Stevie Ray Vaughan’s musical surge before ‘Texas Flood’

Thirty years ago, the iconic Austin guitarist released ‘Texas Flood,’ an album that changed the face of American blues and launched his career. It was a long time coming.


“Stevie Ray Vaughan was here, on stage here, in this very building — and he played his guitar so loudly, I swear, the beers would shake on the tables. It was a long time ago. Stevie was just a kid. And man, this room has really changed. But I remember. I can see it still … .”

It’s Sunday. It’s spring. It’s 2013. In the spirit of nostalgia, I find myself looking for ghosts, listening for lost notes, muttering to half-interested strangers inside the Texas French Bread café on the corner of 29th and Rio Grande streets, just north of the University of Texas.

Long, long ago, I knew this building as the Rome Inn — a scruffy blues hive that closed in 1980. Stevie Vaughan played here a lot, in his 20s, long before he was famous. He even got married in this building, between sets, in December 1979. An important site, yes?

Last time I was here: Thirty-three, 34 years ago. To hear Stevie. All these years, I never thought to come back in — until now — afraid the new building, the new light, all this renovation would play tricks with my memory. Sure enough: The building is very different.

“Stevie and the band would have stood right … about … here, their backs to this wall,” I say, looking toward the south wall, talking to a guy selling sandwiches and slices of Bundt cake at the counter, vintage Jackson Browne music in the background. “That’s where they played. These big windows running along 29th street weren’t here then; it was really dark.

“They’ve changed the floors, too. It was slightly tiered in the old days. The stage was kinda sunken, long and narrow. Like a little pit, or a chute. I had the sense of looking down, slightly, as Stevie played. There was a funky sculpted window — reminded me of a lotus flower, bricked over now — above Stevie’s head.”

Looking back, I’m ashamed to say it never crossed my mind on those Sunday nights that the scrawny guy playing an electric guitar with his head down, looking at his shoes, was destined to be a modern blues icon. Some nights, I was more focused on Lou Ann Barton — the featured singer in Stevie’s band for several years in the 1970s. Or I was watching those beers shake. Or I was focused on paradox: The shy player, making that great big sound. Or I was thinking how great it was to be alive, in Austin.

Stevie Ray Vaughan played “Texas Flood” on many of those nights. That song, that mood, that album, has been on my mind lately. It was 30 years ago — June 13, 1983 — that SRV’s audacious, acrobatic debut album, “Texas Flood,” changed the face of American blues and launched Stevie’s career.

Sony re-released “Texas Flood” earlier this year, packaging it with nine songs from a fiery, exuberant Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble live set in Philadelphia from October 1983. The sheer joy of the live recording, the palpable “we’ve made it!” excitement of the band’s performance, sent my memories flooding, flooding, to a time before the stardom, to Stevie’s “bologna” days, to the sensation of “Texas Flood” now, then and forever … .

Soap Creek

Stevie Ray Vaughan was already playing the tune “Texas Flood” live, in Austin, as a new member of a popular dance-happy soul and blues revue known as Paul Ray and the Cobras — a stint that ran from 1975 through mid-1977. Vaughan was 21, 22 years old at the time and eager to make his mark.

“You didn’t have to point at Stevie to take a solo. He would jump right in at any time,” recalls Ray, the featured singer and founder of the band. “Ray Benson and I were remembering that the other day. ‘Any time you’d take a deep breath, Stevie would be there (with a solo).’ He couldn’t help himself; he played that way.”

The Cobras were a fun, democratic band, strikingly un-contemporary in relation to both Austin music and the national trends. The Cobras were about pleated slacks on stage, not blue jeans. They mixed guitar with saxophone. Their tastes were broad, vintage. R&B, jazz, blues, swing, instrumental sizzle, soul.

Most of all, they were a true ensemble. Ray “fronted” the band — but everyone in the Cobras — including Denny Freeman on lead guitar, Rodney Craig on drums and vocals, Joe Sublett on saxophone — was given room to shine. The Cobras played Antone’s and the Armadillo. But their home club was the Soap Creek Saloon, a tavern in the hills, accessible by a steep, rocky driveway south of a sleepy two-lane country lane called Bee Cave Road.

The Soap Creek Saloon was a magical place, a secret playhouse nestled in nature. The vibe on Tuesdays, “Cobra Club” night, was that of an Austin family party. Hippies would come. Sheriff Raymond Frank would come. There was a lot of dancing. And always: the aroma of marijuana. Austin was very much a live-and-let-live place in those days.

