Happy Bluesman Records #2:Texas Flood
Texas Flood, by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble was the album that got me hooked on the blues. Like so many others, I first heard it as a teenager, a couple of years after I started playing the guitar. It was the first time I had ever heard a guitarist play with so much intensity and passion, and it had a profound impact on me. No other blues guitarist has since influenced me in the same way, and I am doubtful that they ever will.
I have no illusions that this story is unique to me. Stevie Ray Vaughan is often the guitarist that first grabs the attention of aspiring blues players. Guitarists like Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Dan Patlansky and Josh Smith have all spoken about the influence that Vaughan had on them, amongst countless others.
Regardless of whether you hold Vaughan in the same esteem, it is difficult to argue with the impact that he had on the blues. Vaughan revitalised the genre, bringing it back to life in the 1980s and inspiring a new generation of blues guitarists.
Texas Flood was the album that launched Vaughan’s career. And so here I will share some of the history behind the album, the standout tracks and the significance of this album on the blues genre as a whole.
Texas Flood is the debut album of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. It was released on 13th June, 1983, after the band recorded it at Jackson Browne’s personal recording studio in L.A. Browne had seen Vaughan and his band performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1982 and recognised their potential, even before the band did. As Double Trouble drummer Chris Layton once remarked about the recording of Texas Flood:
We didn’t go out there to make a record…We just played our songs three times through, live. To us, we were just making some tapes because a cool guy said he’d give us his studio. We didn’t even bring tape. We recorded over used tape. There are old Jackson Browne songs under ‘Texas Flood.’
The album marked a significant commercial success for the band. The song ‘Pride and Joy’ reached number 20 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. Meanwhile the songs ‘Texas Flood’ and ‘Rude Mood’ were both nominated for Grammy Awards. By the end of 1983, Texas Flood was certified Gold in the United States, with sales exceeding 500,000 copies. The album would eventually go platinum in Canada, and double-platinum in the United States, where it has sold over 2 million copies.
Despite all of this success, when the album was recorded there was very little sense within the band that Texas Flood would prove to be so popular. When Layton played the Texas Flood tapes to his friends, the reviews were mixed: “They mostly said, ‘Great guitar player, but who wants to listen to that? You have to stop doing the shuffles and slow blues.”
Even Stevie Ray Vaughan was at a crossroads in his career. He wasn’t sure whether to strike out on his own as the leader and frontman of Double Trouble, or to pursue some of the other opportunities being presented to him. And these opportunities were significant.
Stevie Ray Vaughan & The Starman
Jackson Browne was not the only musician impressed by Stevie Ray Vaughan’s’ explosive performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival. David Bowie had seen Vaughan performing, and was so impressed that he asked Vaughan to play guitar on his new album, Let’s Dance.
Although Stevie Ray Vaughan might have seemed like an unusual choice for glam pop/rock superstar Bowie, the Starman had a love, as his bassist Carmine Rojas once said, of ‘putting opposite forces at work.’ Bowie wanted Vaughan’s style of playing on the album, and set about making it happen.
Although Vaughan was not familiar with Bowie’s music, he recognised the significance of the opportunity, and happily obliged. And he did the same when Bowie asked him to join the Let’s Dance world tour. Vaughan hoped that it would increase his exposure, and reportedly, there was a mutual understanding that Vaughan and Double Trouble would be allowed to open some of the shows.
Initially, the recording process and working relationship between Bowie and Vaughan ran smoothly. Nile Rodgers – the producer for the album – described working with Vaughan as ‘a breeze’ and Bob Clearmountain, the engineer for the album, described Vaughan as the ‘sweetest guy’. This however, was to be relatively short lived.
Let’s (Not) Dance…
What exactly occurred between Bowie and Vaughan still remains somewhat of a mystery. According to Chesley Millikin – Vaughan’s manager at the time, Bowie reneged on his offer to allow Vaughan and Double Trouble open any of the gigs on the tour. Millikin also felt that Vaughan was underpaid, and was angered by Bowie’s decision to control all press, which limited the opportunity for Vaughan to promote Texas Flood.
