Stevie Ray Vaughan: Inside the Texas Flood Sessions

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    Thirty years ago, blues music was in the doldrums. Record sales were down. Even established artists such as B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, and Buddy Guy saw drops in their audiences. And then, with the release of Texas Flood, Stevie Ray Vaughan brought blues and blues-rock roaring back to life. In the process, he helped resurrect the careers of many bluesmen. As Buddy Guy reported a few years later, “I owe the biggest thanks in the world to Stevie, because he was sellin’ records and I wasn’t. He opened the door for many of us.”

    In honor of the 30th anniversary of Vaughan’s debut album, Sony/Legacy has issued an expanded two-disc edition of Texas Flood. Disc one features all of the original studio recordings, plus a bonus track recorded the same weekend, “Tin Pan Alley (Roughest Place in Town).” Disc two delivers nine previously unreleased live tracks from Philadelphia’s Ripley’s Music Hall in October 1983. A testament to Vaughan’s musical genius, the music on these CDs remains fresh and powerful.

     The Texas Flood Session

    Stevie Ray Vaughan co-produced Texas Flood with his Double Trouble bandmates – bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Chris Layton – and Richard Mullen, who also engineered.  In the early 1990s, I asked Richard about the Texas Flood sessions. “98% of all of Stevie’s records were done straight live,” he responded. “Stevie was relatively fearless in the studio. He was a real performer in the sense that he didn’t think too much about the technical things. Once he got out there and started playing, he was just enveloped in the music. You could see that when he played live, and he wasn’t any different in the studio. If he was into it, you’d see him do his little dance steps all over the studio, just like he was playing for 10,000 people. There were hardly any overdubs at all. Just about the only overdubs were vocals and an occasional rhythm part over a lead, but the basic guitar parts on the studio records were all done live. And they were almost always judged on Stevie’s performance. If someone in the band made a bonk but Stevie played great, we’d say, ‘Well, that’s it. Let’s just go with that.’

    “My first record with Stevie, Texas Flood, took us only two hours to record. That’s all we did on that record. It was basically him playing his live set two times straight through. We got in the studio, we set it up, and I said, ‘Just play it like a gig.’ They went through about 12 songs, took a break, and a half-hour later did the whole set again. We basically chose the best of the two cuts, and that was the first record.”

    The sessions took place at Jackson Browne’s rehearsal studio in Los Angeles. Browne and Vaughan had met in August 1982, when they’d both played the Montreux Jazz Festival. For Browne, the moment of revelation came when he joined Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble in an after-hours jam session in the Casino bar. “Stevie Ray was just blowing the roof off this small, smoky, after-hours club,” Browne recalls in the Texas Flood liner notes. “It was really exciting. We jammed a little bit, them and the guys in my band. When I heard them play that night, one of the things I said was, ‘If you come to L.A., I’ve got a place set up in a warehouse and you can record.’ It wasn’t even a studio – just a warehouse with a bunch of home equipment. In a way it was a perfect environment because there was no traffic in and out of the place, in a very rough part of the city, and there was kind of a rent-a-cop standing by the elevator so nobody unauthorized would come up into this building.”

    That Thanksgiving, Vaughan, Double Trouble, and Richard Mullen loaded up a van in Austin, drove to Los Angeles, and commenced setting up for the sessions. In his 1984 Guitar Player interview with Dan Forte, Stevie recalled, “The first record, we pretty much set up like we do onstage, but we did have a few baffles between us. We went ahead and used headphones like on one ear. We couldn’t see the control room – it was at the other end of the place with a bunch of stuff in between, and no window. I like it a lot that way.”

    Richard Mullen describes how they handled the guitar amplification: “I would just have Stevie play and set the amps up myself. We never went through and dinked on the amps like Eric [Johnson] does. We were more like, ‘Well, this amp either works or doesn’t.’ There wasn’t as much science in it – it was mike it with a 57 [Shure SM-57], turn it on 10, and go. Stevie would usually use as many as three or four amps at the same time. He’d usually have four or five different Dumble Steel-String Singers and six or seven Fender Vibroverbs. On every record, his sound came from a combination of the Fender and Dumble amps – it wasn’t specifically one or the other. We pretty much did all of Stevie’s miking pretty close – within two or three inches of the cone, usually a little off-center. We never did a lot of room miking. We’d usually just add effects afterwards to do whatever room sounds we wanted.”

    In the Forte interview, Stevie elaborated on his Dumble amps: “Right now, I use a Howard Dumble 150-watt. He calls it the Steel String Singer, I call it the King Tone Consoul – that’s ‘s-o-u-l.’ It’s like an overgrown Fender tube amp.” In those days, between his guitar and amps Stevie typically had an original first-issue Ibanez Tube Screamer, used for distortion, and three vintage 1960s effects: a Vox wah-wah, a Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face, and a Tycobrahe Octavia.

