One of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s earliest breaks came in 1983 when David Bowie invited him to participate in recording sessions for his new studio album, Let’s Dance.
The two met in July 1982, when Bowie saw Vaughan and his group Double Trouble perform at the Montreux Jazz Festival. The group had played brilliantly, but several blues purists in the audience booed loudly, presumably upset by either the volume or the group’s stylistic take on the blues.
Bowie, though, had been impressed by Vaughan. He’d always had a good ear for guitar players—his previous accompanists had included Mick Ronson during the early Seventies Ziggy Stardust era, and Robert Fripp, who had played on his 1977 hit “Heroes”—and he made a note to keep Vaughan in mind for a future project.
In January 1983, Bowie invited Vaughan to record guitar on six new tracks he’d written for Let’s Dance. Vaughan’s powerful guitar work brought a new, muscular sound to Bowie’s music, most notably on songs like “China Girl” and the album’s title track.
Let’s Dance was a success, and Bowie, recognizing Vaughan’s role in it, wanted to bring the guitarist on his subsequent Serious Moonlight Tour. Vaughan, however, had just completed his debut album with Double Trouble, Texas Flood, and was reluctant to abandon the group for a one-year tour just as it was getting a chance at success.
As a solution, Bowie’s management suggested that Vaughan could bring the group on the tour to open for selected dates. But just four days before the tour began, management reneged, telling Vaughan’s manager, Chesley Millikin, that the band would not be included and, furthermore, Vaughan was not to talk about the group or its new record in interviews.
Reportedly, moments before Vaughan was to board Bowie’s tour bus, Millikin removed his gear and bags from the vehicle. Vaughan was subsequently replaced by guitarist Earl Slick, whose work with Bowie went back to the singer’s 1975 album, Young Americans.
Though we don’t have the opportunity of seeing Bowie and Vaughan perform together, several taped rehearsal performances exist, including this excellent version of “Let’s Dance,” on which Vaughan contributes his characteristic stinging Strat work. Nile Rodgers, who played guitar and co-produced the album with Bowie, is featured as well.
Unfortunately, Bowie and Vaughan never worked together again. Vaughan died August 27, 1990, when a helicopter in which he was a passenger crashed at night in fog. Bowie passed away January 10, 2016, following a battle with cancer.