Overcoming Adversity: Greg Vaughan Comes Full Circle
A nagging question sometimes rolls around my head as I see today’s youth-centered culture. Is artistic success and creative growth only for the young? Do we, indeed, burn out, fade away, and rust down to nothing in the inevitable impermanence of life? It comes in various forms as I speed my way through television streams, social media, and music promotions focusing on the success of young artists. This is the way it must be in the larger scheme of things. Life does run in cycles and a way must be made for the young. But, the difference today from times past is that we have developed short-term memory for legacies of the great ones who have come before. This is the way it feels in today’s modern popular music culture. In a world where Lady Gaga is a veteran I have to wonder, where have all the legends gone?
Then, there are those icons, the ones with talent and gifts to spare, who simply refuse to be tucked away in a safe corner of an aging vintage house covered in the dust of times past.
Today’s most significant popular music icons have been busy in recent years, keeping us aware of who they are. They sell-out arenas and stadiums. They play self-created live music for the sake of the music alon
Spend even a few moments with guitarist Greg Vaughan and you’ll find an understated, humble man. Someone who truly loves music. A gifted performer, he plays with a virtuoso’s intensity, across the genres. For years a mainstay of Southern California’s music scene, Vaughan only recently ended a lengthy break from performing, following a stroke that nearly took his eyesight.
Some basic facts. Vaughan was born and raised in San Diego. Currently a North Park resident, he grew up in San Carlos and graduated from Patrick Henry High School. He also has three bestowed nicknames, each an apt description of his six-string prowess: the Wizard, Sky Brother, Voodoo Child.
While Vaughan is now an acclaimed guitarist, his early stage appearances were in other fields. “I started performing at the age of five in a hand-balancing act with my father,” he said. “He was a gymnast, a circus performer and world-famous gymnastics coach. A little later, I started performing as a dancer at age seven. Then I started acting, singing, and playing piano at nine. I did lots of local theater and some radio and television ads.” He was 12 years old when the guitar bug bit him, but his interest in rock predated that. “On my fourth birthday, while listening to one of the Elvis’ records I had just received, I announced to my parents that when I grew up I was going to be a famous singer. I became interested in the Beatles, Elton John, Jim Croce, John Denver, and Bread shortly after that. I was also aware of Led Zeppelin, KISS and AC/DC, but I only knew the songs I heard on the radio.” Learning guitar expanded his horizons. “My listening habits now included Black Sabbath, Scorpions, Van Halen, and many more. In high school I got into a progress-sync bands like Rush, Yes, and Jethro Tull. In my late teens I got into jazz fusion groups like Weather Report and Return to Forever.”
Vaughan can play bass, drums, keyboards, mandolin, ukulele, banjo, baby sitar, saz, cumbus, and doumbek, but the guitar has always held a special allure. “I always thought the guitar was cool and then when MTV came on and I had constant access to videos of people playing guitar, it really inspired me. I especially liked old videos of bands like T-Rex,” he said. Vaughan’s original guitar skills came via teacher Jeff Bishop. “I studied with him for three years. He was a wonderful teacher. In addition to teaching me my favorite rock songs, technique, and music theory, he also taught me how he does finger-style arrangements of songs and taught me many classical pieces.” More recently, over the past two decades, Vaughan has studied extensively with his mentor, guitarist Uli Jon Roth (The Scorpions).
For Vaughan the past ten years have been a struggle against adversity, with limited vision in his right eye. Things took a turn for the worse last year in November when he suffered a stroke in his left eye. “This left me dizzy, confused, and suffering from constant headaches,” he said. “I was unable to fully take care of myself or go outside without help. Everything was difficult, eating, brushing my teeth, getting dressed, etc.”
With months of extensive medical care, surgeries, and follow ups, Vaughan slowly began to regain some vision. “My brain also learned to combine the incomplete pictures from each eye. My vision is still blurry and problematic, but much better than it was, or either eye on its own.” It took some time to build confidence to leave the house. “I remember the first time I walked our dog, Sunny Ray Vaughan, around the block on my own. It was a profound experience.”
