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Book Excerpt: Stevie Ray Vaughan Day By Day, Night After Night His Final Years, 1983-1990

Book Excerpt: Stevie Ray Vaughan Day By Day, Night After Night His Final Years, 1983-1990

René Martinez © Donna Johnston

Between March and June of ’85, Stevie added another person to the traveling crew, René Martinez, who had been the repairman at Charley’s Guitar Shop. Mark Pollock: “He came to me and said, ‘I don’t know what to do. Stevie gave me an offer to go on the road with him.’ I said, ‘Well, René, I don’t want to lose you as a repairman, but if you don’t take the gig, you’re a damn fool!’ I got the impression he was not going to do it. He’d never been out of Texas.”

Martinez is an accomplished flamenco guitarist, often opening shows for Stevie and Jimmie. René Martinez: “Flamenco is my number one. On my off time, I listen to Mozart, Beethoven, their operas and their piano concertos. Jazz, and then everything else.

“My job as a guitar technician is to oversee the complete maintenance, upkeep, to be in tune, to change guitars with the stars during the performance, and to be on top of their every demand. To make it happen like you’ve done it a million times, and with a smile on your face.”

Stevie’s Marshall amplifier, now in the author’s collection. Tape in front of the speakers was intended to cut the higher frequencies. © Byron Barr

August 28: Twenty-four cases of the band’s equipment were flown from Memphis to the Albany County, New York, airport.
Fifteen equipment cases were picked up at the airport on August 27 by Stevie’s crew, but the other nine cases arrived later and were to be picked up the next day. A man claiming to be Mark Rutledge, Stevie’s production manager, said he was sending two guys to pick up the cases and that they would not have the claim checks. USAir loaded the nine cases of equipment, estimated to be worth $20,000, into the thieves’ truck.

The general contents of the cases:
  1. Peavey bass speaker cabinet
  2. Dumble speaker cabinet
  3. Fender Vibratone amplifier
  4. 2 Vox wah-wahs, 2 Ibanez Tube Screamers, Univibe, cables and junction boxes
  5. Dumble amplifier (head)
  6. Dumble amplifier (head)
  7. Fender Vibroverb amplifier
  8. Fender Vibroverb amplifier
  9. Fender Super Reverb amplifier

Not knowing if or when the equipment would be recovered, Stevie ordered two replacement Dumble Steel String Singer 150w amps at a cost of $3250 each, plus $2545 “administrative and rush labor.” Stevie ended up merely renting the two Dumbles until his were recovered. Howard Dumble has a reputation for being difficult and slow. Alex Hodges confirmed that it took forever to get the new amplifiers and that they were constantly arguing about whether Stevie owed Howard money or Howard owed Stevie an amp. As of October 14,1986, the Vibroverbs, Super Reverb and the two wah-wah pedals were still missing. An internal memo reflected that the publicity regarding the wah-wah having belonged to Hendrix was “not too smart.” The memo also stated that police were investigating an airline employee and his wife as the ringleaders in the theft. Almost all the equipment was eventually recovered, but not the wah-wah pedal that Jimmie had gotten from Jimi Hendrix and given to Stevie. Two men were arrested, and Stevie invited the arresting officer and his wife to the November 26 Radio City Music Hall concert as thanks.

The only known photo of the guitar that resulted from the work that Stevie and Gordon Van Ekstrom started in 1984. April 5th, 1988. © Wayne Blagdon

April 5: Metro Center, Halifax, NS, Canada
By 1984, Stevie had mentioned his desire to build a custom guitar, or even mass produce the guitars, in interviews. One of the persons who tried to help Stevie bring this dream to reality was Swedish guitarist Gordon van Ekstrom.

“We’d been collaborating on a guitar,” Gordon recalls, “for quite a while. He was very interested in making this guitar. I had a telephone book that I took a bunch of notes in on all the technical data; he drew in that too. We were eating, breathing, crying, laughing guitars–24/7. Lenny thought we had an affair [laughs]! We were just absolutely having a ball guitaring. We were up all hours of the day.”

As for the guitar design, a number of things were discussed, including having the pickups formed into the shape of his initials. Gordon recalls that he talked with Seymour Duncan about the idea, but it was not technically feasible. Stevie wanted a left-handed tremolo based on a Fender but “incorporating some changes that would stabilize tuning somewhat.” They made a template for the body and had one or two bodies cut, but Gordon lost contact with Stevie for a while due to Stevie’s substance abuse.

At some point, someone cobbled a guitar together to see how it would sound, but you can tell from the photo that the guitar is not finished, and not just in the sense that the wood was not sealed. The pickguard and pickup assembly appears to be in a standard Stratocaster shape, which doesn’t fit the custom body and was not what Stevie originally designed. Whether the guitar was ever worked on or even played again is not known. The photographer recalls that Stevie only played the guitar for one song that night.

July 7: Garden State Arts Center, Holmdel, NJ. The neck of Stevie’s priceless Number One is broken by a falling stage baffle, described as being 30 feet tall, six feet wide, and weighing a ton.
René Martinez, Stevie’s guitar tech: “It felt like an earthquake or an explosion. He handed me his trusty Number One Stratocaster, as he always does. As soon as he walked off stage, I went to turn off his amp so we could strike the set. Right then I heard this incredible sound and turned around. The neck was snapped in two pieces, broken right at the point where the headstock meets the neck. It looked like a Steinberger. I turned around and saw Stevie Ray standing there. I could tell his heart had just sunk.”

Steve Wilson, amp and keyboard tech: “I was stage left and René was stage right. René had just bent down to do something, and he was between two lighting dimmer racks, and when that orchestra shell fell, it bridged across those lighting racks, so it didn’t hit René. But he always stood the guitars up on a road case with wheels, and it hit just about every guitar neck he had set up there. I remember picking up pieces of Number One off the stage.”A claim was filed for $23,314.25 in damages to the guitars. The replacement value of No. 1 was listed as $15,000.

Steve Wilson: “I remember in Alaska we were at a hockey arena. After soundcheck, Stevie and I were walking around the concourse, and he was the kind of guy who would ask your opinion before he told you his, so it wouldn’t taint it. He really wanted to know what you thought. Going into Alaska, they didn’t bring all their gear, just the essentials. They had a 4x12 Marshall cabinet that the promoter had rented with Celestion speakers. Stevie didn’t play Celestions; he played the stock speakers in his Fenders, supplemented with ElectroVoice (EV) speakers. All of his 4x12 cabinets had EVs in them, which sound distinctly different than Celestion. After soundcheck he said, ‘What’d you think about those speakers in that cabinet?’ And I said, ‘Man, I heard something in them that I really liked. There was a different color to them—a little bit brighter tone.’ He goes, ‘Yeah. Me too.’ [Laughs] He’s not going to tell me what he thinks until I tell him what I think!”

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