It seems that musicians and aircraft are not a great combination. Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, John Denver, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jim Croce… at least 50 artists were killed in some sort of air crash. But surely one of the most impactful was Stevie Ray Vaughan’s unfortunate death in a helicopter crash on August 27, 1990, at the young age of 35. It snuffed out a career that was reaching new heights and robbed us of future blues mastery.
Vaughan’s past was one peppered with substance abuse and pain, but his talent always carried through. Before he was ten years old, after trying drums and saxophone, he followed in the steps of his older brother Jimmie Vaughn and picked up the guitar, learning songs by ear. This talent continued to grow and eventually, in 1978, Stevie, Tommy Shannon (bass), and Christopher Layton (drums) formed the power blues group Double Trouble. It would go on to become one of the most talented blues trios in music.
Their first album, Texas Flood was released in June 1983, selling half a million copies, and finding some success. The following year the trio released Couldn’t Stand the Weather, which contained no original music but eventually peaked at number 31 on the Billboard Album charts. That was followed by Soul to Soul, released in September 1985, which eventually turned Gold. The album was praised for Stevie’s performance but criticized for poor songwriting. Vaughan’s final studio album with Double Trouble was In Step, recorded and released in 1989. The title reflected Stevie’s life suddenly settling down. He had found success, and after years of heavy drinking and drug use had finally cleaned himself up. Released in 1989, it was certified gold within eight months. “Crossfire” from that album became the group’s only number-one release. The LP garnered a Grammy Award as Best Contemporary Blues Album and was starting to lay the path to much future success for him and Double Trouble.
The following year, Stevie Ray Vaughan was killed in a helicopter crash, which spelled the end of any new music with Double Trouble. But in the year before his passing, Stevie and his older brother Jimmie had been recording music together, something the younger Vaughn had wanted to do for many years. This collection of songs was released on Family Style in 1990. The album peaked on the US Billboard 200 at number 7. Finally, in 1991 Double Trouble released a collection of previously unreleased titles on The Sky Is Crying, which is nearly all covers, with four classic instrumental blues songs. It’s a tour of many blues styles, including Texas Blues, Delta Blues, and Chicago Blues. The LP included a Grammy-winning cover of Jim Hendrix’s “Little Wing”. It charted at number 10. Note that Double Trouble has released four albums without any Stevie Ray Vaughan content.
And so, given this milieu of releases of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s music after his passing, what exactly would we say is his final album? With Ray Vaughan’s musical style mostly fashioned by his performances with Double Trouble, and it being the last album released by the group that contains his performances, it makes sense to review The Sky is Crying.
And what an album it was. If you’re a fan of blues, it’s a great tribute by an outrageously accomplished band. Kicking off with a delectable cover of the classic blues tune “Boot Hill,” this short intro lays the groundwork for the rest of the album. Despite its length, the solo warbles and urges you to continue your auditory journey. Then, the eponymous “The Sky is Crying” is the 12-bar blues standard (in 12/8 time!) originally recorded by Elmore James. “Empty Arms” is the only original song, previously unreleased and written by Stevie Ray Vaughan. It’s a bebopper up-tempo tune that hops, jumps, and bops through not only some advanced blues playing but also some tremendous shuffling drumming. What a tight and talented band.
A smooth-as-silk nearly 7-minute version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” is a great listen on a rainy afternoon. Later, a cover of Kenny Burrell’s 1953 jazz blues instrumental “Chitlins Con Carne” is another tremendous cover, with doses of Stevie’s turbo-picking blues runs. The album faithfully closes with an acoustic cover of “Life by the Drop”, co-written by Doyle Bramhall who formed the band The Nightcrawlers in the 1970s, which included both Jimmie Vaughan and, of course, Stevie Ray Vaughan in his pre-Double Trouble days. Perfect.
Photo: Stevie Ray Vaughn, 1983 (Bbadventure via Wikimedia Commons)