Did he ever feel like giving up? Vaughan pauses. “I did,” he said. “But I had watched TV shows and documentaries about people that have gone through tough times, and I talked to people. And they seemed to all say, as people will tell you, “Things will get better.” I didn’t see it at the time and I never ever in my life could relate to that. I’ve been through some near-death experiences, a car accident and other things that resulted in hospital stays. And yet I never thought that way myself.” Vaughan accepted that this time things were different. “With this, because it went on so long and I was isolated from the world, it was difficult. I couldn’t go on the internet, I couldn’t read, I couldn’t go out by myself. Everyone was telling me that I was going to bounce back, I was going to recover, and I’d be on stage again. I literally couldn’t accept that it might happen, mostly because I was in shock about what was happening.”
Thankfully, Vaughan has recovered a little bit and can once again concentrate on making music. “The goal now is to maintain the vision that I have. Thanks to the wonderful doctors and staff at Sharp Healthcare, I did not lose my eye,” he said. “The stroke did cause permanent damage to my retina and optic nerve, but I went from no vision to partial vision. It is truly astounding what modern medicine can achieve.” As for what drove him to keep his spirits up and continue to fight for his health, he credits his wife, Elizabeth, as well as friends and family for help with his recovery. “The special club of people who helped me put in eyedrops, brought me food, bought me books on CD, took me for walks, led guided meditations, and even helped me shave—really basic stuff—is quite large,” he said.
In addition to support from those closest to him, he credits legally blind guitarist Johnny Hiland as key to his recovery. “It seems so cosmic that I had worked with Johnny back in 2007, when I was working with Uli Jon Roth a lot,” Vaughan said. The inspiration was mostly non-musical. “It was just that I had seen him, happy and productive and touring all over the place. He had his wife to help him and I have a wonderful wife who helps me. That situation literally gave me a first-hand example; it wasn’t something I had seen in a movie or read in a newspaper, I had experienced it. He also does podcasts, with his wife filming, and I thought: I can do things like that! He was a shining example.”
Vaughan was amazed at the full circle nature of things. “I told Uli all
about my journey, and how strange it was that he had asked me to help Johnny Hiland all those years ago. What I had done for Johnny, now others were doing for me. Uli shared stories about overcoming his obstacles. Then he simply stated, “This is life; this is what we do. We adapt and persevere.” He was wise, zen like, and powerful—as always.”
A Life in Music
Now a seasoned musician, he can pinpoint the moment he knew he would be a musician for life. It took place on the evening of Friday, June 21, 1985. Ironically, it involved another, unrelated, Vaughan. “When I was 14 years old, I saw Stevie Ray Vaughan playing at the Del Mar Fair,” he recalled. “I was in the front row right under his microphone. So, every time he looked down to step on one of his pedals, he saw me. While holding a note for a long time he turned toward his amps and started moving slowly across the stage trying to get the note to sustain and feedback. When he found the right spot and the overtones kicked in, he turned his head to me and winked. It was a transformational moment. I felt like he had just given me some of his magic. I decided right then and there that I would play guitar for the rest of my life.”
Vaughan is a prolific songwriter, though he hasn’t released a lot of music, yet. Two albums with Danyavaad and the Shimmy Sisters, two albums with hard rockers Phantom Cargo, and two solo albums are the extent of his discography to date. “I probably have about ten other albums of recorded material. When I have the time to focus on each one individually, I will be releasing five of those. They are all pretty much done except for what will be the third Danyavaad album.” Lack of original music is not a problem. “I have well over 500 songs,” he said. “I’ve kept track of every song I’ve ever written, in order, since I was 10. I was super organized up until I hit about 380 songs. I could find them all and complete the list probably, but I wouldn’t be able to put them in the perfect order anymore.”
Amongst his new projects Vaughan has just signed with a new music licensing company, Proper One, with a third album from Danyavaad hoped for in 2020. Also, due next year is his first film project. “I’m working on the soundtrack to a short movie called Timeless. Not just on the music but also the sound design, effects and things. It’s kind of a sci-fi, fantasy comedy.”
