Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, Stevie Ray Vaughan showed early interest in the guitar at just seven years old, inspired by his older brother Jimmy’s playing abilities. By the time he reached high school, he dropped out so he could pursue music full-time, playing gigs and putting together his backing band Double Trouble piece by piece. By the time he was in his early 30s, the shy, former high school dropout became an international Texas blues star with the release of his groundbreaking album, Texas Flood. The album sparked an ’80s “blues revival,” and Stevie followed the release up with several more hits.
From acoustic shuffles and eclectic instrumentals to his biggest hits, we break down the best Stevie Ray Vaughan songs below. We know you’ve already got your favorite picked out. Read on to see if it takes the top spot on our countdown.
The hit song from his 1989 critically acclaimed album In Step, ‘Crossfire’ was part of a bigger project that represented a new phase in Stevie Ray Vaughan’s life. After years of struggling with substance abuse issues, he finally got the help he needed and recovered from his additions thanks to a program the album is named after. All songs from In Step deal with the emotions, trauma, and triumphs one goes through while trying to heal. ‘Crossfire’ in particular was written by fellow Texan Bill Carter alongside his partner Ruth Ellsworth. The songwriting duo worked closely with Vaughan a few times, and truck gold with this bluesy ’80s hit.
10. Cold Shot
Opening with a classic Chicago-inspired blues riff, Stevie sings about a femme fatale who’s got him in her grips with ‘Cold Shot.’ The rolling groove naturally supports Vaughan’s blistering electric guitar work, but equally as interesting is his smooth vocal work alternating between expressive and pensive. While his six-string emotes the tumultuous side of the failed relationship, his voice brings forth his more vulnerable side, giving listeners even more to chew on than just another single full of hot licks. Hailing from the Lonestar state himself, Stevie had an undeniably Texas rock sound, and he loved to showcase songs from the bustling music town of Austin. For ‘Cold Shot,’ he featured the work of longtime blues songwriter-musicians W.C. Clark and Mike Kindred.
9. Love Struck Baby
Stevie’s 1983 album Texas Flood hit the music scene just like its title suggested. Not only did it put him and his band Double Trouble on the map, it also helped spark an ’80s blues revival as well as a renaissance of blues and rock-inspired Texas music. ‘Love Struck Baby’ was released as a single for its marketability. While MTV loved it because the video depicts Vaughan working hard to entertain a hyped-up barroom crowd, and radio stations loved it because of its commercial appeal, it never did too much on the charts. That didn’t matter to Stevie, who kept the uptempo shuffle song in the vein of guitar legend Chuck Berry on his setlist. He used it as somewhat of a schtick. When his band ripped into the song, he’d always use the solo part to play guitar behind his head or pluck the strings with his teeth. Classic Stevie!
8. The House Is Rockin’
Another fast-paced rocker from Vaughan’s In Step album, this danceable song takes a common ’70s pop culture saying, “If the van’s a-rockin,’ don’t come a-knockin,'” and updates it to fit the vibe of a raucous house party. His backing band Double Trouble is in full force with this song, with swagger-fueled keys amping things up along with Vaughan’s twangy, country-inspired solos. ‘The House is Rockin” is one of several of Stevie’s songwriting efforts as he developed more as an artist. For this one, he sat down with (you guessed it, another fellow Texan) Doyle Bramhall to flesh this one out. While Vaughan is noted as being one of the blues’ greatest guitarists, he etched out a niche for himself with his Lonestar roots, adding a fiery, twangy feel to his sound like no other had done before.
Vaughan takes a break from his tried and true uptempo jukebox numbers and slows things down for ‘Lenny,’ a song dedicated to his wife Lenora, and her unique nickname. Stevie credited Jimi Hendrix as being one of his main influences, and hints of Hendrix’s ethereal playing style come to the forefront in the soft, gradual opening to the sweet song. Hendrix wrote one of his most popular tunes, ‘The Wind Cries Mary,’ for his mom, and whispers of that delicate expression pop are heard in ‘Lenny.’ The song could last upwards of 10 minutes live, which means Stevie had plenty of time to build into what ultimately becomes a blistering guitar clinic. The song’s duality creates a gripping feel for his and Lenora’s relationship, which was at times strained by Vaughan’s battle with addiction.