Conversely, it was claimed by many of those that worked on the album that Vaughan and Millikin were unreasonable. As Carlos Alomar – guitarist and bandleader for David Bowie stated in no uncertain terms:
(Vaughan) had all these last-minute negotiations. There are many different things you can discuss, but the unspoken law is simple: if you enter into an agreement, honor it. You certainly don’t hold everything up…because you want to renegotiate your contract. That’s like cold blackmail
The feud also became personal when Vaughan’s wife Lenny was banned from rehearsals. Lenny believed that Vaughan wasn’t getting his due and so confronted Bowie, much to the Starman’s displeasure. Following the outburst, she was prevented from attending any further rehearsals.
Whatever the reality, the outcome of the feud is indisputable. Vaughan left or was kicked off Bowie’s Tour moments before it was set to leave for Europe. His departure had little impact on Bowie, who replaced him almost immediately. And for Vaughan, the rumour and speculation helped to promote Texas Flood. As Layton observed:
Let’s Dance… stoked people’s interest and curiosity about Stevie. People wanted to know who this unknown guitar player who told David Bowie to take a hike was. That was bigger news than if he’d done the tour.
In the end, the situation worked out very well for Vaughan and Double Trouble. The song ‘Let’s Dance’ – featuring Stevie Ray Vaughan – went to number 1 all around the world. Vaughan earned instant notoriety for quitting the tour and simultaneously gained the freedom to properly promote Texas Flood.
Stand Out Songs
Of the 10 songs that featured on the original release of Texas Flood, Vaughan chose a mix of originals and blistering covers of songs by Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf, The Isley Brothers and Larry Davis. To choose just 3 stand out songs from the album was a real challenge. However I did manage to narrow them down to the following:
1.) Pride and Joy
Even to this day, Pride and Joy is arguably the song by which Vaughan is best remembered. And it is little surprise. The song captures all of the elements that make Vaughan’s playing so brilliant. From the tight Texas shuffle, to the powerful double stops, to the relentlessly intense licks and fills; this song represents Vaughan’s playing at its best. It is my favourite song on the album and one of my all time favourite Stevie Ray Vaughan songs.
2.) Texas Flood
When playing in Antone’s – the famous Austin blues club where Vaughan started out – Vaughan met Larry Davis, the then bass player for Albert King. Davis had written the original version of ‘Texas Flood‘ some years earlier, in 1958. Vaughan was intrigued by the guitar parts, and so decided to put together a cover of the song. As a result of Vaughan’s exemplary guitar playing, it has since gone on to become one of his most famous songs.
Lenny is one of Vaughan’s finest instrumentals. Gentle, soft and restrained; it stands in contrast to the fiery intensity of the rest of the album. This reflects the beautiful story behind the song. So it goes, in 1980 Vaughan spotted a Fender Stratocaster in an Austin music shop, but couldn’t afford the $350 asking price. So his wife Lenny (Lenora) – rounded up his closest friends, each of whom chipped in $50 to buy the guitar. Vaughan was so touched by the gesture that he stayed up all night writing the song in tribute to his wife. It is a beautiful song and one that really illustrates Vaughan’s feel and dynamic control.
With the release of Texas Flood, Vaughan and his band made the blues relevant again. They brought the genre to a new and younger audience, at a time when pop acts dominated the charts. And this is the real significance of the album. Vaughan’s legacy is not just that he inspired a new generation of guitarists. It is that he paid homage to the blues, whilst bringing it to the attention of an audience that was neither interested in traditional blues, nor in virtuosic guitar playing. As John Mayer – a lifelong Vaughan fan – once put it:
If these weren’t good tunes, they would just be excuses for guitar playing, and people would have eventually looked the other way, or (Vaughan) would have been a guitar playing phenomenon, only within guitar players. Very few guitar players make it to the house wife contingency and Stevie Ray Vaughan did. And it’s a testament to the triple threat of his voice, his guitar playing and his tunes
Although John Mayer’s opinions about housewives are a little archaic (I’m sure there are lots of housewives out there who can shred the blues and appreciate decent blues music!) his point is a valid one. Stevie Ray Vaughan didn’t just inspire guitarists; he created an easy access point for non-guitar players to appreciate the blues. He played within the framework of traditional blues, whilst simultaneously altering and reinventing the genre. Importantly, he did this without sacrificing his artistic vision or his focus on how he wanted to play.
Texas Flood remains one of my favourite blues albums. It has as much power and impact when I listen to it now as it did when I first heard it. It is an essential album to add to your blues record collection.