Stevie Ray Vaughan was born on October 3, 1954 in Dallas, Texas, the son of
26-year-old Martha Jean Vaughan and Jimmie Lee Vaughan , a soldier from
Rockwall, Texas. For Christmas 1963, Stevie received a western toy guitar made
by Sears and learned to play songs like "Wine, Wine, Wine" and "Thunderbird" by
Texan garage rock band The Nightcaps. His brother, Jimmie Vaughan, was three
years older and was his first big influence. Later influences would include such
players as Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Guy. After a few years as a sideman in and
around Austin, Vaughan formed the band “Double Trouble”, with whom he earned a
platinum album with in "Couldn't Stand the Weather," released in 1984, and won a
Grammy Award for best traditional blues recording for a song called "Flood Down
in Texas." that same year.
Donning his trademark wide-brimmed felt hat, he was also noted for using the
Fender Stratocaster and, in the mid-1980s, gained popularity with his guitar
jamming and blues sound reminiscent of music legends B.B. King, Muddy Waters and
Albert Kins. But, in 1986, after years of substance abuse from alcohol and
cocaine, “SRV” collapsed during an engagement in London.
"This might sound funny, but fortunately I collapsed." Vaughan told reporters
in 1989. "In a sense. I knew this thing was coming, I knew I couldn't keep going
the way l was. I had a nervous breakdown. I had not been able to obtain any
drugs for about two weeks, but the drinking was still going on. If I was awake I
was guzzling something." He spent a month in
drug rehabilitation in Atlanta,
Georgia, got involved with Alcoholics Anonymous, and remained clean and sober
for the next four years...
In 1990, the 35 year-old Vaughan, nicknamed “SRV” for his initials, he won a
Grammy in the contemporary blues category for "In Step" – a reference to A.A.'s
noted 12-Step Program. The success of the record propelled Vaughan on to a
nationwide summer music tour, and was looking forward to the release of an album
in September recorded with his older brother - himself now a well known musician
who formed “The Fabulous Thunderbirds”.
Called the "In Step" tour, Stevie Ray Vaughan was slated to play two shows -
on August 25 & 26 of 1990 - at Alpine Valley Music Theatre – an outdoor theater
complex located near a ski resort about six miles southwest of East Troy in
southeastern Wisconsin - with Eric Clapton. The shows also featured Buddy Guy,
Jeff Healey, Robert Cray, Jimmie Vaughan, and Bonnie Raitt. At the time, it was
the largest amphitheater in the United States, and a popular venue for Milwaukee
and Chicago concert-goers, as well as musicians and bands nationwide.
Wisconsin State Journal music writer Michael St. John wrote on that evening's
concert, “Texas terror Stevie Ray Vaughan followed, bobbing and weaving from
Note One through an R&B instrumental that ignited every set of vocal cords in
the packed amphitheater. Singing "The house is rockin' " was overstating the
obvious. By the third song, Vaughan was playing like he wished there were a few
more frets on his battered Stratocaster and his Double Trouble trio drummer KO'd
the head on his snare drum. "Little Sister" was full of licks that could have
given Vaughan's speaker cabinets third-degree burns. "Y'all ready?" was all the
warning the crowd received before a frenzied romp through "Superstition,"
"Couldn't Stand The Weather," the musical machine gun bursts of "Crossfire" and
the closer, "Voodoo Child," most of which was fired off one-handed,” before Stevie Ray Vaughan gave the stage to Eric Clapton.
"The House is Rockin"
But, after Eric Clapton finished his set, at 11:55 pm – to ear-deafening
applause – he introduced "the best guitar players in the entire world." One by
one, Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray, and Jimmie Vaughan all strolled
on stage with their Fender Stratocasters for an encore jam to Robert Johnson's
"Sweet Home Chicago", a fitting tune as all of the musicians were home-ridden to
"Windy City". After 20 minutes, they finished off the tune, the lights went up,
and the musicians strolled off stage. Stevie Ray Vaughan was last off stage,
giving one final good-bye before he disappeared into the darkness of backstage.
