For decades, I’ve been proud to say I was a fan of Stevie Ray Vaughan since sometime in the late ’70s when I saw him at a Dallas nightclub. I always thought I was way ahead of the curve as, at the time, Stevie was known for being Jimmy’s younger brother and Texas Flood wouldn’t arrive until years after the gig.
But one thing that became apparent to me while watching Stevie Ray Vaughan – Rise Of A Texas Bluesman: 1954-1983 is that I was really a latecomer to the party. In fact, while I was a devotee of SRV while he was alive, delighted to watch his recovery from drugs, heartbroken when he died, and even made a pilgrimage to his grave, the new 132-minute documentary demonstrated I really knew very little about the Texas axe master. I suspect many a longtime fan will feel the same after experiencing this excellent biography.
Appropriately, Rise Of A Texas Bluesman opens by establishing the themes of the story including the point that SRV was not only a part of a Texas tradition, but that he made the blues important again when he ascended to his creative zenith in the 1980s. In the interviews that are the bulk of the film, we’re reminded that the Texas blues began with the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and T-Bone Walker, the latter hailing from the same Oak Cliff section of Dallas where Jimmy and Stevie Ray Vaughan grew up. Focusing on the Vaughan family, we’re shown scenes of a part of Dallas far removed from the glitter of the TV series or North Dallas high-rises. Oak Cliff, then and now, is an ethnically-mixed, blue-collar community.
In the early ’60s, both Vaughan brothers were attracted to the blues via Texas radio, with Jimmy mentoring his younger brother before the British Invasion changed everything. In the wake of the popularity of bands like The Yardbirds, Cream, and especially guitarists Jimi Hendrix and fellow Texan Johnny Winter, the younger Vaughan found himself playing in Dallas nightclubs as an underage prodigy in bands like the Brooklyn Underground, The Southern Distributor, Liberation, and Cast of Thousands. During these years, his talent was obvious but he was still an artist learning his craft from the ground up.
Then came a band called Blackbirds which took Vaughan to Austin. In the 1970s, Austin was just starting to become a mecca for free spirits and musicians, and Blackbirds quickly became one of the top bands in the city alongside their main competitor, Crackerjack. Well, there was one other band called The Fabulous Thunderbirds featuring one Jimmy Vaughan. Next, Stevie Vaughan continued to move up the ladder by hooking up with Marc Benno and the Nightcrawlers, a band featuring vocalist Doyle Bramhall who tutored Vaughan in the craft of songwriting. Then came 1975 and Vaughan’s stint with the six-piece show band, Paul Ray and the Cobras where he became more comfortable taking the spotlight.
Finally, Vaughan realized it was time to front his own group and he organized Triple Threat Revue, which included singer Lou Ann Barton, bassist W. C. Clark, and drummer Fredde Pharaoh. Thus began the road to Double Trouble and drummer Chris Layton and bassist Tommy Shannon, the latter a vet of the original Johnny Winter band. This was the ensemble that broke through in 1982 when they appeared at the Montreux Jazz Festival. The film ends with three quick successes for Vaughan in 1983, cutting “Let’s Dance” with David Bowie, releasing Texas Flood, and sharing the stage with one of his most important inspirations, guitarist Albert King.
The story is told from a variety of perspectives, including several archival interviews with Vaughan himself. We hear important context and background from historians and biographers Alan Govenar, Craig Hopkins, Joe Nick Patoski, and Nigel Williamson. Music biz insiders include booking agents and managers Alex Hodges and Joe Priesnitz, record company marketing exec Jack Chase, and radio DJ Redbeard.
As the emphasis is on Vaughan’s musical evolution, the insights of those who played with SRV are especially enlightening. We hear from Childhood friends Jim Rigby (of the Cast of Thousands) and Saxophonist Jim Trimmier who played in The Nightcrawlers and Liberation. Noel Deis and Roddy Colonna talk about their days in the Blackbirds, and Marc Benno also recalls his band, The Nighthawks. We learn about the importance of The Cobras from vets Paul Ray and Denny Freeman. Finally we go inside Double Trouble with organist Reese Wynans who joined the band after the glory days had already begun.
What isn’t covered? Well, beyond a quick sketch of Vaughan’s parents and fleeting notes about Brother Jimmy’s sometimes supportive, sometimes not, relationship, we see little about Stevie Ray’s personal life. For example, there’s no mention of his first wife, Lenora Bailey, even though she was the inspiration for several of his best-known songs. We see little about Vaughan’s glory years. Janna Lapidus, Vaughan’s fiancée at the time of his death, is one of the few voices who quickly describe the years after Vaughan’s ascendency when he was commercially successful but troubled privately, especially with his problems with drugs. Then again, the years from Texas Flood to Vaughan’s death in 1990 are more than well-documented elsewhere, and this movie was long enough with no need to review well-trodden ground.
Those hoping for extended footage of Vaughan live will be disappointed. However, many of the nuggets in this film are pieces taken from recordings from Vaughan’s early bands which showcase his musical development with descriptions of how the recordings were made by those who were there. There is archival footage, rare photographs, and enough music to make this film both entertaining as well as extremely educational. In fact, I’d go as far as to say Rise Of A Texas Bluesman should be required viewing for anyone who wants to understand the presence of Texas blues in our culture and why Stevie Ray Vaughan became the finest flower of a generation of longtime blues addicts. There’s been no one like him since, and he gets a fine presentation in this documentary.
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