Eric Clapton a dear fan of Stevie Ray Vaughan and someone who he regularly played live alongside, including the night of his devastating death. They’d both stared down the barrel of addiction, and when Vaughan lost his life in a tragic accident in 1990, Clapton was beside himself with grief.
Vaughan was only 35 when he and four others died in a helicopter crash after playing at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre. The incident was an avoidable one, and it was later discovered the pilot was unqualified, which led to the late guitarist’s family successfully suing Omniflight Helicopters.
His final performance was imperial, with Vaughan firmly at the top of his game. The concert’s highlight came when Clapton and the accomplished Buddy Guy joined him to perform ‘Sweet Home Chicago’, leaving the entire theatre purring.
Clapton’s grief was intensified by seeing Vaughan on the night of his death. He later discussed the concert and said his late friend’s playing was so majestic that he had to leave early out of jealousy. “One of the purest channels I’ve ever seen,” he later recalled.
Adding: “Where everything he sang and played flowed straight down from heaven. Almost like one of those mystic Sufi guys with one finger pointing up and one finger down. That’s what it was like to listen to. And I had to leave just to preserve some kind of sanity or confidence in myself.”
The preventable nature of the tragedy weighed heavy on Clapton’s mind, and he beat himself up about it in a similar way as he did when his son, Conor, passed away the following year. “[I reacted] Much in the same way as I did to my son’s,” he later told Rolling Stone. “I mean, there were more people involved, and the death of my son was a directly personal situation.”
Clapton continued: “There was a convoy of helicopters, about five of them, and they had to go back through this very thick fog up to about 100 feet above the ground. And once we came out of that, we just took off for Chicago.
“When I got back, I went straight to bed. And I was woken about seven in the morning by my manager, Roger Forrester, saying that the helicopter with Stevie Ray and our chaps hadn’t come back. And then a bit later, someone discovered the wreckage. That was it.”
He continued: “The worst thing for me was that Stevie Ray had been sober for three years and was at his peak. When he played that night, he had all of us standing mere with our jaws dropped. I mean, Robert Cray and Jimmie Vaughan and Buddy Guy were just watching in awe. There was no one better than him on this planet. Really unbelievable.”
As someone who also battled addiction issues and also got sober in 1987, Clapton resonated with Vaughan on a profound level. It’s nothing but cruel that his life was robbed from him after overcoming his demons and adjusting himself to the right path before disaster heartbreakingly struck.