Plenty of electric blues players can bluster and roar through a performance, but a slow tune?even over a set of straight 12-bar changes?is the style’s ultimate challenge. Tapping into the music’s deepest pools of expression, where delicately squeezed, shaken, and slid notes become stand-ins for a range of human emotions, it takes an outstanding guitarist to sculpt a soulful slow blues.
T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Ronnie Earl, and Stevie Ray Vaughan all have made staggering contributions, but the best recorded slow blues of the past 25 years may be Vaughan’s 1984 rendition of “Tin Pan Alley” on his second album, Couldn’t Stand the Weather.
Made in New York City’s famed Power Station with producer John Hammond, the recording rings with ambience. There’s plenty of open air around Vaughan’s superbly controlled guitar and drummer Chris Layton’s snapping snare rim hits. And Vaughan’s tone defines “Stratocaster,” even though he reportedly used his custom “Charley” model?a white-bodied, rosewood-necked beauty made for Stevie by Charley Wirz of Charley’s Guitar Shop in Dallas. The axe also boasted three specially wired lipstick style pick-ups, giving it a little extra purr.
Vaughan’s combination of amps in ’84 was two Fender Vibro-Verbs, a 150-watt Dumble Steel String Singer head with a matching 4x12 cab, and a rotating Fender Vibratone cabinet. It’s the Vibro-Verbs speaking here, channeling the magic in Vaughan’s fingers through Charley with the guitar in the neck position. And, as usual for Vaughan, Charley was tuned down a half step to permit extra slinky bending of his he-man string gauge: .13 to .58. Typically Stevie struck his strings with his picks’ rounded bottoms, personalizing his attack even more.
“Tin Pan Alley” was a staple of Vaughan’s concerts long before he put it on tape. The song was written by R&B tunesmith and performer Bob Geddins, who came from Texas but ultimately settled in the San Francisco Bay Area to become the dean of Oakland’s blues scene. Live, it was stunning?a vehicle for Vaughan’s most expressive playing. And it’s no different on tape.
The opening notes, played over Layton’s press roll, ooze slow and sweet as melting butter. Then Vaughan begins decorating the B-minor melody: some delicate hammer-ons, gentle bends, a single sweeping ninth chord?all building to a gentle turnaround that, instead of yielding to the vocal, leads Vaughan up Charley’s neck to elaborate on his pentatonic lines with a series of plucked chords. The second chorus of his playing climaxes in a turnaround that resolves on a single, vibrated note.
Vaughan had yet to reach the peak of his vocal abilities, but “Tin Pan Alley” was his finest performance yet, mining the melismatic phrases and breathy tones of great soul singers like Bobby Blue Bland and Solomon Burke for inspiration. The warm throaty quality of his singing and Charley’s stringing injects tremendous compassion into this hair-raising tale of red light district violence?a theme that makes the song an unlikely candidate for such a slow, emotionally chiseled arrangement, usually reserved for affairs of the heart.
In this perfect mating of voice and guitar, Vaughan takes the joy of playing pentatonic scales to its boundaries. Some of the tune’s most thrilling moments come when Vaughan lays down a high-speed spray of notes that would turn to hash in the mitts of a lesser player. His ability to play many notes within a few measures and yet make every one count?none seem rushed or imprecisely articulated?is a quality he shares with the late blues piano genius Otis Spann, fellow Strat man Ronnie Earl, and few others.
Six minutes into the song Vaughan uses hammer-ons to build tension as he sings “I heard a pistol shoot/It was a .44/Somebody killed a crap shooter/’Cause he didn’t shake rattle and roll,” and then employs the kind of sweeping chords Otis Rush often did to set up a solo. Vaughan puts even more coal on the song’s emotional fires by shaking a single note at the end of a lightning phrase for 11 suspenseful seconds. And then he’s back to the melody, sliding down his low strings to make sputtering accents before returning for the final sung verse.
When the tune ends, Vaughan’s taken the listener on a breath-taking trip and revealed the art and soul of electric blues in one of its most compelling and hypnotic forms. Now go listen.