Thinking ahead, tour manager Skip Rickert had reserved helicopters from Omni
Flights to bypass congested highway traffic after the concert. The helicopters
chosen were Bell 260B Jet Rangers, which were enough for five people to be
seated, including the pilot. Seats were reserved on the third Bell 260B Jet
Ranger for Stevie, Jimmie and his wife, Connie. However, a miscommunication
between Stevie's and Eric Clapton's management happened, as three members of
Clapton's staff - Clapton's Hollywood agent Bobby Brooks, body guard Nigel Browne and
assistant tour manager Colin Smythe - took three seats on the helo.
Leaving only one seat on the helicopter, and with SRV being anxious to get
back to Chicago, he asked his brother, Jimmie, if he could take the last seat on
the third helicopter. Since he didn't want to be separated from his wife, Jimmie
told him that was fine – the couple would just catch the next helo flight to
Chicago's Midway Airport.
In the dense fog and pitch-black night – later described by a corporate pilot
who attended the concert to NTSB officials as having a vertical visibility being
good and horizontal visibility variable, though at most times more than a mile -
the helicopters were clear for lift off at 12:40 that morning.
Greg Rzab, a member of the Buddy Guy blues band who was on one of the four
helicopters, said that the fog, and condensation sticking to the helo's
exterior, were thick on takeoff. "We kept wiping the glass bubble on the copter
... and after we got up 10 feet, it fogged up again and we couldn't see," Rzab
said. "I turned to Buddy and said, 'This is really bad,' and Buddy just looked
at me and said, 'I hope they know where they're going.' " Just past the lift-off
zone was a 300-foot hill.
Vaughan's helicopter, registered as N16933, was piloted by Jeffrey W. Brown,
who was unfamiliar with the flight pattern for exiting the area over a high
altitude and in dense fog. Brown had a bit of a colorful aviation career to that
point. Records from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) showed that he had
been involved in two previous minor crashes, including an "uncontrolled
collision with the ground" in 1977 and a crash in September 1989 blamed on
engine malfunction. The commercial pilot has also had his certificate suspended
for four days in 1973 for improper marking of an aircraft, according to FAA
spokesman Roland Helwig, at the agency's center in Oklahoma City,
And, on top of that, despite having a commercial helicopter
rating, and being certified to instruct in helicopters, his instrument rating
was only valid for flying in airplanes - not helicopters - a skill requisite to
his intended flight.
Brown was guided off the landing zone, flying at a high speed about a
half-mile from take-off. It then, however, veered off to one side, disappeared
into the darkness.
At the airport in Kankakee, Illinois, the electronic signal sent by an
emergency locator transmitter (ELT) was received shortly afterward, and local
authorities were quickly notified, Walworth County Sheriff Dean R. McKenzie
Authorities traced the signal to Walworth County by about 4:45 in the morning
– around the same time that Omni Flights concluded that one of their Jet Rangers
was missing – and then contacted sheriff's deputies about 5.45 a.m. that the
signal originated near the resort. At 6:45 that morning, sheriff's deputies
began searching the hill with help from the Civil Air Patrol.
At 7:02 a.m., the bodies of all 5, and wreckage from the helicopter, were found
near a ski hill at Alpine Valley, scattered along a gravel service road near the
top of the hill. All were killed on impact, their bodies were thrown across a
200-foot slope. Initial observations were that the helicopter had slammed into
the hill at such a high rate of speed and it happened so quickly that all 5
never knew what hit them.
Investigators on scene at the helo's crash site
Close-up of the helicopter's wreckage
A view up of the helicopter's path of destruction
Aerial picture of the crash site and scattered debris
"The Sky in Crying"
Walworth County Coroner John Griebel said autopsies showed the five crash
victims all suffered multiple internal injuries and skull injuries that killed
them on impact. Griebel also said
signs of drugs or alcohol were absent from the
wreckage, and that all five bodies were intact and taken to Lakeland Medical
Center in nearby Elkhorn where, later that morning, Eric Clapton and Jimmie
Vaughan would be summoned by Griebel to identify the bodies .
About 40 fans from Sunday night's concert sobbed and gazed up the hill during
breakfast that Monday morning at the resort's restaurant. A handful made the
quarter-mile uphill trek in steamy weather to view the wreckage, before the
debris was moved the following day to an airport hangar at Janesville for
Bill Bruce, a National Transportation Safety Board investigator, said the
Bell Jet Ranger helicopter slammed into the hill in dense fog, but it was not
certain if weather contributed to the accident. "It was a high-energy impact at
a shallow angle."
