Tom Sinclair
September 01, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Stevie Ray Vaughan spent his last night on earth doing what he loved — playing the blues. Shortly before boarding the Chicago-bound helicopter that would carry him to his death in the early morning hours of Aug. 27, 1990, the 35-year-old guitarist and his band, Double Trouble, performed a smoking set at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis. For the encore, Vaughan was joined by the blues dream team of Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, and Vaughan’s brother, Jimmie, for a rousing version of, fatefully, ”Sweet Home Chicago.”

”It was definitely one of our more memorable shows,” says Double Trouble drummer Chris Layton. ”The whole spirit was really up.” Indeed, Vaughan’s life and career were thriving: His then-current album, 1989’s In Step, was turning out to be his best-selling ever, and he’d recently collaborated with Jimmie on Family Style. Perhaps most importantly, the formerly hard-partying rocker — who at one time started his days with a whiskey-and-cocaine cocktail — had nearly four years of sobriety under his belt, and by all accounts was happier than ever.

But, much as a young Buddy Holly had done more than 30 years earlier, Vaughan made a last-minute air travel decision that would cost him his life. The ill-fated helicopter took off into dense fog and, shortly thereafter, crashed into an East Troy hill, killing the guitarist and four other passengers. ”There’s obviously never a good time to die,” says Layton, ”but Stevie went out on a good note … I talked with him that night, and he seemed very much at peace.”

That peace didn’t come easy. The Dallas-born Vaughan had been paying dues since he quit high school and moved to Austin in 1971. He earned a rep as one of the town’s hottest ax slingers — and cultivated that formidable booze and drug habit. In 1983, Vaughan and Double Trouble’s landmark debut, Texas Flood, was released, and from the first notes, it was obvious a new guitar hero — one who used the blues as ground zero for the most fiery fret extrapolations since Hendrix — had arrived, and a fan base took root.

The legacy of the musician Clapton once called ”an open channel” continues. Just as Clapton opened the gates for Vaughan, Stevie Ray spawned a crop of disciples, including blues guitarists Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Demand for posthumous recordings remains high; Layton (who, with bassist Tommy Shannon, still performs as Double Trouble) is helping to compile a boxed set, scheduled to hit stores by year’s end. And on the 10th anniversary of Vaughan’s death, you can bet true believers will crank up one of his best-loved cover songs: Elmore James’ ”The Sky Is Crying.”

Time Capsule: August 27, 1990
At the movies, cult director Sam Raimi’s mainstream crossover Darkman, starring Liam Neeson, tops the box office with an $8 million bow. On television, Bill Cosby defeats Bart Simpson in the first of their highly publicized prime-time showdowns, as a rerun of The Cosby Show ends the week at No. 1. In music, M.C. Hammer’s Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em remains at the top of Billboard‘s album chart. And in the news, the month-old Persian Gulf crisis intensifies, and President Bush faces congressional scrutiny over what action the U.S. plans to take.

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