Stevie Rave On

By Syd Weedon

A review of "Stevie Ray Vaughan: Soul to Soul" by Keri Leigh

Taylor Publishing Company, Dallas

Biographies of my rock idols usually make my skin crawl. Whether they're gushy fan mag myth-making or the grim kiss-and-tells that lay bare every indiscretion – I hate them. I picked up Keri Leigh's book with the same dread, fearing an over-wrought fan doing therapy on a word processor. What I found instead was well-researched telling of Stevie Ray Vaughan's story written with the understanding that perhaps only a professional musician would have. Leigh is a talented blues musician and performer in her own right. She knows the landscape where Stevie Ray lived.

It's hard to avoid some myth-making and legend-building when it comes to Stevie Ray, because he had it all: the rough-side-of-the-tracks upbringing in Texas, the battles with his father about playing "nigger music," the awesome natural gift, the struggle to emerge from under the long shadow of his elder brother, the brutal war with his personal demons, the victory over them, a clean death in a flying machine on the twenty-year anniversary of Jimi Hendrix's last concert. Faced with all the ingredients of a hero saga, Keri Leigh does a remarkable job of keeping it human and stepping aside to let the story tell itself. This is not to say that Keri is a disinterested observer, because she's not. She's a partisan, a blues musician and a friend of Stevie's. Her love and admiration comes through when she talks about his performances.

"Soul to Soul" is more than just a Stevie Ray tribute. Thanks to Leigh's extensive research, "Soul to Soul" is a valuable piece of rock and blues history, especially for those who have a weakness for the Texas connection and the "back to the blues roots" movement. Like any good bandleader, Leigh wants to make sure she introduces everybody on the stage. Her narratives of Stevie's encounters with his idols – Albert King, Buddy Guy, B.B. – and his misadventures with some of rock's icons – Eric Clapton, David Bowie, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Mick Jagger and Lonnie Mack – are fascinating reading in themselves.

"Soul to Soul" has yet another treasure -– a mother lode of pictures and poster art. Stevie is documented well in the images – as rock guitar godhead who has won every battle and as the sweaty, human, un-posed blues man whose highest aspiration was to cop a good buzz and every lick Buddy Guy and Albert King ever thought about playing. I spent a lot of time studying the pictures. The cover shot by Johnnie Miles is a gem. Stevie leans on the body of his beloved "Number One" '59 Stratocaster (Yes, he maintained that the Strat was stamped "l959"). His chin rests on his powerful hands which drape over the chipped wood and steel that had borne the full force of his vision. He looks calmly into the lens, not mugging or trying to prove anything. "Soul to soul" says it well.

They say that the devil is in the details and some readers may find the details of gigs and who played in whose band heavy sledding at times. Personally, I wanted to know that he used .013" E strings, but some may fmd this level of detail tedious in spots. There are passages where Leigh briefly puts herself inside the heads of Jimmy Vaughan, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton. Her projections are reasonable and fit, but it's a risky technique to use in a biography.

Leigh gets close enough to her subject to give us some insights about what drove and tormented Stevie Ray. Stevie spent a significant portion of his life known primarily as Jimmy Vaughan's little brother. The struggle to win Jimmy's respect and stand as an equal with him on the guitar motivated Stevie throughout his life. He got his first electric guitar from Jimmy and played his last concert with him.

Jim Vaughan, Stevie's father, never accepted the style of music that his sons focused their lives upon, viewing rhythm and blues a black thing and therefore unacceptable. When Stevie was asked what he hoped to accomplish with his music, he said at one point that he wanted "to take the color out of the blues." It's hard to over-estimate the power of a father's rejection to create conflict in his son's personality. Toward the end of Stevie's life, after he was dried out and clean, he was beginning to explore music's capacity to heal. I can't help but wonder if that concern for healing didn't find its roots in the conflict created by Stevie's love for a style and a group of musicians who his father had rejected and condemned.

Leigh hits the substance abuse problem head-on. Stevie was probably an alcoholic by the time he dropped out of high school. At the time of his collapse in Europe, he was drinking on-stage shots of Chivas in which a gram of cocaine had been dissolved, just to get through his sets. Albert King, B.B. King and Eric Clapton all tried to confront Stevie Ray about what he was doing to himself, but he tuned them out. He shot speed to stay awake and heroine to mellow out. It' s a minor miracle that he didn't kill himself. To his everlasting credit, he finally admitted to himself that he had a problem and kicked. When he came to Louisville in 1989 with Jeff Beck, it was the kicked and clean Stevie Ray that we saw and his was a commanding presence. He owned himself and his music. He had come through the fire and taken blues guitar a step forward.

You can't hear a man's music by reading a book, but it's the music that stands behind the story, providing the reason and the point. Stevie Ray Vaughan pushed the standards for blues guitar up a notch or two. He committed to tape at least one recording which will be a blues classic, Texas Flood. It's one of those rare and definitive pieces of work that blues guitarists will have to come to terms with from now on. Soul to Soul tells how that music was made. When I really want to punish myself, I put Texas Flood on the CD player and try to pick along. Stevie Ray gave us a mark to make. He'll always be there gently reminding us, "This is how it's done."

The story of the man is worth telling on its own account. Regardless of what he did for a living, Stevie Ray fought some pretty big dragons and overcame every one. It's really a wonder that he lived long enough to overcome the substance abuse. Thanks to Leigh's careful work, Stevie Ray can also be there to remind us, "Don't do it this way." The book left me wanting to know more about what Stevie Ray was thinking and the directions he was moving in at the end of his life: his ideas about music and healing, the races and the blues. I wish he could have had a little more time to work those out.

In her preface, Keri Leigh says, "As the author, my primary objectives were to document Stevie's life as accurately as possible, tell all the tales that matter (even deceased rock stars should have the right to keep some personal secrets forever) and most of all, to tell the truth. I hope that you will find this book to be a treasure, an intimate photo album to remember him by, an invaluable resource to assist you in your own research of Vaughan's life and music ..." Keri Leigh delivered on her promise. For SRV fans, "Soul to Soul" is a must read.

Keri Leigh will be in Louisville for a book signing at the Shelbyville Road location of Hawley-Cooke Booksellers on November 21 and the Bardstown Road location of ear X-tacy Records on November 20. She will perform at Coyote's as part of the November 21 Musicians Emergency Relief Fund Benefit (MERF).