The Artistic Afterlife
Stevie Ray Vaughan
I run around the Town Lake hike and bike trail four or five times a week. Every time I do, I swerve off the trail, stick out my left hand, and touch the right hand of Stevie Ray Vaughan. Touching Stevie's statue gives me a boost, a touch of hope. Stevie would have turned 41 this October 3. I turned 40 this year. I know I'll never do as much good as Stevie or be as successful, but it would be nice to know that someone is going to do a competent job of managing my affairs when I'm gone.
Five years after his death, the statue on Town Lake, a grave in Dallas, and a handful of old CDs are the only tangible reminders most people have of the kick-ass guitar player who first came to Austin as "Little Stevie." But Stevie is very much alive. His music, his image, and his story generate millions of dollars a year. Like Jimi Hendrix, Stevie dwells in a strange artistic limbo, managed by people here on earth who have the tough job of trying to maximize revenue as they shape his artistic legacy. Unlike Hendrix, however, the folks who are managing Stevie are doing a good job.
Jimi Hendrix died 25 years ago in London, choking on his own vomit after he overdosed on sleeping pills. Back then, no one knew how much a dead rock star was worth. A few thousand dollars? Maybe a few hundred thousand dollars? Sure, he was a big name, but by the time he died, his career was slipping a bit. Maybe he was beginning to go down the toilet. Maybe his death was the big flush.
Jimi Hendrix did not leave a will. Al Hendrix, his father, was a gardener in Seattle who earned about $4,000 a year. Al knew much more about geraniums than he knew about the music business. He did what any confused person would do when faced with a barrage of music industry sharks: He hired a lawyer. Leo Branton, Jr., took charge of managing the guitar player's estate. Branton sold the rights to Hendrix's music to a Panamanian tax shelter called PMSA in 1974. Nine years later, Branton sold off the rights to Hendrix's likeness to another company. Jimi's face has changed hands many times since then.
Al Hendrix didn't do too badly from these deals. Over the years, he has collected a couple million dollars. And his son's music has been well managed by Alan Douglas, the record producer hired by Warner Bros. to take control of the Hendrix catalogue. After he took charge, Douglas pulled a lot of Hendrix crap off the market and started to remix and reissue Hendrix's material - very carefully.
Okay. So you think everything would be fine in Hendrixville, right? Wrong. Urged on by a Seattle lawyer named O. Yale Lewis, Al Hendrix recently sued Leo Branton. "I want Jimi's music back," Hendrix told Newsweek. "It belongs to me." Perhaps the fact that MCA paid $75 million for the Hendrix catalogue in 1993 had something to do with Papa Al's grief. Perhaps the fact that Seattle software billionaire Paul Allen provided a war chest also had something to do with the suit. Especially since Allen, who plays wicked Hendrix air guitar, plans to open the Experience Music Project, a $60 million Hendrix museum in Seattle. Allen needs Al Hendrix's blessing and a bunch of Hendrix licensing fees for his project to succeed.
Al Hendrix won the courtroom battle for the rights to his son's music last July. But the battle is not over yet. Twenty-five-year-old James Henrik Daniel Sundquist, who calls himself "Jimi, Jr.," has launched a series of lawsuits from his native Sweden claiming damages from Al Hendrix for "fraudulently" concealing his status as his father's "rightful heir." Yup, Jimi is his Papa, at least according to the Swedish Supreme Court, which ruled that Sundquist's mother Eva had "two complete intercourses" with Jimi Hendrix in 1969 and fathered Eva's son. Jimi, Jr.'s lawsuits against his grandpa Al and a bunch of other folks are still pending in court. Meanwhile, the money keeps piling up as Jimi, Sr.'s records sell at a rate of more than a million units a year.
Stevie Ray Vaughan idolized Jimi Hendrix. He got goosebumps when he listened to Hendrix. From the time he was 13 years old, Stevie played Hendrix music, and played it well. He caught hell from some blues purists for being a Hendrix fan. "Some of the distance that people put between playing music and playing Hendrix music is kind of strange to me," Stevie once explained. "Granted, it's hard to play... but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try."
Stevie wanted something more than just to play like Hendrix: He wanted to be Hendrix. For a Halloween gig at the Austin Rehearsal Complex in Austin, Stevie dressed up like Hendrix, wig, blackface, and all. At one point, Stevie told Austin's Joe Gracey that he had been taken over by the spirit of Hendrix - "literally." Stevie often wondered if he would die young, like Hendrix. About a month before his own death in a helicopter accident, a fan handed Stevie a rubbing of Jimi Hendrix's gravestone. "Get that outta here," Stevie said. "It's too weird."