It’s a testament to Vaughan’s strength that a look at his upcoming schedule finds him almost as busy as ever. It’s also a testament to Vaughan’s versatility that he has four very different shows happening in the next few weeks. On October 20 he will perform middle eastern sounds with the Danyavaad and the Shimmy Sisters at Tango Del Rey. “It will be the first public performance, with all six of us together, in 19 months,” he said. Meanwhile, on October 27, he will be part of Electric Warrior, a tribute to seventies British rockers, T-Rex, appearing at Bar Pink. “Since this is right before Halloween and we are of course a glam rock band, we are going to encourage the audience to dress up in their best vintage glam rockstar clothing.”
Then, on November 14, Vaughan will be part of the first ever Mike Ruggirello’s Guitar Shop at the Music Box, with special guest Jimmy Lewis. “These events will feature workshops, live performances, and demos of sponsored gear,” he commented. Finally, on November 27, he will be playing with the Bloom All Stars at the Ocean Beach Farmers Market. “We’ll be playing some Sade, Jimi Hendrix, and other classic rock, pop, and reggae songs.” In recent years he has also played with Marie Haddad, Steamrock Fever—An Early Scorpions Experience, Blasphemous Guitars, and, more unusually, Murmur: A Tribute To R.E.M. “I just sang in that one,” Vaughan noted. “I was approached at a show to be in this band, because I apparently look a little like Michael Stipe.” Looking back on this varied group of musical projects, Vaughan just smiles, “I love diversity.”
While he is proud of all his musical projects, for Vaughan, Danyavaad is special. Performing alongside Belly Dance Troupe, the Shimmy Sisters aka Adelaide and Leilainia Marcus, the middle eastern-influenced quartet, self-described as a “gypsy rock and bellydance group,” now features Vaughan, Sandy “Dj Sandbag” Bagri (bass guitar and DJ), Gabriel Penix (percussion, vocals, guitar) and Oren Shoval (violin).
It was a chance meeting between Vaughan and Penix, as well as Adelaide Marcus that was the catalyst for the band’s formation in 2005. However, while Dayavaad plays exclusively original music, it was the songs of Jeff Buckley that stoked the embers of the group. “My earliest introduction to middle eastern and Indian sounds was the same as millions of others—the Beatles and Led Zeppelin,” he said. “So those two groups initially influenced me, but later I was a huge Jeff Buckley fan and toward the end of his life, he was influenced vocally by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. That was a big thing to me. My playing is all about Ravi Shankar in the group, but discovering the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the incredible vocals was a particular turning point for me. So, it circles back to Jeff Buckley. I saw that a lot of people were trying to recreate what he had done, I was trying to create what he might have done, if he’d lived. It took meeting this group of people to realize that dream.”
Danyavaad has released several recordings: A three-track EP, Golden Road, plus two albums, March of the Gypsies (both 2008) and Nine Levels of Bliss (2014).
The Road Ahead
While much of Vaughan’s life has returned to some normalcy since the stroke, Vaughan does miss teaching. “When I’m playing live, really the big thing is I need a ride there,” Vaughan joked. “I used to need a lot of help setting up, but now it’s just a little help, maybe with finding an outlet or plugging something in the right place,” he said. “Once I’m on stage and playing, even if I can’t see the guitar’s neck really well, I can still find my way around after having played for decades. I do pretty well on stage, but as for teaching, I’m still testing the waters. I feel like I’m going to have to relearn how to do it. For my happiness and self-esteem, I’d love to start taking on new students again, but I don’t feel I’m quite there yet.”
Though he can’t physically teach at the moment, what parting words of wisdom does he have for aspiring young musicians? “One of the key things that I’ve taught my students, so they can have the right attitude from day one, is this: Always remember, the band that you see most as your competition right now? You’ll probably play with someone in that band someday,” he said. “It’s such a simple concept, but that’s some of the best advice I can give people.”
Danyavaad and the Shimmy Sisters, October 20 at Tango Del Rey.