When David Bowie Met Stevie Ray Vaughan: Collaborators Look Back on the Brief Pairing

David Bowie
Virginia Turbett/Redferns

David Bowie performs at Milton Keynes Bowl on July 2, 1983. 

It's strange when you realize one of your favorite recording artists sessioned on the hit album of another one of your favorite acts back in the day. And for some, it might be a surprise to learn that the late blues giant Stevie Ray Vaughan served as the lead guitarist on David Bowie's 1983 smash LP Let's Dance.

"It was just a trip to hear my kid brother on a No. 1 record [the title track topped the Billboard Hot 100 in May '83]," says guitarist Jimmie Vaughan, who would go on to work with his sibling and Let's Dance producer Nile Rodgers on the 1990 LP Family Style as The Vaughan Brothers. "That song just took over everything; a total smash. And there was Stevie playing lead guitar on it. Stevie called me to tell me he had met up with David Bowie and Nile Rodgers in New York, and I think they recorded him pretty quickly. It was only one day or something for the guitar; he just overdubbed himself onto the tracks. But he only needed one or two takes; he just went in there all fired up and did his thing."

The dialogue that we were always supposed to follow -- put forth by music critics and even Bowie himself -- was how the dearly departed Duke's mid-80s albums were to be avoided at all costs. And while people were largely talking about 1984's Tonight and 1987's Never Let Me Down, unfortunately Let's Dance was also swept up onto the blacklist by some fans despite its largely positive critical acclaim upon hitting record shops in April of '83. Thanks to the fourth edition of Parlophone's Bowie box set series, however, Bowie's Labyrinth era has been given a long-overdue reassessment, including a complete makeover of the largely reviled Never Let Me Down by one of the singer's closest studio associates in producer Mario McNulty.

"Both Bowie and Stevie Ray Vaughan were mega monster musicians," McNulty tells Billboard. "And the stuff they did on Let's Dance was made to stand the test of time. It's pretty amazing. David was the best at bringing together the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Nile Rodgers in a room."

When unboxing Loving the Alien and digging into this period, one cannot help but be reminded of the trinity that gave the former Mr. Stardust his biggest smash and the potential of what could have been had Vaughan not decided to back away from touring with Bowie, so ebulliently displayed on the famous bootleg 1983 Dallas. Listening to the Austin guitar icon melt into songs and styles you'd never expect him to, like "Station to Station," "TVC 15" and "Life On Mars," gives you a prominent display of the versatility that would define the guitarist and his all-too-brief career as the purveyor of raw electric blues purity in the 1980s. It's highly surprising, in fact, to reckon that Vaughan—though an admirer of Bowie—was not entirely hip to his whole catalog despite the ease by which he played alongside such longtime David cohorts as bassist Carmine Rojas and guitarists Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar, who also served as the music director of the Serious Moonlight tour in support of Let's Dance.

"To tell you the truth, I was not very familiar with David's music when he asked me to play on the sessions," Vaughan said in conversation with late Billboard editor in chief Timothy White for an interview in the May 1983 issue of Musician. "David and I talked for hours and hours about our (Double Trouble's) music, about funky Texas blues and its roots – I was amazed at how interested he was. At Montreux, he said something about being in touch and then tracked me down in California, months and months later."

Indeed, Vaughan and Double Trouble -- the inimitable rhythm section of Tommy Shannon on bass and drummer Chris Layton -- were booed by some blues purists during their breakout performance at the 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival, but the band gained a big fan in Bowie, who not only talked to Stevie that night, but Layton as well.

"He wanted to know where Stevie grew up," Layton tells Billboard. "How did we all meet, where me and Tommy were from, how did we all begin the band. He was giving due diligence to finding everything out that connected us. He seemed to be trying to realize the idea that Stevie would work on Let's Dance, and that we'd all go on tour together; kinda testing the waters of what he could do with the whole concept involving himself and Stevie. Unfortunately, none of the other came to pass beyond Stevie playing on Let's Dance and going to rehearse the tour with him in Dallas, which we know he didn't do."

Though Vaughan did set Bowie's setlist on fire with his ferocious playing in Dallas, it was clear that level of touring life was the wrong route for him to embark upon the precipice of his own rising star as Double Trouble's classic debut Texas Flood was about to see worldwide release on June 13, 1983. In fact, it was Alomar who admits to helping Vaughan reach a decision that some reports had also blamed on the Austin guitarist's hard partying ways.

"There's always that place where a musician comes to a superstar situation and thinks this might be a launching pad, this might be the door that I've been looking for," Alomar explains to Billboard. "When I met Stevie, it was about saying to him, 'Dude, what are you doing? Nobody has founded their career from this.' You gotta remember that somebody's first record…man, that's their heart. They've been living with those songs for years, which made Texas Flood so special. It was kismet. He had to deny David. He wasn't supposed to be there, man. He was supposed to be promoting his debut, going out there and killing it, playing all night long and then getting in the car and driving to the next gig. Not jet planes and sushi chefs. I think that would have jaded his blues-ness. Stevie was the real deal, and he wasn't going to let anyone take that away from him."

In turn, Vaughan closed out his 1983 by jamming with his lifelong hero Albert King on the show In Session on the Hamilton, Ontario, public television station CHCH. King had known Vaughan as "Little Stevie," the skinny white kid who used to come around and sit in whenever Albert passed through Austin for gigs. To hear him tell the story on this show is both hilarious and heartwarming. What would transpire over the course of the next hour and 45 minutes is one of the most special unions of teacher and student in modern music history. "I'm about ready to turn it over to you," King says to Vaughan at one point during the taping. "No, I don't believe that," Stevie responded. "Oh yes, it's true son, it's true," he returned. "Twenty-eight years is long enough. I gotta sit back and watch you."

It was a moment that might not have happened had Vaughan not heeded Alomar's advice. The guitarist and Double Trouble would go on to produce three more studio albums of modern AOR blues with 1984's Couldn't Stand the Weather, 1985's Soul to Soul and 1989's In Step before we lost Vaughan in a helicopter crash in East Troy, WI, on Aug. 27, 1990. He was just 35. However, in revisiting this particular period in the careers of Bowie and Vaughan through the Loving the Alien box set, we can be incredibly grateful that he chose self over stardom in his decision to make his residence in the Ziggy Universe a brief one, albeit one that helped launch him into the stratosphere of acclaim among music fans, heroes and peers alike.

"Stevie had a major amount of respect for David and vice versa," Layton explains to Billboard. "But sometimes things just don't work out, and Stevie didn't know if he could give his full commitment at the time. We were all trying to do the things we wanted to do back then, and we all move in and out of different spheres for every season. But Bowie saw us play and was so fascinated by Stevie he wanted to figure out how he could work him into what he was doing. I give Bowie so much credit for reading between the lines in our culture and sense something that might not have been as obvious to the naked eye."