Stevie did indeed die young, just like Hendrix. And just like Hendrix, he died without a will. But fortunately, Jimmie and Martha Vaughan were his next of kin, the inheritors of his estate. Martha Vaughan is a quiet, sensible, polite woman who lives south of Dallas. Jimmie Vaughan is a veteran of the music biz who lives here in Austin. Unlike Al Hendrix, Jimmie and Martha, along with Jimmie's longtime manager Marc Proct, were ready to face the swirling sharks after Stevie's death.
The Hendrix estate is much juicer both in dollar terms and in notoriety than Stevie Ray Vaughan's estate and therefore attracted bigger, hungrier sharks. And there is no Stevie, Jr., in Sweden. But even so, the Vaughans have done a much better job in handling Stevie's legacy than the much-manipulated Al Hendrix.
Jimmie and Martha's management mantra seems to be if it ain't broke don't fix it. They signed over control of Stevie's catalogue to Sony for a good chunk of change, retaining artistic control over the product that the label wishes to put out. This arrangement works well. Family Style, The Sky is Crying, In the Beginning, and the video Live at the El Mocambo are good, solid releases that have enhanced Stevie's reputation and sold well. Jimmie and Martha have also established three charitable funds as a memorial to Stevie: The Stevie Ray Vaughan Music Scholarship Fund, which provides scholarships for music students at Stevie's alma mater, the W. E. Greiner Middle School in Oak Cliff, Texas; The Stevie Ray Vaughan Charitable Fund, which sends 25 percent of the monies received to the Dallas Area Parkinsonian Society (Stevie's father Jim Vaughan died of Parkinson's disease), while the other 75 percent of its money going to The Ethel Daniels Foundation, a Dallas halfway house for drug addicts and alcoholics; and The Stevie Ray Vaughan Memorial Fund, which provides for the maintenance of the Stevie statue on Town Lake. All these funds are well-managed, modest efforts that are right on the mark as far as preserving Stevie's legacy is concerned.
The Vaughans have allowed Lee Hopkins of Dallas to organize and operate the Stevie Ray Vaughan Fan Club. Hopkins has dedicated the last two and a half years to running the club. He publishes a newsletter which he distributes to 650 loyal fans. Last year, Hopkins led a small tour group around Austin and Dallas on the weekend of Stevie's birthday. This year, Hopkins hopes to bring a full bus from Dallas to celebrate Stevie. "Last year we had two guys from Switzerland," says Hopkins. "This year, there's a man coming from the Netherlands and a couple coming from Norway, and people coming from all over the U.S." Hopkins feels that Stevie's following will continue to grow. "I bet I get a letter a week from someone who said that they had never heard of Stevie until recently," he says. "One woman recently wrote me to say she got into Stevie after hearing Travis Tritt do a version of `Leave My Little Girl Alone'."
One of the sights Hopkins visits is Stevie's grave in Laureland Cemetery, in Vaughan's hometown of Oak Cliff south of Dallas. The grave has been moved to a more public spot from its previous location in the Veterans section of the cemetery next to his father. This, once again, is a good move on the part of the Vaughans, because it makes it easier for fans to pay their respects to Stevie. Still, there is a rumor that SRV's body remains buried in the earlier grave site. There's another rumor that Stevie's favorite guitar, the Stratocaster known as "number one," lays beside him in his grave.
The major piece of litigation that followed Stevie's death didn't concern control over his music, though; It concerned the helicopter crash that killed him after his appearance at the Alpine Valley Amphitheater in southern Wisconsin on August 27, 1990. Moments after performing "Sweet Home Chicago" with Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Buddy Guy, and his brother Jimmie, Stevie boarded a helicopter bound for Chicago. According to later findings by the FAA, the helicopter pilot misjudged his bearings shortly after takeoff and slammed his craft into the side of a hill, killing all on board.
It's kind of grisly to put a dollar figure on someone's life, but the courts do it every day with the help of personal injury lawyers and taxing authorities. The courts judge the worth of an individual by the loss of income to his or her dependents plus a certain amount for pain and suffering. The amount claimed in the lawsuit over Stevie's death was a lot less than that claimed by the other three people who died in the crash, all of whom were married and left behind dependents. On December 2, 1992, Omniflight Helicopters agreed to pay the wives of Clapton's bodyguard and tour manager a lifetime annual income at least equal to the amount of income their husbands got at the time of their death. The exact amount was not disclosed, but it must have been in the millions of dollars. This July, two years after the suit was filed, Omni-flight reached a settlement with the Vaughan family. The amount was undisclosed, but it was probably close to the $300,000 figure sought. Since Stevie was unmarried at the time of his death, and had no children, there was no one to receive what would have been the big-ticket item from the lawsuit - the lost income stream from Stevie's concerts, music publishing, and record sales over the final quarter century of his life.
