“We lost Stevie.” Those were the words spoken to me on the morning of August 28, 1990. At just 16 years old, it was the first time I ever felt true sorrow for someone I’d never met—someone whose work made me a fan. Vaughan, a legendary blues-rock guitarist, died in a tragic helicopter accident the previous night, and his untimely death sent reverberations across more than just the music community.
Last Friday marked the 25th anniversary of Vaughan’s death, and we can only imagine the music he would have made in these last quarter-century. We can only surmise how he would have gotten down with the likes of The Black Keys, Jack White, Gary Clark, Jr. or John Mayer, many of whom have cited Vaughan as influences. However, thanks to the advent of YouTube (and especially its recent lifting of the 15 minute time limit cap on videos uploaded to the site), fans can enjoy literal hours of rare, prime and live cuts. In honor of SRV, here are 10 essential performances worth checking out.
1. Live at Montreux, 1985
Vaughan’s second studio album, 1984’s Couldn’t Stand the Weather, has long been hailed as his singular masterpiece, one that crescendos with a fiery rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)”. And in concert, Vaughan transformed his longtime guitar hero’s Electric Ladyland staple into his own seething beast. However, if you are looking for the ultimate version of the SRV take on “Voodoo,” look no further than his triumphant return to the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1985, where the guitarist and Double Trouble stretched the song past the 11-minute mark, throwing in a healthy spoonful of Jimi’s Band of Gypsys classic “Power of Soul” into the middle of the jam to boot, before channeling the electric fury directly into quite possibly the best live version of “Texas Flood” out there. And that’s not even mentioning the cameo from blues legend Johnny Copeland sitting in on “Cold Shot” and “Tin Pan Alley (The Roughest Place in Town).”
2. With Albert King In Session, 1983
In 1983, Fantasy Records wanted to hire Vaughan to produce a new album for his longtime hero, Indianola blues giant Albert King. Unfortunately, the success of the young guitarist’s Epic Records debut Texas Flood that year, coupled with his involvement in David Bowie’s smash album Let’s Dance, priced Vaughan way out of the budget the struggling label could offer at the time. But in December of 1983, the two men were booked to jam together for the show In Session on the Hamilton, Ontario, public television station CHCH. King had known Vaughan as “Little Stevie,” the skinny white kid who used to come around and sit in whenever Albert passed through Austin, Texas, for gigs. To hear him tell the story on this show is both hilarious and heartwarming all at once. What would transpire over the course of the next hour and 45 minutes is one of the most special unions of teacher and student in modern music history. “I’m about ready to turn it over to you,” King says to Vaughan at one point during the taping. “No, I don’t believe that,” Vaughan responded. “Oh yes, it’s true son, it’s true,” he returned. “28 years is long enough. I gotta sit back and watch you.” However, in a cruel twist of fate, King would outlive Stevie by two years when he suffered from a heart attack and died in December 1992 at the age of 69.
3. “Jean Genie” with David Bowie, 1983
has always had exquisite taste in the guitarists he hired to work alongside both in studio and on stage—from Mick Ronson to Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew to Reeves Gabrels. Vaughan’s presence throughout Let’s Dance made it the best Bowie record of the ‘80s. However, the idea of the guitarist going on tour with the Duke to support it didn’t survive beyond the tour rehearsals in Dallas on April 27, 1983, as a contractual dispute saw Vaughan ducking out shortly thereafter with longtime Bowie cohort Carlos Alomar deftly taking his place on the tour. Yet someone on hand at the Las Colinas Soundstage had the good sense to tape the proceedings, resulting in a bootleg cherished by both Bowie and Vaughan fans. In this incredible re-envisioning of “The Jean Genie,” Vaughan and Bowie transform the Aladdin Sane favorite into a B.B. King-style big band blues beat down.
4. With Buddy Guy at Legends, 1989
Vaughan was the special guest at Buddy Guy’s 53rd birthday party at the guitar great’s Chicago club Legends back on July 30, 1989. The soundboard-quality hour-long jam has been available on the audio bootleg circuit for nearly a quarter century. However, earlier this year actual video footage of the gig turned up on YouTube, prompting a whole new wash of interest in the show, that has long since been a favorite for hardcore blues fans thanks to the way Vaughan and Guy entangle their distinctive styles of playing into pure knots of soul on stuff like this nail-tough take on Muddy Waters’ classic “Champagne & Reefer.”
