Guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan's death in a helicopter accident shocked area fans
He wasn't the headliner, but some say Stevie Ray Vaughan stole the show that night 20 years ago. His wailing Stratocaster and Texas brand of blues had people on their feet.
It would be the guitarist's last performance. At age 35 and with his career peaking, Vaughan was killed when the helicopter carrying him from Alpine Valley Music Theatre crashed on takeoff in the fog.
Death came instantly early that morning of Aug. 27, 1990, yet it would be nearly six hours before the wreckage was located on the side of a 150-foot ski hill at the adjoining Alpine Valley Resort.
The nearly 40,000 people who witnessed the show made their way home on foggy highways without knowing what had happened. The earliest reports said Eric Clapton, who had top billing, might have been on board the helicopter. Finally, the truth was known. It was Vaughan along with three members of Clapton's entourage and the pilot. All were dead.
"We waited and waited for the news to break. Finally, they tell us it was Stevie Ray. We walked in a haze for the rest of the day like it was one of our friends," said Tad Laszewski, who was at the concert with three friends.
Anyone who attended that last show remembers the encore and an electrifying performance of "Sweet Home Chicago" by Clapton, Vaughan, his brother Jimmie Vaughan, Buddy Guy and Robert Cray.
"After the encore performance of all those great musicians, they started to wave and leave stage left. The last to leave the stage was Stevie Ray. He was always known for his Texas black rimmed hat, which he never took off. Before exiting, he removed it, waved it to the crowd and disappeared into darkness," said Laszewski, who lived in Milwaukee then and in Virginia now.
"All I remember was the passion, the energy of his performance. At one point, he played his guitar while it was on the ground. Awesome!" said Erik Jappinen, a history teacher from Oconomowoc. He still has a giant poster of Vaughan on his classroom wall.
"Stevie Ray was incredibly sharp in his playing that night, resonating even subtle notes that in past years may have been lost in the blur of his soloing," said Bill Arnold of Milwaukee, who attended the show with friends. "He was off drugs and alcohol, and it definitely showed. He still had that all-out Hendrix-esque demeanor, but now there was a crisp and clean edge to his playing."
"When SRV began getting standing ovations during every solo, I was blown away," said Bill Bartkowski of Wauwatosa.
Donna Ramazzini was catering director at Alpine at the time. She had no idea she was feeding Vaughan his last meal of steak tenderloin and double-baked potatoes. She met with him earlier in her trailer.
"I had to go through his entire menu to make sure that none of the ancient Chinese herbs he was taking in his tea would have any reaction with his food. Everything was fine. He shook my hand, and he had a great show," the Bay View woman said.
John Bezak of Mukwonago knew the security crew that night. "When the concert was over we walked out the back way and right past where the helicopters were parked. It was an extremely humid night with heavy fog rolling in. The copters were drenched in dew. The doors were open and as we walked by I looked inside and could see that the windows were soaked. Unfortunately, the next thing I said became quite prophetic. I looked at my friend and said, 'How can anybody see where they are going?' " he remembers.
News accounts from the time say Vaughan was looking around at which copter to board. Pilot Jeffrey Brown said, "There's room over here." It was about 12:45 a.m., the Monday morning after two sold-out shows that weekend at Alpine Valley near East Troy.
Four helicopters in all took off near the theater, heading for Midway Airport in Chicago. The other three arrived safely. A search for the missing Bell JetRanger began, but it wasn't until about 6:30 a.m. that it was found three-fourths of the way up the northeast side of the manmade ski hill. Debris was scattered over 150 feet. There was no fire.
Killed along with Vaughan were Brown; Clapton's bodyguard Nigel Browne; Clapton's agent Robert Brooks; and a tour manager, Colin Smythe.
More than two years later, the National Transportation Safety Board announced its findings that pilot error caused the crash. The helicopter had risen only about 100 feet off the ground and traveled 3,000 feet before hitting the hill. Mechanical failure was ruled out, but darkness, fog, haze and rising terrain contributed to the crash, the board found.
Ramazzini said she remembers hearing a boom and feeling her trailer shake. Most fans were blissfully unaware.
"Following the show, we decided to wait out the fog and were among the last few to leave the parking lot. We had no idea there was a helicopter crash. You weren't able to hear it happen," Laszewski said.
The bodies were taken to Lakeland Hospital in Elkhorn. Clapton returned to Wisconsin later in the day to help make positive identifications. Vaughan was buried in Dallas four days later. Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and Stevie Wonder were there to sing "Amazing Grace."
Lawsuits were filed against Omniflight Helicopters Inc. by the victims' families, including Vaughan's, and settlements were reached. Alpine Valley management said at the time there were no plans to stop using helicopters to transport entertainers in and out.
Milwaukee area record stores reported that all of Vaughan's music quickly sold out. He and his band, Double Trouble, had performed here previously half a dozen times, including Summerfest in 1984 and 1986, the Oriental Theatre in 1985, State Fair in 1987, and Alpine Valley and the Milwaukee Auditorium both in 1989.
Diane Semmerling, now the office manager at Alpine Valley Resort, was employed there at the time of the crash. She said no plaque ever was erected to mark the spot. The resort tries to discourage blues pilgrims from venturing up there.
"As far as I know, no one comes with flowers anymore," Semmerling said. "There was a time when people did, but that seems to have passed."