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25 Years Ago: Stevie Ray Vaughan Dies in Helicopter Crash

Annamaria DiSanto, Getty Images

On May 4, 1989, Stevie Ray Vaughan kicked off a tour that ended up comprising three legs, 147 shows and 18 months. It all came to a stop on Aug. 27, 1990, however, when a helicopter carrying the guitar player and three members of Eric Clapton‘s touring circle crashed after a show in Wisconsin, killing everybody on board.

It was one of the biggest tours of Vaughan’s career, which skyrocketed six years earlier when his debut Texas Flood made him music’s new hotshot guitarist. After years of gigging with local Austin bands, the Dallas native began stirring industry interest after his blazing and buzzing performances on David Bowie‘s hit Let’s Dance album.

By 1989, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s reputation had grown to the point where his name would be mentioned alongside Jimi Hendrix‘s as one of the all-time guitar greats. He’d racked up three platinum albums and was a favorite guest musician for others to bring onstage. He completed recording on his fourth album In Step that March, and by May 1989 – a month before the album’s release – he was on the road supporting it.

It was a monumental undertaking, as he and his band swung through the U.S. and Canada. He played almost three dozen of the dates with Jeff Beck as a co-headliner, and when the tour hit the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis., on Aug. 27, 1990, he was sharing a stage with Beck’s fellow guitar-legend pal Clapton.

After the second of two shows on Aug. 26, everyone from Vaughan and Clapton’s bands and crews boarded four nearby helicopters to take them to Chicago. Vaughan himself was on a craft with Clapton’s agent, bodyguard and assistant tour manager. Reports indicate that there was fog and haze as they departed around 1 a.m. and attempted to fly over a 1,000-foot ski hill.

The helicopter didn’t make it — it veered to the left and crashed into the hill. Everybody on board was killed, including the pilot. An air patrol team wouldn’t locate the accident site until hours later. No drugs or alcohol were involved in the tragic crash. And contrary to rumors, Clapton did not hand over his seat to Vaughan.

The bodies were later identified by Clapton and Vaughan’s older brother, Fabulous Thunderbirds guitarist Jimmie Vaughan, who had recorded an album earlier in the year with his sibling called Family Style. It would be released in September 1990.

Stevie Ray Vaughan was buried on Aug. 30 in Dallas. More than 4,500 people gathered inside and outside of the church to pay their respects. Clapton, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Wonder and members of ZZ Top were among those present.

A year later, The Sky is Crying was released. Vaughan’s final album with Double Trouble, it was made up of 10 previously unreleased songs recorded between 1984-89, including a cover of “Little Wing” by his guitar hero Jimi Hendrix and a handful of numbers by the blues greats he and brother Jimmie – who assembled the project – were inspired by. It’s a fitting tribute to a musician who was only just beginning to hit his stride.

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Next: Remembering Stevie Ray Vaughan's Final Tour

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