Drucella Andersen, a spokeswoman for the National Transportation Safety
Board, said NTSB investigator Bill Bruce was concentrating Wednesday on clearing
remaining wreckage from the hill.
Gene Doub of the NTSB regional office in Chicago said the wreckage would
undergo a detailed check of mechanical systems. "They'll take a look at systems
to try to rule in or rule out any mechanical malfunctions," Doub said.
But the investigators were quickly finding that the fog and low clouds were a
factor in the mishap. Dominic Scaffidi, a National Weather Service forecaster at
Sullivan, said fog had reduced visibility overnight to below two miles in parts
of southern Wisconsin, a condition requiring pilots to fly by instruments rather
Back in Vaughan's hometown of Austin, and throughout the nation, his loss was
sorely felt. "His death is particularly sad, given that he'd cleaned up and was
playing the best music of his life," said Jeff Peterson of the "Austin City
Limits" TV program on which Vaughan had appeared.
"Stevie Ray Vaughan was like one of my children. " said B.B. King. "The loss
is a great loss for blues music and all fans of music around the world. He was
just beginning to be appreciated and develop his potential."
"Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bobby Brooks, Nigel Browne and Colin Smythe were my
companions, my associates and my friends," Eric Clapton said in a written
statement for the crash. "This is a tragic loss of some very special people. I
will miss all of them very much. I want to extend my deepest sympathies to their
In Austin and San Antonio, hundreds of fans held candlelight vigils the
evening of the crash in memory of Vaughan. Some wore T-shirts from his concerts
and copies of his trademark wide-brimmed felt hat.
"This is the big thing I respect about Stevie Ray. He'd come into the store,
ever how big he got, and he was always Stevie Ray. His popularity didn't change
him as far as this store is concerned one iota." said Ray Hennig, owner of Heart
of Texas Music in Austin. "One of the prettiest things Stevie ever did — his
first gold album that he got, when he got to town this is the first place he
stopped. He came racing in here to show Steven, my son. and myself." Hennig
Vaughan's family held a private family funeral service with
public graveside committal at noon on August 31, 1990, at Laurel Land Funeral Home in Dallas,
where Stevie was burind next to his father - who has died four years prior. The
family asked that donations go to the Stevie Ray Vaughan charitable fund of the
Communities Foundation of Texas in Dallas. The fund, set up after his death,
was to be used for drug abuse programs. Now, there are many
drug rehab program options available to any person who wants to get rid of his drug habit.
Nevertheless, Eric Clapton performed a Tuesday night concert to the more than
16,000 fans at the Sandstone Amphitheatre in Bonner Springs near Kansas City
less than 48 hours after the crash. But according to Gus Fasone, the general
manager at Sandstone, Clapton refused all interviews and demanded that reporters
and camera crews be barred from backstage, stating "The people around him, it's
like they are in shock. Backstage, it's like they aren't functioning, they're
going through the motions. But I think (the band) did an extremely brave thing.”
Clapton's tour ended on September 2nd, at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum in Biloxi,
On September 11th, 1992, the National Transportation Safety Board determined
the probable cause of this accident was the improper planning by the pilot, and
his failure to attain adequate altitude before flying over rising terrain at
night. Factors related to the accident were the darkness, fog, haze, rising
terrain, and the lack of visual cues that were available to the pilot.
Thomas Demetrio, a Chicago lawyer representing Vaughan's estate, said he was
not surprised by he NTSB findings. Papers he filed in a July 1992 lawsuit for
the estate contend that the helicopter charter company should have known that
the weather "precluded safe flying conditions." John Neilson, Omni Flight's
general manager, declined to comment on the NTSB report because he had not seen
it and because of the pending lawsuit.
In November of 1993, a statue memorializing the blues
guitarist was dedicated in Town Lake Park, Austin, Texas - near the site of his
last Austin concert.
On August 6, 1996, “A Tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan” was released, on which
Clapton covers several Vaughan compositions, in addition to B.B. King, Buddy
Guy, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Jimmie Vaughan, and Robert Cray.