Grammy-winning blues-rock guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan was killed early Monday in a Wisconsin helicopter crash whose circumstances offered an eerie parallel to rock’s most famous air tragedy--the 1959 crash involving Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. (the Big Bopper) Richardson.
Vaughan, who appeared in concert Sunday night at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre outside Milwaukee on a bill with fellow guitar legend Eric Clapton, took the final seat on the five-seat helicopter that crashed around 1 a.m. local time into a man-made East Troy, Wis., ski hill that was obscured by dense fog.
Three of Clapton’s associates, including Los Angeles booking agent Bobby Brooks, and the pilot also were killed in the crash of the Chicago-bound helicopter. Ironically, the last song Vaughan, 35, performed at Sunday night’s concert was titled “Sweet Home Chicago.”
The guitarist originally had planned to fly to Chicago on a later helicopter but decided to take the earlier flight when the seat became available. In the 1959 tragedy, Valens and Richardson had also taken seats on the ill-fated plane as last-minute substitutes.
Capt. Polly Robinson of the Wisconsin Civil Air Patrol said the helicopter hit the 1,000-foot ski hill about 100 feet below the summit in a clearing east of the ski trail. The hill is in a wooded area about three-quarters of a mile southeast of the theater.
“There is debris spread about 200 feet,” she said. The crash apparently occurred shortly after the concert, but an emergency locater transmitter signal wasn’t received until about four hours later. The wreckage was found at 6:15 a.m. CDT, Robinson said.
Charles Comer, a spokesman for Vaughan in New York, said he was told Vaughan had taken a seat on the helicopter at the last minute.
“Stevie’s brother, Jimmie, had flown in as a surprise for the show and joined Stevie, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray and Eric in a closing jam,” he said.
“Peter Jackson, Eric’s (tour) manager, came up after the show and said there might be some spare seats on one of the helicopters. The original plan was for them to go back on the second helicopter run, but that would have meant an hour and a half wait. But Peter came back later and said, ‘I’m really sorry but there’s only one seat.’ ”
Comer quoted Vaughan as turning to his brother and asking, “Do you mind if I take the seat? I really need to get back.”
That fatal decision was similar to the often told story involving the 1959 crash, which was described as “The Day the Music Died” in Don McLean’s 1971 song, “American Pie.”
The story of the earlier crash--also featured in movie biographies of both Holly and Valens--has been retold so many times over the years that just who took the “last seat” on that flight has become blurred.
Waylon Jennings, who played bass in Holly’s band on the 1959 tour, recalled the earlier crash near Mason City, Iowa, by phone Monday from his home near Nashville.
“There was just room on the plane for Buddy, me, the pilot and Tommy Allsup, the guitar player. But, just before we left, the Big Bopper came up and asked if he could have one of the seats because he had the flu. So, Buddy said it was OK for him to take my seat, and Ritchie went up to Tommy and asked for his seat.”
Jennings, now a country music star, said he immediately thought of the 1959 night when he heard about Vaughan’s death on television Monday morning.
“To me, Stevie was Texas blues,” Jennings said. “There was so much passion in his playing and the best thing was that he knew when not to play. A lot of so-called guitar heroes don’t know when to step back and let the music breathe, but Stevie knew.”
Clapton’s Los Angeles publicist, Ronnie Lippin, said the other victims included bodyguard Nigel Browne, and assistant tour manager Colin Smythe, both of whom lived in England. Brooks, 34, an agent with Creative Artists Agency, had worked with Clapton for about four years. He also represented such varied pop figures as Jackson Browne, Dolly Parton and Pat Benatar, an agency spokesman said.
“Bobby Brooks, Nigel Browne, Colin Smythe and Stevie Ray Vaughan were my companions, my associates and my friends,” Clapton said in a statement released by Lippin. “This is a tragic loss of some very special people. I will miss all of them very much.”
The pilot of the helicopter was identified as Jeff Brown. The craft was one of four chartered from Omni Flight Helicopters in Chicago.
Lippin said the helicopters were waiting near the concert facility after the show to take Clapton and his entourage back to Chicago. Clapton and Buddy Guy were on the first helicopter, while Vaughan apparently took the “free” seat on the third or fourth helicopter.
Vaughan was widely hailed as one of the premier blues-rock guitarists to emerge since the landmark Clapton/Jimi Hendrix days of the ‘60s. Vaughan won a Grammy for best traditional blues recording in 1984 and one for best contemporary blues recording earlier this year.
On his best nights, Vaughan played with an almost frightening intensity as he coaxed all sorts of earthy, explosive notes from the guitar, conveying the celebration and pain that is at the heart of the blues.