August 27th, 2020 marked 30 years since a helicopter crash in East Troy WI claimed the life of blues guitarist, Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Stevie was one of the first musicians I photographed in the mid 1980’s. Without a question, I became obsessed with the energy of his music. In those early years, I would have dreams of meeting him. The following is an introduction I wrote for a photo book project that gained steam 20 years ago, but then stalled out. So I will use this platform now.
I first heard Stevie Ray Vaughan in June of 1985. I was in Chicago visiting family and a childhood friend invited me along to the Chicago Blues Festival at Grant Park in downtown Chicago. As we drove into the city, were discussing who was playing that night and my friend mentioned Stevie. I commented that I was unfamiliar with his music, to which my friend replied “He’s awesome! He’s got this one song….Voodoo something….it’s INCREDIBLE.”
We arrived at Grant Park and wandered through the 100,000 or so who had gathered there. After a couple of groups had performed, Stevie Ray Vaughan took the stage and I was immediately captivated by his music, listening with “wide-eared” wonder as he played his set. With the amount of people who had gathered in front of the band shell, I was unable to see the stage but it didn’t matter. I was goose-bumped just listening to the music that filled the air.
After a few songs, my friends had wandered off and I was standing next to a hot-dog stand drinking beer when IT happened!
Something I thought I would never hear played live in my life: the first wah sounds of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile.” What?! I thought…..is this guy gonna? Sure enough, Stevie played on and I was entranced. The crowd around me was cheering, hootin’ an hollerin’. Some had climbed up on top of the hot dog stand, I looked up and a guy offered his hand to pull me up. I accepted and was pulled up onto the stand. Looking across the sea of people towards the Bandshell, I saw this little guy, just ripping up a weathered looking Stratocaster, playing Hendrix note for note and then some! I WAS HOOKED!
It was also during this same summer that I achieved my first media accreditation which provided clearance to concerts in the Minneapolis/St.Paul area.
I captured my first images of Stevie Ray Vaughan on July 11, 1986 at Riverfest on Harriet Island in St. Paul. I managed to get close to stage right. There was Stevie, his jeans worn and a little dirty, his boots scuffed, jammin’, letting it flow less than 20 feet in front of me!
I was excited, nervous, and a little buzzed; all this showed in the proofs, they were slightly out of focus. Not wanting to miss another opportunity with clarity as I had that night, I began avoiding the intoxicants before any shows.
And the shows became a regular occurrence: Jimmy Page, Robert Plant with Robbie Blunt, B.B.King, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Robin Trower, Ritchie Blackmore, Jeff Beck, Michael Hedges and, of course, Stevie RayVaughan – all my musical influences at the time.
Of all the musicians I have photographed, Stevie was the most emotional musician I have watched perform. It was as though he was pulling some of the notes right up out of his toes; the music flowed out from deep within. It was an incredible sight to watch him play.
For some reason, SRV & Double Trouble played Minneapolis often and I grooved on it. I was at every show, up close, wowed by it all and capturing it all on film.
The day tickets went on sale for SRV and Double Trouble’s show at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis in December 1986, I was waiting in line at the Orpheum box office with a number of people ahead of me. As the excited, smiling people who had purchased their tickets walked past me, I would inquire “What row did you get?” The responses were: First row, third row, fourth row. The show was selling fast through this box office and the Ticketmaster outlets. By the time I was one person away from the box office, the row being sold was nineteen. When I got up to the window, I was told they would be closing temporarily. I anxiously waited for the window to re-open, wondering what row would be available.
Fifteen minutes passed and the window re-opened and I asked ‘What row is available?”
“Well” replied the box office attendant, “The show is selling fast. We have added three more rows in the orchestra pit. I have row AA, two seats to stage left.”
“Where is that in regards to the stage?” I asked.
“It’s the first row in front of the stage.”
Stunned, I proclaimed: “I’ll take them!”
The night of the show, my photo access was denied, but I had my camera with me anyway. Security was strict and I was reprimanded for taking photos. First I was asked by security for my camera batteries. I gave the guy my batteries for my power winder, thus no auto film advance, but my camera still had power. The second time, I was asked for the film, so I rewound the film, took the canister out of the camera and handed it to the security guy. I immediately realized I just handed him images I had captured, I yelled “wait” and took the canister back and pried it open, pulled out the film, exposing it to light and destroying the images. I handed him the exposed film and canister.