“Most of the crowd were our friends. Doug Sahm and Greezy Wheels and Ray Benson would hang out,” recalls Ray, the long-time host of the “Twine Time” radio show on KUTX-FM. “Even their dogs were on the stage. And their kids were sleeping on folding chairs, their parents were dancing with our wives or our girlfriends. There were mechanics from a Volkswagen shop that would always come. They’d ask us: ‘Can we dance with your date?’ It was funny. What a scene.”

“I saw Stevie the first time, in the Cobras, at Soap Creek,” recalls Chris Layton, who would later become the drummer in Double Trouble. “I was the drummer with Greezy Wheels at the time. And I just went, ‘wow.’ I could hear him from outside of the club, before I even walked in the door. I could hear the band. And I could hear the distinct thing about his sound that just penetrated the walls of Soap Creek. I mean: He wasn’t louder than anybody in the band. But the tone! I’m like (wow), what is that? It was like a phenomenon.”

On stage, Freeman and Vaughan — the two lead guitarists of the Cobras — stood at opposite ends of the bandstand, bookends, Denny on the left and Stevie on the right. They did not duel, within songs. They did not play twin lines. Freeman, 10 years older than Stevie, was wild and elegant, a stylist with a broad musical vocabulary. Vaughan was more the white-hot coal.

“Denny was one of those guys who was into flatted fifths and 13ths; he knows every note he’s playing,” recalls Ray. “Stevie didn’t have the luxury of knowing that. He knew licks. And he’d just pile one on top of another in a never-ending stream of ideas.

“One big thing: Stevie had so much respect. It wasn’t as if he was some sort of sullen blues battler. Or whatever. He was a very funny guy. That whole band was a bunch of wise-asses. That’s why we got along. Stevie had great respect for Denny. I remember Stevie would stand back on the other side of the stage, watching Denny work. And he was such a quick study that he’d probably turn around and play the same thing right back at him.”

Each night, Paul Ray and the Cobras would let Stevie shine for a few songs. “Texas Flood” was frequently featured, along with the blues standard “Crosscut Saw,” popularized by Albert King. “When he played a solo,” recalls Ray, “people would run and stand in front of him and kind watch what he was doing. I guess it was important to him and important to us, because it kinda got him out in front — out in front of a band, which is where he should have been.”

Vaughan picked up on “Texas Flood” through Freeman, who had the vintage single of Larry Davis’ 1958 original in his record collection, a birthday present from Keith Ferguson and Jimmie Vaughan’s wife, Connie. He recalls Stevie learned the song directly from the 45 rpm recording.

“The flip side was ‘I Tried,’ which he also did,” recalls Freeman. “I remember because when he returned the record, the edge of it had been chipped off. I still have the record, and it will still play, you just have to be careful placing the needle on it.”

Paul Ray remembers: “I heard (Stevie) play that song every night with us for years. He was doing Larry Davis. You can hear it, real plainly, when you listen to that first strike. (Back then), he saw it as a classic blues song — and he was trying to be an authentic guy.”

After awhile, “Stevie started playing a 20-minute version of ‘Texas Flood’ (at Soap Creek),” says Ray, laughing warmly. “So all our girlfriends, who were surrounding the sound man, where all the smoke was coming up … they’d get up and go to the bathroom, ’cause they knew this song is going to play forever.”

Montreux

Claude Nobs, the founder and soul force of the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival for 45 years, died in January, several weeks after a cross-country skiing accident. The news of his passing created barely a ripple in Texas. It’s a shame, too. “Texas Flood,” the album, could not have happened without him.

Nobs launched Stevie Ray Vaughan’s career by booking him at the Montreux Jazz Festival, sight unseen, in July 1982. Vaughan was not well known outside of Texas in those days. He had no record, no album prospects. But Nobs — a peppy, exuberant little man, without a cynical bone in his body — booked him anyway, on a telephone recommendation from American producer Jerry Wexler.

“We really had nothing in the beginning,” says Layton, recalling the years between Vaughan’s stint with Paul Ray and the Cobras and Montreux. (Layton joined Vaughan in Double Trouble in 1978; bassist Tommy Shannon came on in ’81). “We were fighting to not become evicted from the places we all lived. When Double Trouble got together, I mean, it couldn’t be more bare-bones. We didn’t even have a common automobile among us for the sake of the band.

“I had a car, so I could get my drums to the gigs. Sometimes, I picked Stevie up. Sometimes he took a cab or a girlfriend brought him an amp — or we borrowed an amp. And from there: It was, ‘We’re going to Switzerland!’ Like: ‘Wow. This is unreal.’

