Thirty years ago today, we lost John Vandiver, Texas bluesman — gone, but not forgotten.
The big man with the big voice made a big splash in the Texas folk music scene of the 70s and 80s. Whether playing solo or with compadres, Vandiver proved a hearty entertainer, almost always earning an encore, even as an opening act.
Rising up out of Houston’s Anderson Fair music scene with the likes of Lyle Lovett, Townes van Zandt, David Rodriguez, Lucinda Williams, he played for folks like a young, aspiring Aggie singer-songwriter named Robert Earl Keen.
“I loved them all. However, my favorite was the bearded blues rocker, John Vandiver. Short and squatty with round wire rim specs perched on a happy red nose, John looked to all the world like the son of Santa. He played big fat hollow body electric guitars that bounced on his jolly girth and shook the rafters …”
For a while, Vandiver acted as combination chauffeur, road manager, and opening act for Mance Lipscomb. There’s a double-bill I’d have loved to have seen. Invariably, he won a huge following of fans with his appearances. such as this one at the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1980.
Tragically, John Vandiver’s career and life were cut short in 1985. Vandiver and his girlfriend-manager at the time, Debbie Davison, were shot, execution-style, in a late-night robbery by 4 men (including a former roommate) searching for drugs & money. The silencing of that voice rippled far and wide. One friend, Bill Collings, shut his guitar shop to dedicate more time to helping the police find John’s killers. Only after they were imprisoned did he re-open his internationally renowned Collings Guitars.
John Vandiver’s daughter from an earlier marriage, Joanna, took up the torch as well. Upon finding a tape of her father performing at Poor David’s Pub in Dallas circa 1984, she released those as “I Found a Dream.”
My favorite memory of John Vandiver comes from the one and only Austin show by Bob Marley. Marley had cancelled prior dates but here he was finally here — except first, there was the opening act: John Vandiver. “MARLEY! MARLEY! MARLEY!” the crowd chanted impatiently as he valiantly finished his second song. Here’s how Vandiver’s good friend, