Soul to sell

Bob Irwin spends his days sorting through the vaults of record companies, listening to songs long ago hidden away from the general public--songs either too bad, or too good, ever to escape from the tomb. During the past decade, he has been responsible for freeing the Byrds' best-and-rest from Columbia's vaults, adding dozens of previously "lost" songs to boxed sets and reissued records. It's the sort of job every obsessive music fan dreams of. Long before Irwin got the nod, the Byrds were easily his favorite band, and now, he counts frontman Roger McGuinn among his close friends. And recently, he was fortunate enough to listen to songs Bob Dylan recorded for Blood on the Tracks that didn't make it on to that majestic record--and likely will never be released.

When he picks up the phone for a scheduled interview, Irwin--who has been spending the past several days at the Sony Studios in New York City--is in mid-sentence, telling an assistant to make a final copy of a particular song. "I don't ever want to hear it again," he is heard saying, with a small, weary laugh. He excuses himself and explains he is in the midst of combing through songs for Sony's final set of Byrds reissues, and he is adding an entire second album's worth of material--some recorded in concert, some done in the studio--to the band's untitled 1970 album. Among the other albums he has compiled for Sony include a Hollies best-of and a Poco anthology.

And for the past year, Irwin has been in charge of rescuing many of the previously unheard songs left behind by Stevie Ray Vaughan and trying to figure out what the hell to do with them. Irwin figures there are dozens of gems still left to be polished and produced to the public, many live tracks and studio leftovers and, most important, songs Vaughan recorded long before forming Triple Threat and, eventually, Double Trouble. Irwin, along with Stevie's older brother Jimmie, has devoted much of the last 12 months to listening to thousands of hours of material and then whittling down the collection to the best of the best.

Originally, Irwin--who also owns Sundazed Records, a reissue label based in upstate New York--was brought in to help Jimmie assemble a long-proposed Stevie Ray boxed set. The collection, possibly three discs' worth of material, was supposed to be in stores at the end of 1999. But likely, it won't see release till next year, probably around the 10th anniversary of Stevie Ray's death in August 1990.

Irwin isn't concerned about rushing the box out, not when there is still "a mountain of material to be auditioned and considered." Indeed, there exist 30 hours of material Vaughan recorded with the Cobras in Austin in 1975, including an entire unreleased album--and that's just for starters.

"Not that they will see the light of day, but there are sessions and sessions of that stuff," Irwin says. "And there's hours of Jimmie and Stevie playing together, Stevie sitting in with people all over Dallas and Austin, and the stuff he recorded with Triple Threat. Not everything will be included, because that A&R call is Jimmie's. I am friends with him, and I would take him to task if I think he's making a wrong call, and he respects me for that."

That's why Irwin and Jimmie--and, most important, Epic Records--decided to instead reissue the existing albums, add some bonus tracks, and turn an upgrade of back catalog into a Major Event. On March 23, Epic Records will once more put in music stores all four studio albums Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble cut before the Oak Cliff-born guitarist's death: Texas Flood, Couldn't Stand the Weather, Soul to Soul, and In Step. The CDs will feature new artwork, additional liner notes and photographs, even a few previously unreleased tracks--most recorded in concert, some taken from studio sessions. The Soul to Soul disc features the oft-bootlegged marathon Hendrix tribute, "Little Wing/Third Stone From the Sun"--a song that goes on so long, Irwin and Jimmie Vaughan had to fade it out just to include it on the disc. But the most revelatory outtakes can be found on Couldn't Stand the Weather, which features a version of Freddie King's "Hide Away" and a take of "Come On (Pt. III)" far different than the one that originally appeared on Soul to Soul.

On the same day, the label will issue yet another Vaughan best-of titled The Real Deal: Greatest Hits Volume 2 that features 14 songs from the four studio albums, one song from the Back to the Beach soundtrack ("Pipeline," recorded with surf-guitar legend Dick Dale), and another from a hard-to-find promo single ("Leave My Girl Alone").