Vaughan and the band needed “$14,000, maybe $15,000” to finance their trip to Montreux. No one had that kind of cash. On their best nights, SRV and Double Trouble made $500. “So the owners of our management company offered to loan us the money to go,” recalls Layton. “They thought it was a good idea.”

As it turned out: a very good idea.

Roughly 10 days after playing a gig at the Continental Club, Vaughan and the band were dining at Nobs’ home in Montreux. (“A generous man; so kind,” recalls Layton.) Nobs placed them on a special “blues night” that included guitarist John Hammond, singer Koko Taylor and slide guitarist J.B. Hutto. Nobs’ introduction, to the audience at Montreux: “We are very proud tonight to introduce a fantastic guitar player from Austin, Texas… .”

Vaughan and Double Trouble delivered a blistering rendition of “Texas Flood” that night. Stevie’s long, eloquent introduction was sublime: slow and swinging, tumbling and teasing, then searing and sassy — all before he sang that first husky vocal line: “Well, it’s floodin’ down in Texas / all of the telephone lines are down.” The Montreux version of “Texas Flood,” released on the “Blues Explosion” album in 1984, would win Stevie his first Grammy.

“We opened sets a lot with ‘Texas Flood’ back then, because it was so powerful. It was the perfect song for us,” recalls Shannon. “It kind of represented what we were all about — the music we played, the power we played with. From the first time we played it together, it just poured out (of us) like water. Like we’d been playing it a hundred years. We felt it so deep, right away. … It was the epitome of what we were all about.”

Afterward, Nobs was bubbly, excited about the performance. Yet despite a largely positive reception, Vaughan and the band were unnerved by random shouts of disapproval from the crowd during the performance. Too loud, perhaps? The band played at a very high volume in those days. As Paul Ray recalls: Even Angela Strehli, one of Stevie’s soul sisters at Antone’s, would tease him about it.

“Stevie,” she’d say, “You’re louder than God. … ”

Montreux Jazz Festival crowds, contrary to inferences in so much writing about SRV and Montreux, were not starchy or snooty or overtly “European” in 1982. In many ways, the Montreux vibe was like that of the Armadillo World Headquarters … with air-conditioning. There was a kitchen, comfort food, cold beer and a lot of cigarette smoke in the hall. The crowd was relatively young. You could sit cross-legged, on the floor, feet from the stage — just like the Armadillo.

I was in Montreux, in 1982. During that era, I saw Rickie Lee Jones, Dexter Gordon, Van Morrison, Lester Bowie, B.B. King, John McLaughlin (and others) play the festival — and all had performed at the eclectically minded Armadillo in Austin. Montreux showcased world music, paired artists of different genres on the same stage. Claude Nobs would later book The Flatlanders. So it wasn’t as if Montreux crowds were easily shocked. And yet …

Walking off the stage, “I thought we were (in trouble),” says Layton. “There was no encore. … In truth, it might have been four or five people booing in that crowd. But egotistically: One person booing in an audience has the power of a hundred people … . I remember thinking: People are booing … and this has cost us 15 grand.”

In the dressing room, Vaughan and the band looked each other in the eye, shrugged their shoulders. “I don’t think we sounded that bad,” remarked Stevie. “Then a knock comes at the door, no more than 20 seconds later. (Layton approximates a British accent here). ‘There’s a Mr. David Bowie that wants to meet with you all.’

“I’m thinking, ‘David Bowie? Which David Bowie?’ ” recalls Layton.

Mister David Bowie: The singer … . ”

Bowie and the band talked for hours in the Musician’s Bar after the performance. In the end, Bowie let Vaughan know he’d “be in touch” — a promise delivered, months later, when he invited Stevie to play on the “Let’s Dance” album. Bowie “was real curious about everything, about who we were,” says Layton, recalling their conversations at Montreux. “I thought it was interesting this guy wants to know about what Stevie means to me, and what I meant to Stevie.”

Later, Jackson Browne — the featured performer at the festival the next evening — caught an impromptu late-night set with Vaughan and the band in the festival’s Musician’s Bar, just downstairs from the main auditorium. Enthused, he invited Vaughan and Double Trouble to record at his personal studio, in Los Angeles.

The world had begun to change for Stevie Ray Vaughan. And all because of Claude Nobs and Montreux.

California

Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble recorded the album that became “Texas Flood” — at Jackson Browne’s personal studio — in November 1982. They drove there, from Austin, after playing a pair of shows with Hubert Sumlin at Antone’s early in the month. They performed in Lubbock, Santa Fe and San Francisco on the way.

