Stevie Ray Vaughan passed away 31 years today in a helicopter crash in southern Wisconsin. He left behind not only an immense musical legacy, but also some insights into business and into life in general.
The story begins with our long phone conversation in February 1984, when he was an up-and-coming artist about to release his second album. Neither of us knew that night that Rolling Stone and Guitar World – not to mention nearly every person who ever heard him play – would one day rank him among the all-time greatest guitarists.
The call came as midnight approached, along with my deadline. I was in the office of the Maroon, the University of Chicago’s student newspaper. On the other end of the line was Stevie Ray Vaughan, sitting in a downstate hotel room. He sounded exhausted, but said he was ready to talk for an article that would run on the front-page of the Maroon’s arts supplement.
And talk he did. He took me behind the scenes of his hectic schedule and his band’s upcoming album. He defended some tough decisions he’d made. He told his stories with a mix of hopefulness and humility that clashed with his furious onstage presence.
Despite some progress in the early 1980’s, Vaughan was still in the early stages of his “start-up business” in early 1984. He knew intuitively that talent alone does not guarantee success. Taking only a few small liberties with his comments and stories from our conversation that night, I would distill Stevie Ray Vaughan’s version of “Management 101” into these five principles:
It takes a true team: A staff or an organization makes you more productive. A team makes you better. The members motivate and inspire, give honest feedback, and profit from each other’s experience. Vaughan’s partnership with his bandmates in Double Trouble exemplified that. Drummer Chris Layton brought his own influences and also adapted his style to Vaughan’s. Bass player Tommy Shannon was about 10 years older than Vaughan and Layton, had more touring experience, and knew how to play larger venues. He had backed Johnny Winter at Woodstock. He had also seen the good, the bad, and the ugly that a young musician might not encounter in the bar scene in Austin, Texas, where Vaughan and Layton has spent most of their early careers. Vaughan picked great partners. The three of them remained a band until his death.
Follow your compass: Imagine that you get a surprise break, a chance for constant exposure sooner than you ever imagined. To take advantage, though, you would need to change your vision and split with your team. Would you do it? Vaughan’s surprise break came when David Bowie asked him to play guitar on his tour to back his platinum-selling album Let’s Dance. Vaughan had played lead guitar on the studio album. Millions of Bowie fans had heard the hits and already knew the riffs. Fans by the thousands could now see the same guitarist play those riffs live. Vaughan said no. “There were promises that weren’t kept,” he told me that night, adding that “things got out of hand” and “it wasn’t necessarily about the money.” Too many of the Let’s Dance rehearsal and tour dates overlapped with too many tour dates for Vaughan and his band Double Trouble. His loyalty to Double Trouble and to his vision trumped the opportunity to reach a mainstream audience by backing up another act. In the years that followed, it never appeared that Vaughan regretted that decision to remain true to his team and his original vision.
Keep telling a memorable story: People can’t open doors for you if they can’t hear you knocking. “I don’t mean to sound cocky, but we needed someone to listen,” he said, referring to the band’s early days together in Austin. Back in an era when social media was science fiction and “viral” still meant illness, nobody could look you up and fill in the blanks themselves on who you are, where you come from, and where you are headed. You had to tell people your story yourself and - if they liked it - maybe they would retell it to others the right way. That set a high standard for storytelling. Vaughan’s stories about sleeping in pool halls, jamming with his heroes, playing at the Montreux Jazz Festival, and getting “discovered” again and again were compelling and made people more curious to see him play. Perseverance and consistency are two other critical, often underrated aspects of storytelling. Vaughan certainly had better things to do than talk to a college reporter that night. He probably told me absolutely nothing he hadn’t said before. In today’s world, you enjoy access to online platforms that let you reach thousands if not millions of people with one post. But so does everyone else. The lesson is that the standard for a compelling story remains high, but having one isn’t enough. You still need to hammer it home repeatedly and consistently.
It takes a grind: Let’s say your band will open one night for The Police on their Synchronicity tour. In Honolulu. How do spend your Saturday night in Chicago, one week before that date? You and your team drive to a nerdy college campus and play a full set in a decrepit gym that looks a like a faded black-and-white photo come to life. Maybe 100 people show up. And you are absolutely kicking ass. Why? It’s an obligation, night after night. That’s what Stevie Ray did on the University of Chicago campus a couple of days after our interview. Small jobs pay the bills and build the reputation, too. If you take the job, you have to put in 100% effort.
Pay it forward: When I met him briefly backstage after that show, he immediately asked about Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven, the foundation established by the Chicago blues legend. He wanted to lend his support to Dixon’s efforts. “A lot of people have opened a lot of doors for me, and I’m doing my best to open those doors for others,” Vaughan explained. “And that goes all the way back. I’ll help any way I can.”
These five principles helped him make his own luck in his business of music, but they apply just as well to any business. The intangibles – consistent story-telling, day-to-day commitment and conscientiousness – often make the difference between success and failure.
Frank Luby is CEO of Present Tense LLC and co-founder of BluesBackroadsBaseball LLC. His two personal encounters with Stevie Ray Vaughan inspired him to keep writing about blues music. His book Blues Flashbacks,published in 2020, has been nominated for the 2021 Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) Awards for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research. Publicity photo credit to Don Hunstein.