5. MTV Unplugged, 1990
One of Vaughan’s final television appearances was the time he was featured in a blues-based episode of MTV Unplugged alongside fellow guitar magician Joe Satriani. Sitting on a stool with no sign of Double Trouble in sight, the Vaughan delivered a veritable gift to the music world on this cold January day in 1990 with this rare showcase of his acoustic mastery, destroying on a Guild 12-string with killer takes on instrumental cuts “Testify” and “Rude Mood,” as well as a soulful spin through his signature hit “Pride and Joy.” Seeing him shine in this forum the way he did made his sudden death eight months later all the more painful.
6. With Santana in Costa Mesa, 1988
“This is healing music, because its by the hands and hearts of musicians who feel what they play before they give it to you,” proclaims Carlos Santana in the valley of a particularly poignant and impromptu jam during the Costa Mesa, Calif., stop on the guitar icon’s tour in support of his excellent solo album Blues for Salvador. ” Stevie and Jimmie Vaughan joined him that evening, along with Cesar Rojas of Los Lobos. Though the footage is a little shaky, once you get to that four-minute mark when Jimmie tags off to his little brother, strapped with a double neck electric, you cannot remove your eyes from his hands jumping between fret boards in a build from slow burn to raging inferno in a matter of three minutes.
7. Tornado Jam, 1980
The coolest thing about this earliest known footage of Vaughan performing before a crowd of enthusiastic music lovers in at the very first Tornado Jam in Lubbock, Texas, is watching the wonderment in the eyes of those witnessing the young guitarist take total ownership of the stage. Check out how he’s kneeling in front of the amplifier before proceeding to conjure a gale force storm of fiery improvised blues licks with the early incarnation of Double Trouble with Jackie Newhouse on the bass (Tommy Shannon would join drummer Chris Layton seven months later). This is Stevie Ray Vaughan at his most punk rock.
8. Jammin’ with MTV, 1988
Now back when MTV had genuine creative ideas in music programming, there was a short-lived series in 1988 called Jammin’ with MTV that brought together unlikely combinations of hot acts on the channel at the time to get down onstage together. And the most memorable episode had Vaughan performing Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”—a longtime favorite live cover for the guitarist—alongside the funk/soul icon himself with vocal help from Jody Watley and Salt-N-Pepa. And while on paper it had the makings of a total train wreck, this ad hoc combo turned around and delivered an absolute winning version of the Talking Book anthem that saw all parties get into the groove in lock-tight harmony, highlighted by a surprisingly sharp vocal turn from Watley, whose voice sounded so good between Wonder’s funky clavinet and Vaughan’s rough-and-tumble Fender Strat. Had it not been for the generous person who put this up on YouTube, this treasure would have been forever lost in the chasm of MTV’s cold reel storage.
9. The Arsenio Hall Show, 1989
Couldn’t Stand the Weather might be Stevie Ray Vaughan’s greatest studio effort, but In Step is an incredibly close second—a sonic victory lap following the survival of a very rough, drug-induced mid-‘80s that nearly ended the guitar player’s career. And his best televised performance from what would become his last album promotion cycle was on the original Arsenio Hall Show. Never before has the call and response that kicks off “Crossfire” between Vaughan and keyboardist Reese Wynans been so declarative of its mission statement, while the version of “The House is Rockin’” they brought to the stage that day had the initially skeptical Arsenio audience hooting and hollering for more. Hall asked Stevie if he dug rap music, to which the guitarist gave the quintessential non-answer of “I dig it all.”
10. B.B. King’s A Night of Blistering Blues, 1987
“The first time I ever heard this song and the last time I’ll ever sing it I’ll be thinking of Mr. Albert King,” proclaimed Vaughan following B.B. King’s declaring of him as the “new blood” during the late Blues Boy’s epic 1987 all-star concert A Night of Blistering Blues. Then he tore into his signature version of the old Elmore James standard “The Sky is Crying” with assistance from both Kings Albert and Riley as well as the equally legendary Paul Butterfield on harp and vocals as well. In an evening filled with such superstar names of the time as Eric Clapton, Etta James, Phil Collins, Chaka Khan, and Billy Ocean, it was this incredible coronation of the future blues king in the form of this priceless four-way jam that stole the show.