By Denise Gamino
with Michael MacCambridge and Peter Blackstock
Once again, it was a day the music died. The red-hot blues of Stevie Ray Vaughan were silenced on a foggy hillside in Wisconsin early Monday when a helicopter crash killed the Grammy-winning Texas guitarist.
Vaughan, 35, who rose to worldwide fame in the 1980s while slinging his guitar in Austin clubs, had just completed an outdoor performance with guitar greats Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Buddy Guy and Jimmie Vaughan, his older brother.
When Vaughan was offered the only available seat on a Chicago-bound chartered helicopter leaving the Alpine Valley resort at 1:30 a.m., he accepted, according to his publicist. Shortly after takeoff, the five-seat Bell Jet Ranger helicopter slammed into a fog-shrouded ski slope several hundred yards behind the open-air stage, authorities said. The passengers were thrown about 200 feet from the wreckage and were killed instantly. There was no fire, authorities said.
The crash, which occurred in southeastern Wisconsin about 70 miles north of Chicago and 45 miles southwest of Milwaukee, also killed the pilot and three members of Clapton’s entourage – a manager, an agent and a bodyguard – authorities said.
The Austin-based members of Vaughan’s band, Double Trouble, and Jimmie Vaughan, founder of the equally renowned group the Fabulous Thunderbirds, could not be reached for comment. It was not known how they had traveled from the resort to Chicago, where they were staying on Monday.
Vaughan’s death inspired Texas radio stations to play nonstop tributes to the guitar wizard who helped push Austin to the forefront of the national music scene.
At Zilker Park Monday night, about 3,000 fans gathered to remember Vaughan at a vigil sponsored by KLBJ-FM. Speakers set up by the radio station carried Vaughan’s music to fans who sat with candles in hand and mourned their guitar hero.
The loss of Vaughan also saddened the legendary musicians whose true-blue licks had inspired the young high school dropout, who learned to play the guitar at age 7 in his hometown of Dallas and had club gigs by the time he was 13.
“Stevie Ray Vaughan was like one of my children, and I felt a great loss when I heard the news,” B.B. King said in a statement. “He was just beginning to be appreciated and develop his potential.”
Buddy Guy, the Chicago blues guitarist who was a longtime friend of Vaughan’s, fought back tears after he learned of the crash. “He was one of the greatest I ever met. My head ain’t right yet.”
Memories of Buddy Holly
Vaughan joins a list of U.S. musicians who died in air crashes, including Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper in 1959; Patsy Cline, 1963; Jim Reeves, 1964; Otis Redding, 1967; Jim Croce, 1973 and Ricky Nelson, 1985.
The crash “is the worst accident to happen to Texas music since Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper went down in the ’50s. It’s a void no one can fill,” said Casey Monahan, director of the Texas Music Office.
“Stevie was perhaps the pre-eminent ambassador of Texas music around the world”, Monahan said. "But, if you met him, he was one of the most humble and almost self-deprecating musicians you’d ever want to meet.
“People would go up to him, and say, `Oh, you’re the greatest,’ and he’d name off people like Buddy Guy and Albert Collins and say they are 10 times better than he would ever be. It was that level of humility that put Stevie in a class by himself among musicians.”
“I’m dumbfounded,” said W.C. Clark, who played with Vaughan in Triple Threat, which eventually evolved into Double Trouble. “I felt like a benefactor; I felt like I needed to take care of them,” said Clark, who celebrated his 50th birthday last year with an Austin City Limits show that also featured Vaughan.
“He was an easygoing person, really lovable. He loved people, but most of all he loved his music. He was really ambitious in his field, and I guess he proved that by the outcome of all the music he put out. He was just one of the best guitar players I’ve ever known.”
After Addiction, New Fame
Vaughan, who lived in Austin from 1972 to 1986 before returning to Dallas, overcame alcohol and cocaine to win two Grammy awards for his hot-rockin’ blues. In 1984, he was awarded a Grammy for best traditional blues recording for the song Texas Flood. This year, he won a Grammy in the contemporary blues category for the album "In Step". He also shared a Grammy in 1985 for his participation in the Blues Explosion compilation album.
