After Eric Clapton's set was finished, over a ear-deafening applause, Clapton introduced "the best guitar players in the entire world." One by one, Buddy Guy, Stevie, Robert Cray, and Jimmie Vaughan all strolled on stage with their Fender Stratocasters for an encore jam to Robert Johnson's "Sweet Home Chicago", a fitting tune as all of the musicians were home-ridden to "Windy City". After 20 minutes, they finished off the tune, the lights went up, and the musicians strolled off stage. Stevie was last off stage, as he gave a wink before he disappeared backstage.My sister was there that night, 20 years ago, at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wisconsin. The Stevie mentioned here was Stevie Ray Vaughan, of course, the brilliant guitarist who had faced and conquered his demons and was playing the best music of his life. Unfortunately, he didn't know that this concert would be his last.
Tour manager Skip Rickert had reserved helicopters from Omni Flights to circumvent congested highway traffic. The helicopters chosen were Bell 260B Jet Rangers, which were enough for five people to be seated, including the pilot. Seats were reserved on the third Bell 260B Jet Ranger for Stevie, Jimmie and his wife, Connie. However, it is inferred that a miscommunication between Stevie's and Eric Clapton's management happened, as three members of Clapton's management took three seats. This meant that there would be one seat on the helicopter. Stevie was anxious to get back to Chicago, so, as the helicopters were starting their engines, he asked his brother, Jimmie, if he could take the last seat on the third helicopter. Since he didn't want to be separated from his wife, Jimmie told him that was fine. Jimmie and Connie would just catch the next flight.
In the pitch-black night, in very dense fog, the helicopters were clear for lift off at 12:40 a.m. Just past the lift-off zone was a 300-foot hill. Vaughan's helicopter was piloted by Jeffrey Browne, who was unfamiliar with the flight pattern for exiting the area over a high altitude and in dense fog. The helicopter was guided off the landing zone, flying at a high speed about a half-mile from take-off. It then, however, veered off to one side, disappeared into the darkness, and the helicopter crashed into the hill. Everyone on the rest of the helicopters made it to Chicago safely, unaware that one of the helicopters failed to return. The only people who were aware of the crash were officials at the Federal Aviation Administration, who had been notified that a helicopter was down.At 7:00 a.m., sheriff's deputies arrived at the site and located the wreckage. According to observations, the helicopter had slammed into the hill at such a high rate of speed and it happened so quickly that Stevie and the passengers never knew what hit them. Their bodies were thrown across a 200-foot slope.
It wasn't the first time a talented performer had died in Wisconsin airspace -- Otis Redding had met his maker in the frigid waters of Lake Monona in 1968. I was just a kid then and it didn't mean much to me. Death means more when you are old enough to understand its implications. And we would have to contemplate the implications in a much greater way a few days later. But that's another post.
It's hard for me to believe that 20 years have passed since this tragedy. You can still hear plenty of Vaughan's music at our house. One of the songs he recorded with his brother Jimmie, only weeks before, contained the following simple chorus:
Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock people, time's tickin' awayAnd we don't know the half of it. Better not take things for granted, because it can all disappear in a hurry.
Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock people, time's tickin' away