Still, not everyone is happy with Martha and Jimmie's handling of Stevie's estate. Janna Lapidus, Stevie's girlfriend at the time of his death, expected to get a lot more than a year's lease on the condo she shared with Stevie in Dallas. But that's all she got. Alex Hodges, Stevie's manager, was fired right after Stevie's death. Chesley Millikin, the manager who brought Stevie from obscurity to the big time, doesn't think Jimmie Vaughan is doing well by his brother. "We saw Alan Douglas rip-off the Hendrix estate," Millikin told me by phone from his residence in California. "What we are seeing now is Jimmie Vaughan's rip-off of Stevie Ray Vaughan." Millikin believes that Jimmie should have never released the live album In the Beginning. "Stevie gave me the master tape," Millikin said. "He never wanted to have it released. That tape was only released for one reason - greed."
In the Beginning sparked the only major legal battle with Stevie's estate that I could track down. Jackie Newhouse played bass on the album. In 1994, Newhouse reached an acceptable agreement with Jimmie and Martha concerning the amount of money he would receive for performing on the album, but it took him two years. Though he cannot comment about the settlement, Newhouse regrets the time and the money he had to spend to come to terms with the Vaughans. "It was a needless hassle," he says.
There are also questions concerning another Stevie-related project, the special Stevie Ray Vaughan Tribute concert taped at the Austin City Limits studios last spring. Organized by Jimmie Vaug-han, the tribute featured Jimmie Vaughan and his Tilt-A-Whirl band, Eric Clap-ton, Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, B. B. King, Art Neville, Dr. John, Chris Layton, and Tommy Shannon. Those who were there say it was killer. But there has been no word yet as to when tapes of the concert will be released for home video, CD, or television broadcast. Rumors are that some of the performers did not sign releases. It seems a pity that the major musical event honoring Stevie should be tied up in a rights dispute, but such is life in rock & roll purgatory.
The next few years will undoubtedly see a bunch of new product coming from rock & roll purgatory. A Hendrix tribute album titled In From the Storm: The Music of Jimi Hendrix is due out in October, with performances by Sting, Carlos Santana, John McLaughlin, and the London Metropolitan Orchestra. D. A. Pennebaker, the creator of the 1967 film Monterey Pop, is working on a documentary titled Searching for Jimi Hendrix. Finally, Laurence Fishburne has optioned David Henderson's Hendrix bio `Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky for a feature film.
On the Vaughan front, Jimmie and Martha Vaughan will soon be releasing a new Stevie album - a greatest hits package that will include a previously unreleased song, the Beatles' "Taxman." A Stevie box set is also supposedly in the works, due out next year. And Stevie's two performances on Austin City Limits will soon be available for retail purchase. "I'm looking at the boxes right now," says KLRU's General Manager Bill Arhos. Austin City Limits recently cut a deal with Sony to distribute their shows to the home video market. The SRV tape will be their first release, and I bet it will be their best seller.
The flood of requests for T-shirts, coffee mugs, collector's plates, and other SRV promotional items has not subsided, even five years after Stevie's passing. "I still receive many requests for promotions or tributes which want to use Stevie's name and likeness," says Jimmie Vaughan. "Some are motivated out of good intentions, but most are just plain taking advantage. Out of respect for Ste-vie, I rarely approve one."
Jimmie's quite clear about the responsibility he carries as caretaker of his brother's legacy. "My job as independent administrator of my brother's estate requires that I manage his affairs for the benefit of his heirs, mainly my mother," explains Jimmie. "I make decisions based on what I think are in the best interest of my mother as well as what I think Stevie would have done." Though his own career keeps him busy, Jimmie doesn't begrudge the time he spends handling Stevie's affairs. "The work I do for my brother's estate is a labor of love," he says. "I do my job out of a deep sense of family and respect and concern for my brother and his family."
Though Jimmie chose not to cooperate with myself and Joe Nick Patoski when we wrote a biography of his brother, Caught in the Crossfire, I take pride in the fact that we too worked with respect and concern in shaping the legacy of Stevie Ray Vaughan.
I once dreamed that I was in an archaeology class, sifting through a sand pile of artifacts with Stevie. Writing a book is verbal archaeology, a process of preserving bits and pieces of an artist's legacy that others will later use in creating their own stories. The next phase in the afterlife of Stevie Ray Vaughan will be the movie.
Miramax Pictures recently bought the rights to our book. Just when or if Miramax will make a film is anyone's guess. But if a film is made, it will reshape Stevie's story and bring his music to a wider audience. With luck, Jimmie and Martha will be involved in the film project from the beginning. Joe Nick and I will help in any way we can. But no matter what happens with the film project, or how Stevie's legacy eventually evolves, I'll always have the opportunity to touch Stevie's hand when I run past his statue.
There's still a lot of energy there. n