Stevie Ray Vaughan David Bowie Tour: Why It Never Happened.

Stevie Ray Vaughan David Bowie

Photo : By Scott Newton – [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

David Bowie was a brilliant artist that never followed musical trends. Bowie’s penchant for change had become symbolic of the singer’s success. In 1983, David Bowie had hired legendary dance music artist and producer Nile Rogers to help mold a new sound for an album David Bowie would release in 1983. The record called Let’s Dance would spawn some of the biggest hits of David Bowie’s career. A guitarist named Stevie Ray Vaughan who had been creating a loud buzz on the blues circuit in Texas, would become heavily responsible for part of the success of the Let’s Dance album.

In the early 1980s, Stevie Ray Vaughan attempted to step out of the shadows of his older brother Jimmie Vaughan. Stevie Ray Vaughan has long attributed his musical skills as a guitarist to his tutelage under his big brother Jimmy. However, in 1982, Stevie Ray Vaughan and his band Double Trouble began selling out clubs on the blues circuit in the southern United States.  As popular as the band had become, they were still unable to get a record deal. The band however was offered a couple of free days of studio time in Jackson Browne’s California recording studio. In those few days, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble recorded what would become their first album. The problem was there was still was no record deal. David Bowie had gotten wind of the furor that Stevie Ray Vaughan had been creating in the blues rock scene. Bowie was a master at setting trends and made a call to Stevie Ray Vaughan. The initial call was to ask Stevie Ray Vaughan to play on Bowie’s new record.

Stevie Ray Vaughan has been quoted as saying that as young man he had not cared for David Bowie’s music or persona. In Nick Patoski and Bill Crawford’s wonderful biography of Stevie Ray Vaughan, the authors unveiled Stevie Ray Vaughan describing how he had felt about Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust recording, “Uncle John Turner used to play it all the time and rave about it. It just didn’t make me not like it, it made me mad and when I saw a picture of David Bowie on that tour, it made me mad.”[1]  In the end David Bowie’s real personality won the guitarist over as Stevie agreed to play on the Let’s Dance record.

Stevie Ray Vaughan’s work on the Let’s Dance album proved to become very successful artistically and commercially. David Bowie was an artist that understood well enough to let Stevie play like Stevie on the record. Bowie had already become a legend in the rock and roll universe. His legendary status derived from a creative talent that mixed brilliant artistry with a keen sense of staying one step ahead of cultural movements. With that keen sense, David Bowie asked Stevie Ray Vaughn to join his band for the 1983 ‘Serious Moonlight Tour.”

All bands have a band leader. Bowie’s band leader Carlos Alomar instantly had problems with Stevie Ray Vaughan. The issues were a combination of both musical and social conflicts. It’s possible that there may have been a bit of jealousy from Alomar towards Stevie Ray Vaughan as they were both lead guitar players.  It had to be intimidating to be a guitarist standing next to someone who could play like Stevie Ray Vaughan. Also, Alomar was quite probably frustrated that Stevie Ray Vaughan had not been a formally trained musician and was unable to read musical charts. Rehearsals for a major tour can be tremendously pressurized so the musical conflicts alone probably created a tension. The musical drama  would soon be catapulted to extreme Fahrenheit levels when Stevie Ray Vaughan invited his wife to the rehearsals.

Stevie Ray Vaughan’s wife Lenora Vaughan instantly drew the wrath of Carlos Alomar. According to Patoski and Crawford’s work, Lenora, who was known as Lenny, had a reputation for cocaine use. Carlos Alomar who was straight as an arrow was worried about the influence the drugs would have on David Bowie.[2] When Bowie finally showed up to rehearsals after the band has been together for two weeks working on their own, Alomar complained to Bowie about Lenora.  David Bowie instantly barred Lenora Vaughan from the rehearsals. Stevie Ray Vaughan was infuriated that his wife had been thrown out of rehearsals. Eventually, David Bowie looked to cool the tensions by offering the opening spot of the tour to Stevie Ray Vaughan and his band Double Trouble. It would soon turn out to be a hollow promise.

Chelsey Millikin who was Stevie Ray Vaughan’s manager, looked to capitalize on the Stevie Ray Vaughan involvement with David Bowie. Milliken booked a Stevie Ray Vaughan performance on the very popular Musicladen television show during a break in the Serious Moonlight tour rehearsals. When Bowie found out about the booking, he demanded Milliken be fired as Stevie Ray Vaughan’s manager.[3] Milliken then decided to renegotiate the rate of pay that Stevie Ray Vaughan would be paid on a nightly basis. At the time, Stevie Ray Vaughan was to be paid three hundred dollars a night. Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble had been making 10 times that in their sellout club shows. However, the exposure Stevie Ray Vaughan would have received on a David Bowie tour was initially too great to turn down. Stevie Ray Vaughan and Chelsey Millikin set up a meeting with David Bowie’s attorney Lee Eastman to settle the contract dispute. According to Patoiski and Crawford, both Stevie Ray Vaughan and Chelsey Milliken walked out of that meeting having quit the David Bowie tour.[4]

The argument made by many writers especially Patoiski and Crawford, has been that Stevie Ray Vaughan quit the David Bowie tour over a contract dispute regarding rate of pay. However in a very telling interview on New Zealand TV, Stevie Ray Vaughan spoke of the reasons why he left the David Bowie tour. Being somewhat cautious, yet in a very open and honest and somewhat laid back fashion, Stevie Ray Vaughan explained that the reason he left the tour was because his band was not going to be allowed to open the shows.

When looking back at Stevie Ray Vaughan’s decision to leave the tour, it really could be easily argued that there were multiple reasons why the David Bowie Stevie Ray Vaughan experience never took flight. Of course, the main reason was offered by Stevie himself in the interview. However, when listening to the “Serious Moonlight,” rehearsal tapes, one could make an assumption that Stevie Ray Vaughan was becoming a far too powerful creative force to stand behind David Bowie on stage. And of course David Bowie was far too huge a legend to share the stage with some one of Stevie Ray Vaughan’ talent.

There were moments that can be heard on the rehearsal tapes that Stevie Ray Vaughan shined significantly, especially on the Let’s Dance material. But on many of Bowie’s signature songs from the early seventies, Stevie Ray Vaughan seemed out of place, which had nothing to do with his talent, but rather Vaughan’s sound and Alomar’s arrangements. We don’t want to use the word sabotage, but something just didn’t sound right as Stevie Ray Vaughan was buried in the mix on the majority of the show’s setlist.

In a final analysis, it seems that it was a combination of multiple factors that led to Stevie Ray Vaughan quitting the tour before it even began. The contract dispute, the personal issues with Lenora Vaughan and Carlos Alomar, the conflict with Stevie Ray Vaughan’s manager, and probably the most noteworthy reason; the denial of Double Trouble to open the shows.

Who knows what would have happened if Stevie Ray Vaughan had stayed on the tour. The two talents may have found just the right dynamic that would have made it the most entertaining rock and roll performances in history. Sadly, we will never get the chance to ask either one of them about the history of the Serious Moonlight Tour. We are only left with stories, bootleg recordings and assumptions.


[1] Patoski, Joe Nick, and Bill Crawford. Stevie Ray Vaughan: Caught in the Crossfire. Boston: Little, Brown, 1993. P.151

[2] Patoiski,Crawford,p154

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid.,155


One Response

  1. Christopher Harris February 6, 2016

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