi Hendrix) is disgusting and should be removed from this page. The bad language — and ludicrous expression of the man’s desire to have died too — are tasteless, offensive, and of no benefit to readers of this otherwise decent story about Mr. Vaughan.