    For the beautiful instrumental “Lenny,” dedicated to his wife, Stevie played the brown, maple-neck Fender Stratocaster that he called “Lenny.” His wife Lenny had given him the instrument, which has been variously described as a 1963 or ’64. But for most of Texas Flood, he used his trademark guitar, “Number One.” In interviews, Vaughan often referred to this beat-up, alder-bodied Fender Stratocaster as “a ’59,” but in fact it was manufactured a few years later. In the liner notes to the Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble box set, guitar tech Rene Martinez explains, “For the record, Stevie always referred to Number One as a ’59. When I opened it up, I discovered ‘1962’ was stamped on the neck, and ‘1962’ was written on the body cavity. I thought, ‘Why does Stevie call this a ’59?’ Stevie later told me, ‘If you look on the back of the pickups,’1959’ is hand-written on there.’ Ever since he saw ‘1959,’ he started calling it a ’59. The fretboard is a veneer board [curved on the underside], though all of Stevie’s other rosewood-board guitars were slab boards [flat on the underside].”

    Except for its five-way toggle switch and lefty tremolo arm, Vaughan kept Number One stock. Rene remembers Number One’s neck, a Fender D-style, as being the largest he’d ever seen on a Strat. Stevie used Gibson jumbo frets to help accommodate his heavy guitar strings: “I use a .013, a .015 or .016 depending on what shape my fingers are in, .019 plain, .028, .038, .060 or .056. If I go down to an .018 on the G string, it feels like a rubber band to me.” Like Jimi Hendrix, he typically tuned down a half-step. As Vaughan once explained, “I use heavy strings, tune low, play hard and floor it. Floor it – that’s technical talk.” For more on Stevie’s guitar collection:

    In the CD’s liner notes, Tommy Shannon remembers the Texas Flood sessions as being relaxed and spontaneous: “One of the great things about playing with Stevie is he didn’t sit there and tell you, ‘Well, no, play this and play that. Lay out here and . . . .’ You know? Each of us played what he felt, that’s all. And if Stevie heard something and liked it, he could sit down and play it. I think he could hear deeper than anyone else could and it just kind of poured out like water. We knew the songs when we went into the studio that we wanted to do, but no, we didn’t sit down and write out a song list or anything like that. And that’s something we really wanted, to get a live sound on our record.”

    Stevie himself wrote most of Texas Flood: “Love Struck Baby,” “Pride and Joy,” “Rude Mood,” “Lenny,” “I’m Crying,” and “Dirty Pool,” co-written with Doyle Bramhall. He also covered “Testify” (author unknown), Buddy Guy’s “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and Howlin’ Wolf’s “Tell Me.” The most interesting cover of all, though, is surely the title track, “Texas Flood.” Texas blues singer Larry Davis recorded his original version in November 1958 with Fenton Robinson on electric guitar. Issued on Duke, this original version bears an uncanny resemblance to Stevie’s, both in the arrangement and especially the vocals:


    Following the completion of the Los Angeles sessions, Vaughan and crew headed back to Austin. They added a few vocal overdubs and began shopping the tape. It eventually came to the attention of Columbia Records producer John Hammond, who, having signed Billie Holiday, Charlie Christian, Bob Dylan, and many other musicians, had one of the most glorious track records in the history of 20th century music. Hammond, the father of bluesman John Hammond, forwarded the tape to Gregg Geller, then the A&R man for Epic Records.

    In the Texas Flood liner notes, Greg takes up the story: “Over the years John would forward all manner of acts to me. The very last one was Stevie Ray, and that was a no-brainer. I didn’t have to think real hard. What really appealed to me about him was not his guitar playing, which was undeniably brilliant, but his singing was totally natural and believable, not blackface. It wasn’t someone trying to sound real. My decision also had to do with what was going on in music at the time. The idea of electric blues was so unfashionable, but I felt there was a need for what he was doing. There was a need for a guitar hero – the old ones were inactive or doing pop records. I signed Stevie in the spring of ’83. John booked them into Media Sound on 57th Street, and we sat and listened to those original tapes to decide if anything needed to be done, but the gist of our approach was to do as little as possible. There were maybe a handful of overdubs and slight bit of remixing, and the record came out in June.” Stevie recalled Hammond being there for the mixdown and remastering.

    Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble in the studio with John Hammond.

    Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble in the studio with John Hammond.

    With the album’s release, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble began touring North America and Europe. October 20, 1983, found them at Ripley’s Music Hall in Philadelphia. Barely 150 people showed up for the gig, but Vaughan and band pulled out the stops, delivering a scorching set of Texas Flood tracks, Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” and an encore medley of Jimi’s “Little Wing/Third Stone From the Sun.” The show was broadcast live over Philadelphia’s WMMR-FM radio station and later rebroadcast on the nationally syndicated King Biscuit Flower Hour. Now it’s a welcome addition to Legacy’s Texas Flood reissue.

    To those who knew him, one of Stevie’s endearing qualities was his habit of crediting those who inspired him. In return, many of the musicians Vaughan helped bring back into the spotlight expressed their gratitude toward him. As John Lee Hooker said after Stevie’s death in August 1990, “To me, Stevie’s one of the greatest blues singers there ever was. I am very sad because I wish he were here. But his music will never die. He’s one of the greatest blues musicians that ever picked up a guitar.”

    For more on Stevie Ray Vaughan: Stevie Ray Vaughan: Our 1989 Interview About Jimi Hendrix

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    © 2013 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This article may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.

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