As the security guy left, I turned back to the stage. Tommy Shannon was looking at me and smiling, he had seen the exchange between the security guy and I.
Stevie was in some lead riffs, with his eyes closed, Tommy walked over to Stevie, leaned into him and said something into his ear. Stevie opened his eyes and looked over in my direction as Tommy continued to talk, moving his head forward towards my direction. Tommy stepped back from Stevie and Stevie moved forward to the mike, sang some more verse, then moved back from the mike, then forward around the front of the monitor, right in front of me. He finished the song, looked at me and tossed his pick in my direction. I reached for it, as did a couple of other people around me, I came up holding the pick Stevie used for the first part of the show. I was elated and didn’t pursue anymore photo endeavors.
When I got home that night and looked closely at the pick, I could tell by the etchings on the one side how Stevie held his pick when he played.
I was at Met Center in Bloomington, MN for the Soul to Soul Tour ’87. I bought two tickets in the third row, center stage so I could move around alittle with my camera. Stevie wore a shirt that said “HUGS, NOT DRUGS”, I thought that was cool; I was in a sober period myself and liked the phrase.
That night I saw something I had never seen during any show before. Stevie broke a string during a song and his technician came on stage and restrung the guitar while Stevie continued to play and sing.
I was awed by it all: the music, the presence of the men on stage, their energy and charisma, the crowd around me; and the flow of energy from the stage out into the crowd and back again.
Met Center – Bloomington MN – 1987
I was intrigued by the message on Stevie’s shirt, and decided to look into his story a little deeper. One of the things I learned was that he had gone through rehab after collapsing on stage after a show in London, U.K. in October of 1986.
I met Stevie for the first time at Riverfest, in St. Paul, MN in June of 1989. I was standing backstage before the concert began, when Chris Layton walked by. “Hey Chris” I said .He stopped and said “Hello”.
I introduced myself and mentioned that I enjoyed the music the band played and that I had photographed the band a few times, but could never get any good shots of Reese Wynans or of him because of where they were positioned on stage.
He asked “What do you need?”
“Well,” I said nervously then boldly: “I need to be onstage”
“Let me see what I can do” and he walked away and went into a trailer nearby.
A few minutes later, he emerged with a gray-haired gentleman he introduced as Stevie’s stage manager. Chris bid me an “Enjoy the show” and headed off. The stage manager simply stated that for the first three songs I would be on stage left. I followed the stage manager onto the dark outdoor stage. He brought me to a spot, told me to “Wait here” then walked away. There were a couple of shadows milling around centerstage, then UP went the lights! The band tore into “House is a Rockin.” I was stunned as the wave of music and energy swept over me and out into the audience. I just stood there giggling like a goofus, when I realized I had better start capturing some images. Reese was off to my left, and Chris was forward and to the right. The three songs seemed to fly by, but I had achieved my goal.
I was escorted off stage by the stage manager and made my way to the “pit” area between stage and first row. I milled around in the walk way between the first and second seating sections,then back to the pit. I kept my camera to my eye, except for walking time or an occasional break to just groove on the music.
Riverfest – St. Paul MN – 1989
When the concert was over, I made my way backstage, and when I saw Chris Layton again, he asked “How’d you enjoy the show? Did you get some good shots?”
“I enjoyed it VERY MUCH! Thanks you. And yes, I did get some good shots”
“That’sgood”he said “Anything else I can help you with?”
“Well….could you introduce me to Stevie?” I sheepishly asked
Chris explained that Stevie usually ate dinner after a show, but if I wanted, I could have a drink, and he’d see what he could do. I grabbed a soda and sat down with a handful of people scattered around some picnic tables. About an hour later, Stevie emerged with Reese Wynans from a trailer next to the picnic tables. After Stevie had a few introductions with some people, Chris went up to him, then brought him over to where I was sitting. I stood up as Chris introduced Stevie to me. I was in shock and unable to say anything as I shook Stevie’s hand. Chris repeated to Stevie what I had told him earlier: that I had been photographing them for a couple of years and really enjoyed their music. Stevie was just grinning at me (the dumb-founded look on my face all too obvious) “Would you like an autograph?” he asked.