He sought help for his drinking after falling on a London stage in October 1986. He later told interviewers that his addiction nearly killed him. After his recovery, he’d often introduce a song by dedicating it to those still suffering from addiction.
Charity got a healthy portion of Vaughan’s earnings. He was proud to outdo by $1,000 the $9,000 donation Bruce Springsteen made to Austin’s Capital Area Food Bank in 1986.
Vaughan mesmerized his loyal, sold-out audiences with a flamboyant playing style that included the theatrics of playing guitar behind his back, over his head and with his teeth. Sometimes it was difficult to tell whether Vaughan made his Fender Stratocaster or the audience scream louder. His quick fingers could make the good times roll faster than lightning.
He could be counted on to show up in flashy clothes – capes, colorful suits, beaded vests, and, always, a low-brimmed hat and funky boots. For his last concert, he chose purple pants.
The concert at the Wisconsin resort’s Alpine Valley Music Theater before an estimated 25,000 fans ended about 12:15 a.m. with a final encore jam by the five guitarists, who played Sweet Home Chicago. As they played, anyone looking behind the stage could see the four helicopters lined up on the lawn.
Clapton’s manager, Roger Forrester, told Britain’s Sky News: “We had four helicopters, and Eric and I were in one directly behind it when it suddenly disappeared from view. “Obviously we were not aware of the tragic circumstances until the early hours when daybreak broke and they discovered it on a ski slope directly behind the building in which we had just performed.”
In addition to Vaughan, killed in the crash was Bobby Brooks, 34, Clapton’s agent at Creative Artists Agency, who also represented Crosby, Stills & Nash, Whoopi Goldberg, Pat Benatar, Jackson Browne and Dolly Parton. Also killed were Nigel Browne, a Clapton bodyguard; Colin Smythe, one of Clapton’s tour managers, and Jeff Brown, the pilot for Omni Flight Helicopters, Inc. of Chicago.
The Weather’s Role in the Crash
The hot, humid weather in Wisconsin’s dairy farmland apparently contributed to the heavy fog that settled in the region Sunday night. 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 than sight. “It was extremely foggy,” said Nora Kinnally, director of artist relations for Alligator Records in Chicago. “It was to the point where our windshield wipers were going the whole time, and it wasn’t raining.”
Kinnally had been invited by Vaughan to spend the concert backstage. “I witnessed the greatest show of blues guitar players,” she said. “It was just amazing.”
After Vaughan’s helicopter went down, “the transmitter, the black box signal, was picked up by the Civil Air Patrol at 2 a.m., and the (Walworth County) sheriff’s office was notified at that time,” said Jim Wincek, marketing director for Lakeland Medical Center in Elkhorn. The wreckage was found about 5 a.m., he said. The bodies were taken to the Lakeland hospital, where autopsies were to be performed, Wincek said.
The National Transportation Safety Board dispatched an investigator to the crash site, but the public report on the cause of the crash probably won’t be completed for months, officials said.
“It was a high-energy impact at a shallow angle,” said Bill Bruce, the NTSB investigator.
Vaughan’s family — his brother and mother, Martha, of Dallas — were unavailable for comment on Monday. Family friends said the arrangements for services and memorials will be announced later. Vaughan was divorced.
“We’re in a state of shock,” said Vaughan publicist Charles Comer. “It was such a freak thing: There were four helicopters, and (Clapton tour manager) Peter Jackson told Stevie that they had three seats available on one of the first flights out. Stevie and Jimmie and his wife Connie were going to take that. Then after a few minutes, Peter came back and said there was just one seat. Then Stevie asked Jimmie, `Do you mind if I take it?,’ and then he went ahead on that one.”
“It’s such a tragic waste. When you think that he helped so many people. It was just absolutely incredible. It was the last seat.”
Members of Double Trouble — bassist Tommy Shannon, drummer Chris “Whipper” Layton and keyboardist Reese Wynans, all of Austin — were unavailable for comment Monday.