Scott Greer, in charge of worldwide marketing for Epic and its reissue arm Legacy, insists the reissues will be accompanied by uncommon fanfare. There will be Stevie Ray cutouts in record stores, limited-edition posters given out to customers who buy one of the discs, and radio and television advertisements. During South by Southwest in Austin next week, an enormous billboard featuring Vaughan's signature guitar will loom over his adopted hometown. "You won't be able to be in Austin and not know about these records," Greer insists.  

The release of these five discs now makes it nine albums Epic has released or rereleased since Vaughan was killed in a helicopter crash outside Alpine Valley, Wisconsin--four more than he managed during his lifetime, including Live Alive.

Upon its release in 1991, The Sky is Crying was advertised as the very best of what remained in the vaults. In the liner notes, Jimmie talks about how Stevie didn't leave behind much finished material: "It seems like he just left...this record," he told writer Dan Forte, talking about the 10 tracks on The Sky is Crying. The album does indeed rank among the finest of Stevie Ray's albums: It fills in the blanks, adds shades where before there had been so much black and white, reveals the burgeoning jazzer beneath the wizard bluesman. And for the first time, record buyers heard Stevie Ray play acoustic; the closer, "Life By the Drop," seemed like the perfect place to say farewell.

But one year later, Epic insisted on releasing the live In the Beginning, taken from a radio broadcast made on April 1, 1980, at the Austin club Steamboat. The record's a thrill--and a friggin' mess, the sound of a young man and a young band wrestling with a blues sound too big for a club and too small for the arenas. The disc would also result in lawsuits (original bassist Jack Newhouse claimed he wasn't paid proper royalties) and other arguments over who owned the master tape. Speaking today, Double Trouble drummer Chris Layton, who played with Stevie Ray Vaughan since 1978, says of In the Beginning: "I don't know how much artistic merit I can attach to it. In the Beginning shows a ragged guitar band."

Three years later, Epic issued a greatest-hits collection featuring 10 songs that sounded like the old Q102's playlist: "Texas Flood," "Pride and Joy," "Crossfire," "The House is Rockin'," and so on. There was also one never-before-heard song taken from the vaults: an inexplicable cover of the Beatles' "Taxman." At the time, it appeared as though the vaults had been cleaned out. If "Taxman" was the best Epic had to offer, maybe it was time to close the casket.

But in 1997, there came yet one more Vaughan reissue, a recording of Double Trouble's October 4, 1984's show at Carnegie Hall--notable for Vaughan's performances with Jimmie, Dr. John, and the Roomful of Blues big band. And now come these five records, including one more best-of. That makes it two greatest-hits collections to four studio records. Maybe Stevie Ray got what he always wanted: He has become his idol Jimi Hendrix, the subject of dozens of reissues in the years after his death.

There's no doubt that Vaughan's original catalog needed some cleaning up: When Epic transferred Texas Flood, Couldn't Stand the Weather, Soul to Soul, and In Step to CD in the 1980s, they did so using production tapes and not the original masters, meaning the digital transfers weren't of the highest quality. It only makes sense that with better technology at its disposal, Epic should choose to clean up Vaughan's back catalog--especially since, according to Greer, the label sells about a million copies annually of Vaughan's albums. Adding the bonus tracks to the albums, all of which feature excerpts from an interview Vaughan conducted with Billboard editor Timothy White, only makes the package more attractive--to first-time buyers, and to fans who own the original discs and feel compelled to upgrade the collection.

But even Chris Layton wonders if it's all a bit much--if perhaps Epic isn't releasing too much too soon, especially when there's still a boxed set looming on the not-so-distant horizon. Layton--who, along with bassist Tommy Shannon, was involved in the song selection for The Real Deal--says he asked label executives if perhaps all of these reissues and bonus tracks were going to become "redundant." The label told him not to worry. It made good business sense.

"I said, 'Why are you putting out five records at once?' and their reasoning was, for one, it's all about commerce," Layton says. The label claimed it was going for impact, importance. "By ganging them together," he adds, "they can validate a bigger push with advertising. They couldn't just do Texas would get swallowed up. Once they said that, that made sense. I could see the logic in that. If you're gonna do it, make an impact. This is a buzz industry. If you don't have buzz, you don't have anything."  

