Revisiting the All-Star Stevie Ray Vaughan Tribute Concert
On May 11, 1995, nearly five years after the helicopter crash that killed him, some of Stevie Ray Vaughan's talented peers united on a single stage to pay tribute to a life and career that ended too soon.
The concert, which was hosted by the long-running series Austin City Limits and recorded for later release, featured a lineup that included Vaughan's former tourmate Eric Clapton as well as Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray and Vaughan's brother Jimmie, who organized the event as a way of honoring his fallen family member while coping with his grief.
As Jimmie Vaughan recalled in a 1991 interview with Rolling Stone, he was with Stevie the night he died, and gave him a hard time for leaving early on that fateful helicopter flight. "He looked me straight in the eye and said, 'No, you don't understand. I really need to get back. Do you mind?' I'll never forget that," he said. "So I said, 'No, I guess not,' and he said, 'Okay, I'll talk to you in a few minutes.' He got on the flight. Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton were in the helicopter right in front of him."
Jimmie boarded the helicopter after Stevie, and spent his flight unaware that anything had gone wrong with the earlier lift. "I was supposed to be on that helicopter too. Anybody who was on that show could have been on it. You tell me why I wasn't on it and he was," he pleaded. "Why was it that helicopter and not another? You think about all that stuff. I don't know the answer."
For Clapton, the show was an opportunity to pay respect to a guitarist whose playing made him feel like he was "in the presence of greatness" — and a fitting emblem of closure to an association that by all rights should have extended well beyond the handful of times they shared a stage.
"We played on the same bill on his last two gigs. On the first night, I watched his set for about half an hour and then I had to leave because I couldn't handle it," Clapton admitted years later. "I knew enough to know that his playing was just going to get better and better. His set had started, he was like two or three songs in, and I suddenly got this flash that I'd experienced before so many times whenever I'd seen him play, which was that he was like a channel. One of the purest channels I've ever seen, where everything he sang and played flowed straight down from heaven. Almost like one of those mystic Sufi guys with one finger pointing up and one finger down. That's what it was like to listen to. And I had to leave just to preserve some kind of sanity or confidence in myself."
Clapton is no slouch himself, but as he saw it, Vaughan's mastery of the instrument eclipsed his own; in fact, he went on to compare him to Jimi Hendrix. "They both played out of their skin, every time they picked up their instruments, as if there was no tomorrow," he marveled. "Listening to him on the night of his last performance here on earth was almost more than I could stand, and it made me feel like there was nothing left to say. He had said it all."
Vaughan's gone, but as Clapton and friends demonstrated that night, the music lives on. You can check out the complete Tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan concert above.