6. Texas Flood
“Well there’s floodin’ down in Texas. All of the telephone lines are down.” One of Vaughan’s trademark tracks, fans often flocked to live recordings of ‘Texas Flood’ rather than studio versions because Stevie was so incredibly magnetic and brilliantly improvisational when playing concerts. Written by blues artist Larry Davis in the late ’50s, Stevie turned this Arkansas-written track into a slam dunk Texas blues standard. The entire piece is a masterclass in 12-bar blues musicianship. Also impressive are Stevie’s vocals, heavy with unguarded vibrato and yearning. The song uses the metaphor of a catastrophic storm to represent a failing relationship, and SRV’s expert reinterpretation in 1983 took him from a local Texas gigging musician to an international blues-rock sensation.
5. Life by the Drop
Another tune written with childhood friend, fellow Texas son Doyle Bramhall, ‘Life By The Drop’ is a rare acoustic effort about the pair’s friendship, and possibly Stevie’s destructive relationship with alcohol. While Stevie reached eventual worldwide fame, Bramhall stayed behind in rural Texas, preferring a quiet life close to his family over tour buses and hotel rooms. Stevie really belts on this track, with the ebbs and flows of relationships front and center in his vocal modulations. Though some of the melody is moody, it always resolves in a particularly satisfying fashion. A stripped-down, gliding shuffle, it’s a pleasurable two-and-a-half minutes of pure acoustic Texas blues.
4. Scuttle Buttin’
A funky barnstormer with Vaughan’s guitar powers on full display, the instrumental track was featured on his ’84 followup to his Texas Flood album, Couldn’t Stand The Weather. When SRV was a little kid, the first album he remembered picking up was Lonnie Mack’s “Wham!” record from 1963. Mack was a blues rock pioneer, and Vaughan spent hours perfecting his own guitar skills with Mack’s recordings as a guide. With ‘Scuttle Buttin,” Vaughan pays tribute to Mack with a fast-paced, aggressive “chicken-pickin'” guitar performance. In 1985, Stevie got to collaborate with his childhood idol for Mack’s comeback album, Strike Like Lightning, and several live performances.
3. Little Wing
Paying tribute to one of his biggest influences, SRV covered a flawless rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s tune ‘Little Wing.’ When Hendrix wrote it, he had the Monterey Pop Festival on his mind, which he and many other artists, including Janis Joplin, played at in the ’60s. Before Woodstock happened, it was known as a rather infamous festival. Vaughan covered a few Hendrix tunes over his career, often adding in his own flavors respectfully, giving the covers a cleaner, updated feel. The high-flying instrumental is featured on Stevie’s final album, The Sky Is Crying, which was released after his tragic death in a helicopter crash in 1990.
2. Mary Had a Little Lamb
With his beloved Fender Stratocaster in hand, Stevie Ray Vaughan somehow manages to make Sarah Hale’s 1700s nursery rhyme badass. With epic guitar solos from beginning to end, Vaughan also changes up the lyrics a bit to give the classic tale a more bluesy vibe, “Mary had a little lamb, his fleece was black as coal.” Performed live at one of his famous events, “Live at the El Mocambo,” the funky rhythm and Stevie’s sultry voice gives a teetotaler’s ideal story major sex appeal. Crowds went so crazy for it he kept it in his sets, performing the surprising cover at other landmark performances like his legendary Capitol Theatre show. The blues is a genre where interpretation is king, and with his cover of ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’ SRV showed his interpretation skills reign supreme.
1. Pride and Joy
How could the Texas blues artist’s instantly loveable ‘Pride and Joy’ not be our top pick for the best Stevie Ray Vaughan songs? Released as his first single on his Texas Flood album, the strut-worthy tune became a massive top 20 hit for Stevie, and launched his career into international waters. The Texas Flood album was the catalyst for Vaughan’s legendary career, and ‘Pride and Joy’ was the continued flame. Becoming his signature tune, it’s an SRV original, and he wrote it during an inspired time in his life when a new relationship had him feeling hopeful and secure. The song is an ode to his one and only, rife with all the classic male virility blues purists love, but smoothed over with Stevie’s svelt vocal abilities and propensity for bearing his soul unprotected on stage. Though he left the world unexpectedly in 1990, the catalog of music he built up during his too-short career was not only expansive but revolutionary. When he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame posthumously in 2015, his brother Jimmy Vaughan played ‘Pride and Joy’ alongside Double Trouble and John Mayer in Stevie’s honor.
Recommended: This classic rightfully appears on our pick of the best blues songs ever made.