There have always been blues guitarists on the fringe of pop music - a few of them great, most of them not quite so. By the late-1970s/early-80s, however, the blues had been eclipsed by rapidly changing currents in music. Punk, new wave, no wave, new romanticism, hardcore punk, disco, funk, punk funk...musical styles and trends were changing almost weekly during this period. A few dedicated artists kept the faith, faithfully working in the blues genre night after night in dirty little clubs in Memphis, in New Orleans, in Austin and elsewhere.
Stevie Ray Vaughan's Greatest Hits
By 1983, with the musical world in flux, independent labels were providing a training ground for the stars of the 1990s. College radio was making great inroads at breaking unknown "alternative" artists who played almost exclusively on a club level. Major labels had all but abdicated any effort at finding and signing original artists of any merit. It was into this vacuum that Columbia Records A&R great John Hammond stepped; unearthing one last musical jewel in what was already a lengthy and legendary career.
Hammond had always loved the blues, and it was he who was to discover and bring to the world at large a young guitar wizard that had already created a buzz in his hometown of Austin, Texas: Stevie Ray Vaughan. Hammond signed Vaughan to subsidiary label Epic Records, and the guitarist's 1983 debut album, Texas Flood, would climb into the Top 40 and turn the twin worlds of blues and rock on their heads.
Rebirth Of The Blues
Vaughan was quite a find, a master technician who was capable of tearing down the boundaries between rock and the blues with some ease. He was a charismatic performer who, at his best, could mesmerize audiences as he brought his guitar to life on stage. Subsequent recordings could only attempt to capture the raw, primal energy and incredible talent that Stevie Ray brought to his art.
Vaughan popularized the blues to a rock audience unlike any artist since his professed idol, Jimi Hendrix. Sadly, like Hendrix, Vaughan was a casualty of rock and roll, dying in a fatal helicopter crash after a memorable performance alongside greats like Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, Eric Clapton and his brother Jimmie. During his brief six year career, Stevie Ray, and his Double Trouble band released only a single live and four studio albums. It is a tribute to Vaughan the artist that the quality of his work was so high that this handful of albums has yielded so many memorable moments.
As documented by this Greatest Hits album, Stevie Ray was a true meat-and-potatoes artist, pouring every ounce of his talent into every single performance. Choosing from so many Vaughan classics would be a daunting task for any producer, but Greatest Hits compiler Tony Martell does an admirable job, filling the disc with Vaughan standards like "Texas Flood," "Pride And Joy," and "Couldn't Stand The Weather."
The album also includes high-quality, but lesser-known cuts like "Life Without You" or "Crossfire," and covers like the Hendrix classic "Little Wing" or the Beatles' "Taxman," the collection's lone unreleased cut. At the time of Greatest Hits' release, critics griped about the dearth of unreleased archival material, a calculated oversight that has since been rectified by a wealth of Stevie Ray releases, a box set, and some live performances.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
The first time that I ever heard of Stevie Ray was from his brother Jimmie, a talented axeman in his own right. Hanging out backstage after a Fabulous Thunderbirds performance in Nashville, I complimented the older Vaughan on his guitar skills. He replied with something along the lines of "hell, you think that I'm good, you should see my brother Stevie."
A couple of months later, I did get to see Stevie Ray play, shortly after the release of Texas Flood, his debut. A rowdy audience in the auditorium was silenced by the artist's quiet dignity and enormous talent as Stevie Ray came out and played like the hellhounds of Robert Johnson's nightmares were on his tail.
Greatest Hits only reinforces this lasting impression I have of Vaughan, a great artist who conquered his own demons of addiction to forever influence the future of rock and roll. At the time of this album's release, it was been five years since his death, and his absence is still strongly felt. No one will ever fill his shoes.... (Epic Records, released October 1, 1995)