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,
Wisconsin, 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."