“We thought: Wow. We’re going to a studio. A real studio!” recalls Layton. “We so excited we didn’t even bring any tape.”

The “Texas Flood” sessions, recalls Layton, were “probably the most honest thing we ever did, because we really didn’t know what we were doing. It was a reflection of our character at the time — which was some guys who were traveling around in an old milk truck … . I can’t think of anything in my life that was more naive, innocent, ignorant, and unprepared for. Really.

“We just showed up like we were doing a gig at the Rome Inn … . we set our stuff up … we turned on the machine and played all our songs. ‘Well, that’s us. That’s that. That’s who we are. And then we went home.’”

As Layton remembers it, Greg Ladanyi — a producer and sound engineer affiliated at the time with Browne, Warren Zevon and Don Henley — met the band at the studio. “It was Thanksgiving weekend, and he was getting a little perturbed,” he recalls. “Like: Jackson asked me to hang around.”

So, said the engineers, as the band set up. Where’s your tape?

Tape? The band was astonished: We were supposed to supply our own recording tape?

“They made a few calls or something,” says Layton. “And they came up with some tape. I think it was some (of Browne’s) ‘Lawyers in Love’ work tapes. We used that. We recorded ‘Texas Flood’ on that.”

“I remember the sessions were real raw, like we were,” adds Shannon. “It got across on tape like we were live.”

After three days in the studio, Vaughan and the band left L.A. with no illusions. The tapes were placed in a closet. Jackson Browne listened to them — but wondered aloud if there was any room in the mainstream for these wild new blues. In December, Vaughan went into the studio to record “Let’s Dance” with David Bowie.

It was a tentative time. Would Stevie hit the road with David Bowie? Or was his heart in Texas? Finally, the band placed a call to the producer John Hammond — the John Hammond, the man who launched the careers of Bruce Springsteen and Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan; the John Hammond, whose son, a hot guitarist in his own right, had played the “Blues Night” in Montreux and shared the tapes with his father.

Hammond listened to the tapes. He loved the music. He made a call. The album was made. Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” album — with Stevie Ray’s magnificent solo on “China Girl” — came out in April 1983. “Texas Flood” was released 60 days later.

“Nothing had changed, in us,” recalled Layton. And yet: Everything had changed.

“One trip, you’re going to California in your van, actually carrying a cooler with Oscar Meyer bologna and Kraft cheese slices and Mrs. Baird’s bread, and that’s all you’re eating… . You play a place like the Coffee Gallery in North Beach in San Francisco, make like 60 dollars and you go: This is rough stuff! You know? (Man), I’ve got rent to pay back home, and we’re out here (wondering), ‘Can we put gas in the truck? Can we buy more bologna?’

“And then: The idea that you actually have a record, that it’s being played on the radio! You’re on a tour bus. You pull up to a club that holds 800 people — and it’s sold out and there’s 200 people standing outdoors. And instead of $60, you’re making, maybe, 10 grand. That’s a big switch. That’s encouragement. That’s validation.”

Rome Inn

Chris Layton moved to Central Austin not long ago. For old times’ sake, he frequently visits the Texas French Bread on 29th and Rio Grande. The owner has even approached him about doing a night or two of commemorative music in the bakery — you know, to honor the legacy of the old Rome Inn.

You can’t bring it back. Chris Layton knows that.

“All of it is fleeting,” says Layton. “But when I do go back and listen to what we did, I think about us personally as much as I do musically. Everything we did was really an expression of who we were — body, mind, and the spirit of the time.

“Having spent so many years together, doing everything together: It’s like seeing an old picture of your parents. You think about your relationship, and not necessarily how they look in that photograph.”

Thirty years. So long ago.

“I never really sensed we became much different, ever, than the band that used to play the Rome Inn on Sunday nights,” he says. “I mean: When you go back to the material, you know, things changed. But it was always a pretty simple idea … ‘Let’s just do what we like, and what moves us, and makes us feel right.’ … I have to thank Stevie for that, because he was clear in his heart about who he was and what he wanted.”

The shows, the years, they meld together in memory, says Chris Layton. But sure, he remembers moments on stage, playing “Dirty Pool” or “Testify,” feeling a little bit like jazz musicians, when the music clicked just right, when Stevie and Tommy and Chris shared a knowing glance.

“But there were a lot of times when we all just closed our eyes,” he says. “And I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know where we are — but they’re all right here.’ A sixth sense. Do you know what I mean?”


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