He performed as he always had, as if the song of the moment would be his last. During the blistering, 20-minute rendition of “Sweet Home Chicago” that closed the show at the Alpine Valley Music Theater near East Troy, Wis., guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan was onstage with fellow bluesmen Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray and Vaughan’s older brother, Jimmie. Said Guy later: “It was one of the most incredible sets I ever heard Stevie play. I had goose bumps.”
Shortly afterward, at 12:15 A.M. on Aug. 27, the exhilarated musicians left the stage through a rear exit. Vaughan, 35, had planned to make the two-hour drive back to his Chicago hotel with his brother and sister-in-law, Connie, but at the last minute he chose to board a Bell 206B Jet Ranger, one of four helicopters waiting nearby. According to his New York City publicist, Charles Comer, Vaughan had learned from Clapton’s manager that there were seats enough to accommodate all three in his party. When he found only one place was actually available, Vaughan said to Connie and Jimmie, “Do you mind if I take the seat? I really need to get back.”
The helicopter took off in fog around 12:40 A.M. with Vaughan and four others aboard. Sweet Chicago would never be reached. Moments later the chopper’s remains lay spread across more than 200 feet of a man-made ski slope in a field dotted with bittersweet and Queen Anne’s lace. All on board were killed instantly in what National Transportation Safety Board investigator William Bruce later described as “a high-energy, high-velocity impact at a shallow angle.”
Fans leaving the noisy concert site did not hear the crash, which occurred on the far side of the nearby hill. In fact a search for the lost copter wasn’t begun until 5 A.M.—more than four hours later—after an orbiting search-and-rescue satellite picked up the craft’s emergency-locator transmitter signal. At 7 A.M. searchers found the bodies of Vaughan; Bobby Brooks, Clapton’s Hollywood agent; pilot Jeff Brown (who may have been unfamiliar with the hilly site’s tricky take-off procedures); Clapton’s assistant tour manager, Colin Smythe; and Clapton’s bodyguard, Nigel Browne. Later that morning Clapton and Jimmie Vaughan were summoned by the Walworth County coroner to identify the bodies.
The crash stilled the music of a man that many had considered on the lip of true stardom. Vaughan’s last album, In Step, had gone gold and won a Grammy, and a new LP had already been recorded for release later this month. The latter, titled Family Style, was a pet project of Vaughan and brother Jimmie, 38, who had quit his job as lead guitarist with the Fabulous Thunderbirds to work on the LP.
A promising guitar player by the time he was 8, Stevie Ray grew up in Dallas, the son of an asbestos plant worker and a secretary at a ready-mix cement factory. He abandoned high school at 17 and, with his brother, began haunting the all-night blues clubs of Austin, where his trademark bandito hat, tar-paper voice and potent playing became as familiar as the clubs’ watered-down drinks. A videotape of one performance, sent to Mick Jagger, led to a New York City nightclub appearance at Jagger’s request, but it was Vaughan’s stunning set at the 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival that brought him both a record contract and the wider recognition he deserved.
Vaughan had been plagued for years by severe alcohol and drug dependency, and he chronicled his successful struggle to kick the twin sins with his album In Step. “He just went straight in the last four years,” says a friend. “Since then he wouldn’t even drink tea with caffeine. It’s such a shame. He was such a sweet man.”
Five albums, countless tours and guest appearances—live and in the studio—with a pantheon of blues and rock performers like B.B. King and David Bowie had established the goateed musician as one of the reigning kings of his genre. “He did a lot for us blues players, keeping the blues happening,” says guitarist Albert Collins, who remembers seeing Vaughan play in Austin’s bars when the latter was still a teenager. “He was attractive to younger kids, and he always had this fire in him. He made the blues a young and old thing to listen to.” Grammy-winning blues singer Koko Taylor echoes Collins’s view. “People didn’t pay attention to the blues,” says Taylor. “Vaughan was one of the musicians who changed that.”
Vaughan had bought a home in the Highland Park section of Dallas about nine months ago; killed four years to the day after the death of his father, he will now be buried nearby. His death is a sad new addition to a series of similar air-crash tragedies that over the years have claimed such stars as Patsy Cline, Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Jim Croce, Rick Nelson and others. But to Vaughan’s friends and fans, the latest loss is far more than a sad statistic.
Last summer Vaughan had come to Chicago on another mission, to help Buddy Guy, whom he had known for a decade, open his new South Side nightclub. Hours before the crash the pair teamed up again for the last song Vaughan would ever perform. “Stevie is the best friend I’ve ever had, the best guitarist I ever heard and the best person anyone will ever want to know,” a choked-up Guy said the day after his friend’s death. “He will be missed a lot.”
—Steve Dougherty, Barbara Sandler in Chicago and Beth Austin in East Troy