I mumbled a barely audible “Un-huh”
Stevie laughed and signed a piece of paper I had with me: “Thanks for Caring! Stevie Ray Vaughan ’89”, handed me one of his guitar picks, then moved along to meet the other people who were there. Reese and Chris also signed the piece of paper.
In October of 1989, SRV and Double Trouble opened their North American “FIRE MEETS THE FURY” Tour with Jeff Beck at Northrop Auditorium in Minneapolis. Jeff Beck opened the show. During the course of Beck’s set, I was in the pit with two other photographers. The guy on my left was bent down, checking his camera. I took out my small redlight flashlight and shined the red light down on to the photographers work’ area, illuminating the area just enough to see without blinding white light. He finished what he was doing, stood up and said “Thanks”.
During the intermission, he struck up a conversation with me, asking who I worked for. I told him I was freelancing and had been shooting SRV for a couple of years. He asked if I had any of my work, I showed him a few images of SRV I had tucked in my camera bag. As he looked through my photographs, I asked him who he worked for and he told me he was Jeff Beck’s photographer. The lights went down and Stevie took the stage.
Northrup Auditorium – Minneapolis MN – 1989
After the show, the photographer told me to grab my stuff and follow him. We went through a security blocked door, and into a hallway to the left of the stage. There were a number of people standing around. The photographer introduced me to SRV’s business manager, Alex Hodges of Strike Force. I gave him a few images of Stevie I had with me just as someone with a band badge around his neck, put his hand on my shoulder, gently pushing me towards an another door, as he shouted ”This way for photos with the band.” The door opened and I was one of ten or so people lead into the room.
There was SRV and Double Trouble. I said hello to Chris Layton, and waited until Stevie had a free moment, then walked up to him and said: “I don’t know if you remember me or not….”
Stevie smiled, gently hit my shoulder and said “HEY MAN! You can talk!”
I nervously laughed. ” I really enjoy your music” I continued, “It brings me a lot of joy. The messages in “Tightrope” and “Wall of Dental” are so strong. They really mean a lot. Keep doing what you’re doing, people like me really need stuff like that.”
“Well, thanks. I appreciate that” Stevie replied.
I showed him some of the photographs I had taken of him and Double Trouble over the last four years. He complimented me on my work and asked for my phone number stating “ I want to talk with you about this after this tour is over.” I scrawled my name and number on the envelope the photos were in.
I asked him to sign my CD insert for In Step. As I handed him the insert, a photographer from the Des Moines Register captured an image of Stevie and I. Stevie wrote: “To Joe Take Care Friend! Stevie Ray Vaughan ’89”
In August of 1990 I was living in California, working at a photo lab. The boss always had the radio on while he worked in the darkroom. I heard Stevie tunes coming from the back of the lab, a few minutes later my boss came to the front part of the lab and said to my coworkers and I: “Did you hear about Stevie Ray Vaughan?”
“No, what?” I responded
“He was killed in a helicopter crash last night in Wisconsin” I fell against the wall.
In Oct.of 1995, I was attending a study group for a 12 step program. The facilitator played a tape of “Stevie’s Speaker Meeting”, in which Stevie told his story through alcohol and drugs to sobriety. I was mesmerized to hear him speak of his own experience. As is the nature of recovery, the story is the same, but people and the downfalls are different. I could relate to Stevie’s addictive behavior because it was the same as mine.
Stevie Ray Vaughan was a strong influence and inspiration to me; photographically, musically and in my sobriety. I was fortunate to be able to experience his energy first hand while capturing it on film and be able to have had those brief encounters and words with him.
2020 Addendum: These images are just a sample. The images I captured onstage at Riverfest 1989, as well as the purple guitar pick and the autograph sheet are part of a collage that is in storage, along with several hundred images of SRV on 35mm film.
One of the images from that Riverfest ’89 show is part of the Stevie Ray Vaughan display at the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in Phoenix, AZ.
I had a collection of some of these images on my Flickr page, but so many people were pirating them, that I made them private. I am still popping off DMCA takedown notices like bubble gum.