He would go on to become a legend, but in 1982 when Stevie Ray Vaughan took the stage at the Montreux Jazz Festival with his unique blend of blues and rock, the audience turned on him almost as soon as he hit the first note on “Hideaway.”
A struggling blues musician from Texas, Vaughan hoped the gig would be a shot in the arm for his band Double Trouble but was crushed by the brutal reception he and his band received. Yet, he powered through his set and walked off the stage. Double Trouble bassist Tommy Shannon recalls:
“The show did not go over well, the response was mediocre, and there were several people who actually booed us. I’ll never forget how Stevie kept playing his heart out, in spite of the response. We were all broken hearted.”
But not every audience member had the same level of vitriol for this Texas blues outfit. From the back, David Bowie had watched the entire set in awe and decided that he would have Vaughan play lead on his next album, 1983’s Let’s Dance. Something that came as a shock to Vaughan:
“…to tell you the truth, I was not very familiar with David's music when he asked me to play on the sessions....David and I talked for hours and hours about our music, about funky Texas blues and its roots - I was amazed at how interested he was. At Montreux, he said something about being in touch and then tracked me down in California, months and months later."
Vaughan joined Bowie in the studio that December, and although he found the guitarist “pretty disjointed…as drugs were taking their toll” and plagued with “dreadful hanger-ons” he was amazed by Vaughan’s brutal, beautifully honed playing:
“One after another he knocked down solo upon solo, song upon song. In a ridiculously short time he had become midwife to the sound that I had had ringing in my ears all year.”
Stevie Ray Vaughan was booked to tour with David Bowie but soon everything fell apart. What exactly happened varies: Bowie blamed Vaughan’s manager for pulling “juvenile blackmail” at the last minute to get more pay from Bowie’s people, while Vaughan’s manager claimed Bowie’s people reneged on an agreement to let Double Trouble open on some of the dates. According to Vaughan, the reason was simple: He had worked too hard to assemble his band and perfect his sound to put it all on hiatus.
Vaughan declined the tour, remaining in Texas with Double Trouble to promote their debut album Texas Flood. But his association with Bowie helped spread the word about his virtuoso guitar playing and soon rock legends like Mick Jagger were attending his shows and singing his praises.
In 1985, things came full circle when Stevie Ray Vaughan, now with two successful albums under his belt, returned to the Montreux Jazz Festival. Double Trouble drummer Chris Layton remembers:
“The trip back in ’85 was different. The people were there to hear us. The place was packed, and we were still ready to tear the house down.”
The audience roared with approval and despite struggling with a burgeoning drug problem that would nearly kill him a few months later, Vaughan gave one of his most powerful live performances, tearing through favorites like “Pride and Joy,” “Couldn’t Stand The Weather,” and an awe-inspiring version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return).”
Stepping off that stage, Stevie Ray Vaughan would embark on a career that would see him battling addiction and pushing the limits of the twelve bar blues. A far cry from the unknown guitar slinger booed off a stage in Montreux three years before.
(Elford Alley has had plays produced and read across the United States and his sketch comedy featured in several shows in Chicago. He also writes for cracked.com. He currently resides in Dallas with his wife and daughter.)