From the archives: 25 years later, remembering Stevie Ray Vaughan's death and saluting his legacy

Piet Levy
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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The site where Stevie Ray Vaughan's helicopter crashed August 27, 1990, killing him and four others. Vaughan had just finished playing at Alpine Valley with Eric Clapton.

This story was originally published Aug. 27, 2015.

Before the last song of the last show of a two-night stand at Alpine Valley Music Theatre, guitar legend Eric Clapton stepped up to the microphone.

"I'd like to bring out to join me, in truth, the best guitar players in the entire world: Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray. Jimmie Vaughan."

The group lit into an extended jam of the classic "Sweet Home Chicago," with 40,000 people soaking up blistering guitar licks as the performers traded vocals.

Shortly after midnight on Aug. 27, 1990, four helicopters left Alpine Valley for Chicago, carrying performers and crew members. Three made it. The other flew barely a half-mile before crashing into a ski slope.

Related:'Texas Flood' recounts death of Stevie Ray Vaughan at Alpine Valley through memories of his band and friends

Among the five dead: Stevie Ray Vaughan – 35 years old, newly sober, on the cusp of real stardom, and already considered one of the greatest electric guitarists who ever lived.

Plane crashes have claimed other pop and rock stars: Otis Redding, Jim Croce, Rick Nelson, Ronnie Van Zant, Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens. But in the world of blues generally and electric guitar specifically, the East Troy crash is a singular tragedy that resonates to this day. "After he cleaned himself up, by 1990, he was back to playing guitar in a ferocious way. The tour with Eric Clapton, those shows are legendary," said Jason Hanley, senior director of education for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. "Who knows what he would have done next."

Blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan is seen performing onstage at the Rhythm and Blues Foundation Benefit in Austin, Texas, in this 1988 photo.

A distinctive stylist

The Dallas-born Vaughan and his band, Double Trouble, first gained international attention in 1982 with a set at the Montreux Jazz Festival. After the performance, David Bowie hired Vaughan to record lead guitar for his "Let's Dance" album. Vaughan's breakout debut album "Texas Flood" came out the following year, which introduced the world to his wild style.

"He really had the airwaves there for a while," said Shank Hall owner and veteran concert promoter Peter Jest. "He was even on top 40 radio. You don't see too many blues guys there. But he had great crossover potential."

Consequently, Vaughan "influenced a lot of older blues artists to return to the stage," said Craig Hopkins, the author of the two-volume biography "Stevie Ray Vaughan: Day by Day, Night After Night." "Buddy Guy and other people have said doors opened for them after Stevie came along that had been closed for years."

Vaughan came through the Milwaukee area frequently in the '80s, playing the Summerfest rock stage in 1984, the Oriental Theatre in 1985, the Summerfest main stage in 1986, the State Fair main stage in 1987, and the Milwaukee Auditorium (where the Miller High Life Theatre is now) and Alpine Valley in 1989.

"That just goes to show how popular he was," said Bob Babisch, Summerfest's vice president of entertainment, and a talent buyer for the Big Gig for 38 years. "I remember watching him on the rock stage. He was such a great live show, such a great player."

By the final Alpine Valley show in 1990, Vaughan was also in the midst of a personal renaissance.

In 1987, he had collapsed on tour, the result of a drug and alcohol problem that was out of control. After checking into rehab, he sobered up, and stayed sober.

"I was nearly dead," Vaughan told the Milwaukee Sentinel in a 1989 interview. "It was a very strange-feeling place. The way I was acting and thinking was not like me."

He channeled that second lease on life into 1989's "In Step," his most commercially successful album.

At that last gig at Alpine, Vaughan's sobriety seemed to show in his performance.

"He unveiled one of the most distinctive styles since Clapton first plugged in," the Milwaukee Journal rock critic at the time, Thor Christensen, wrote of Vaughan's set in his review of the first-night show. "Vaughan blazed through a number of rockers, but the beauty in his style was his subtle knack for unleashing a meow or a sigh when you were expecting a scream."

The helicopter disappears

After the show, four helicopters were on site to take people to Chicago. According to interviews in Hopkins' book, Vaughan took the last remaining seat, eager to get to his hotel so he could call his girlfriend.

It wasn't until about 4:30 a.m., after the other choppers made it to Chicago, that it appeared something was amiss, prompting a two-hour search.

About 6:30 a.m. Aug. 27, wreckage of the Bell JetRanger was found about three-fourths of the way up the northeast side of the ski hill, a half-mile from the lodge, with the debris scattered across 150 feet. The helicopter had lifted only about 100 feet off the ground and traveled about 3,000 feet before the crash.

Pilot Jeff Brown was experienced, with more than 5,000 hours of flight time, including 4,327 in a helicopter. But the National Transportation Safety Board report that followed in 1992 indicated the pilot didn't gain altitude quickly enough to clear the 150-foot ski hill.

"It was certainly a tragedy for music fans, but because it was so close, it hit closer to home," Jest said. "Alpine was the main music venue (in the area) in the '80s and '90s. Every music fan went there and could imagine what happened."

After the crash, Vaughan's music quickly sold out in local record stores, according to the Sentinel, and two subsequent posthumous albums – "Family Style" with his older brother Jimmie in 1990, and studio outtakes collection "The Sky is Crying" in 1991 – debuted in the top 10 on the Billboard charts.

To this day, you can hear Vaughan's influence when modern-day guitar masters like John Mayer and Gary Clark Jr. wail. And this past April, Vaughan and Double Trouble were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, "making sure Stevie Ray's work will be honored and preserved," Hanley said.

"Stevie's legacy lives on."

This story was originally published Aug. 27, 2015, in the Journal Sentinel. It has been lightly edited for clarity. 

'Devastating' losses

The Alpine Valley helicopter crash was personally "devastating" for Bob Babisch, Summerfest's vice president of entertainment, because a good friend was among the victims: Eric Clapton's agent Bobby Brooks. Brooks was also close with Leslie West, co-owner of the Rave with Joe Balestrieri, who together put on the Alpine shows through their Joseph Entertainment promotion company. They declined to comment for this story.

"He did a lot for Summerfest," Babisch said of Brooks. "He got bands that became popular pushed in our direction early on, and when he became a substantial agent at Creative Artists Agency, he always remembered Summerfest. He was one of the good guys."

Also killed in the crash, in addition to Vaughan, Brooks and the pilot Brown, were Clapton's manager Colin Smythe and his bodyguard Nigel Browne.

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