Written by Jay Philpott
Today, August 27th, it’s been 30 years since Stevie Ray Vaughan’s death. I would like to share with you one of the most powerful and unforgettable moments in my life.
SRV’s passing was one of the greatest losses that music lovers have ever had to endure. Through hard work in touring and building a solid reputation as an immensely talented guitar player, he first came to prominence as the guitarist on David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” album. He released several albums with his band Double Trouble and thrilled audiences around the world with his playing, often compared to Jimi Hendrix. He conquered his addictions to alcohol and drugs and was making the best music of his life when he left us.
I never had the chance to meet him, but I did get to say goodbye – at the helicopter in which he perished.
From 1987 to 1991 I was working at LAZER 103, a great rock station in Milwaukee, and we were the official station of Alpine Valley Music Theatre. AVMT is a large outdoor amphitheater with a capacity of 40,000 people, and is located within 40 miles of both Milwaukee and Chicago. It’s a major tour stop for performers in every genre. As the official station for Alpine Valley in Milwaukee, my station did a tremendous amount of promotion for the venue, gave away thousands of tickets, conducted countless interviews with the artists, and did live broadcasts on show days.
On Saturday August 25th, 1990 and Sunday the 26th, Eric Clapton was headlining a great line-up of blues/rock which also featured Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray and Buddy Guy. The shows were both sellouts with 40,000 fans each night. I was on the air from AVMT until 7pm both nights and I stayed for the concerts. Buddy Guy took the stage first, then Cray, SRV, and finally Eric. On Sunday night, the closing song was a rendition of “Sweet Home Chicago” with Eric joined by Stevie, Robert, Buddy and Stevie’s brother Jimmie. Their rendition of the song was tremendous; the crowd appreciative, it was a warm summer night in southeast Wisconsin and no one wanted it to end. But end it did and the lights came up about 11pm. At that point, I left and I took the station van and equipment home with me.
In addition to being a prime music venue, Alpine Valley also operates a fine golf course during the summer and is an excellent place to ski in the winter. There are first class accommodations and it’s a busy place year-round. Less than one mile from the concert “shed” is a large man-made ski hill that offers some awesome runs, and lifts that take you back up to do it again.
Performers at Alpine Valley typically stayed at hotels in Chicago, which was a short helicopter flight away. A small helipad behind the stage was where a flight back to the hotel awaited the performers, and sometimes there were several helicopters, or one would make the trip a couple of times. As the story goes, on this night, Jimmie Vaughan yielded his seat to his brother.
After takeoff, the pilot needed to rise above the venue and execute a turn first to the east and then to the south in order to reach Chicago. In the light fog of that late night, something went horribly wrong, and the pilot didn’t get enough altitude to clear the ski hill that was in the way of the standard turn to get to Chicago. The accident occurred shortly after midnight, and at that time there were still thousands of people in the nearby parking lots waiting to get out of the area. Many were still outside their car doing a little post-concert tailgating. When the helicopter hit the side of the hill, there must have been some sort of noise, but no one heard it. There was no explosion, no fire, nothing to indicate the tragedy until several hours later when, in Chicago, the flight was deemed “missing”. In retrospect, it’s a very spooky thought that so much partying was going on less than a mile away from the crash site.
At 6am, I received a call from my boss, the Program Director of the station, and he asked me to get back down to Alpine, as there had been a crash. I must confess, my first thought was that something had happened to the headliner (Eric Clapton), but he wouldn’t tell me right away. Once I had arrived back at the venue, I called him back on 1990’s version of a cellphone – a large brick shaped device, housed in a large bag with a heavy battery and wired to the vehicle. At that point he told me it was Stevie Ray Vaughan that had died…BUT…I couldn’t mention it in any of my on-air reports until they had made the official announcement at a press conference set for 9am. As I arrived about 7:30 or so, there were lots of media crews gathering from both Chicago and Milwaukee. Access beyond the hotel and chalet was restricted since authorities had already marked police lines with yellow tape.
I wanted to find out as much as I could about this tragedy for my listeners, so I called a friend who lived in the area and knew the back roads. He came there immediately and we decided to see if we could get to the site from the back of the hill. After about a 15 minute drive (and by then, it was 8:00 or 8:15am), we stopped and got out of the car and crossed a field, went into a small grove of trees, and emerged into a clearing. There it was – the downed helicopter and its victims.
I stood quietly for several minutes and said my prayers for those people and their families. I stayed out of the way of the many investigators that were already swarming the site, taking pictures, measurements and planting yellow flagged stakes where important pieces of the helicopter fell, and red flagged stakes to mark the location of the bodies prior to their removal.
Despite what must have been an extremely violent event, it was somewhat peaceful. There had been no fire, and there was no mutilation from the rotors of the helicopter. This was simply a pure impact crash, and there didn’t appear to have been any suffering by the victims. Stevie’s head was resting on his arm is if he were taking a nap.
His hat was still on.
I decided to descend from the ski hill by walking underneath the lift chairs instead of walking back to my friend’s car. As I got to the bottom, I was approached by several law enforcement officers and asked for immediate identification. I did so with my driver’s license and my Alpine Valley season press pass, but this did not impress them too much. I was questioned for a few minutes, informed that I had crossed police lines and ordered back to the press area or face arrest.
Once back to the press area, I waited for the official announcement and then broadcast my report with the full details. I remember very little of it, although I’m told it was quite emotional.
More than 10 years later, when I was working at the classic rock station in Dallas (KZPS), I had the opportunity to tell Jimmie Vaughan my story in person. He seemed to appreciate my first-hand account, but I have never thought I lessened his pain or muted his loss in any way. Nothing could.
A couple of days later, I was broadcasting live from The Riverside Theatre in downtown Milwaukee prior to a concert by Ronnie James Dio, and had the opportunity to interview him. It turned out that Ronnie’s booking agent and close friend Bobby Brooks was also on the helicopter, and he was deeply affected by that loss as well as Stevie’s.
– Jay Philpott