As far as Irwin is concerned, Vaughan's catalog is still "very important and viable." As a man long obsessed with liberating unreleased material, he insists there's still much to be culled from the vaults--music meaningful and significant enough to warrant a price tag. Several times, he refers to Vaughan's archives as the "exception" to the rule that there is only so much worth releasing after an artist dies.

It's a fact borne out by the three-disc bootleg of material recorded during the torturous Soul to Soul sessions in New York and Dallas from 1984 to '85. Of the dozens of songs recorded during that period--from the brilliant ("Little Wing") to the ridiculous ("Hang Nails and Boogers")--only a handful appear on The Sky is Crying and the new reissues.

"Jimmie knows there are people who want every bleep and blip Stevie made in the studio," Irwin says. "I liked some of the fun ditties, like 'Slip Slidin' Slim.' Jimmie will say, 'Oh, that's just Stevie trying to find an amp sound,' and I'll say, 'Yeah, but they're fun.' It's not at all disparaging toward his talent to show a fun little ditty. That to me is interesting. But the point where they're having a tough time in the studio and exhibiting directionless material, you don't want to show that side."

Of course, hardcore fans would insist that's the most interesting material of all--the missteps, the searching in vain for a sound that never comes. Those songs will likely not end up on the boxed set or anywhere else, remaining the property of Jimmie Vaughan and the bootleggers who covet such material, despite sound quality that all but erases the subtleties that made Vaughan not only a great guitarist, but a smart--and, ultimately, important--musician.

But that hasn't stopped some early material from surfacing. Late last year, Home Cookin' Records--the label owned by Houstonian Roy Ames, who has been accused of stealing music made by the likes of Freddie King and Roky Erickson--released Sugar Coated Baby by Austin blues singer Lou Ann Barton. The disc is also available under the name Blues with the Boy, and both are made up of 16 tracks, more than half of which--including "Natural Born Lover" and "Scratch My Back"--were recorded in 1977 with Barton on vocals and Stevie Ray Vaughan on guitar. An Epic executive who deals with Vaughan's catalog says he had no idea the Barton albums existed and will look into the matter, taking the appropriate action if they discover Ames has improperly released the material.

Jimmie Vaughan couldn't be reached, and Irwin will only say Stevie's material is considered "sacred" at the label where such matters are concerned. If nothing else, Irwin says, unauthorized releases such as this are "problematic." Lou Ann Barton--among the Vaughans' very closest friends and an original member of Triple Threat and Double Trouble--says that she did indeed know Ames in the early 1970s, but that he never recorded anything she ever did with Stevie. And as much as she'd like to stop Ames from releasing albums such as Sugar Coated Baby, she simply can't afford it.

"What can I do?" she says. "I don't know how he's getting by doing the Stevie stuff. I can see how he'd try to pass this stuff on me, but I was always told by the Vaughans nothing could be out with Stevie without their permission. I mean, this isn't a bootleg. It's a release."

If Vaughan wasn't much appreciated in life--when he died, he was bumped from the cover of Rolling Stone and replaced by the girls from Twin Peaks--his sound has become a commodity in 1999. Such young bucks as Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd and so many other would-be gee-tar studs have turned SRV echoes into gold and platinum records, selling far more in their teens than Vaughan managed in his 30s. If nothing else, Epic's reissue series will perhaps remind their audience that a decade ago, someone else made arena-sized blues.

"I was listening to a CD this morning by the Keller Brothers from the Dakotas," says Layton, who is in the middle of writing a Double Trouble album to feature Tommy Shannon and several as-yet-unnamed special guests. "They're blond, good-lookin' guys and great players, and they do their own thing. But then I listened to one of our records, and then I realized that when I hear Stevie, my hair still stands up all over my body...I talked to an old farmer guy in a feed store once, and someone was talking about Stevie. This guy said, 'I didn't know him, but I heard his music, and when he died I cried.' There was an intangible thing about Stevie and the way he played that was different.  

"There was sorrow and melancholy, and yet it was also so uplifting. My skin crawls, and it makes me cry from time to time. I know what it does to me. I don't know what it is. And players listen to it and go, 'Goddamn, I wanna know what that is.'

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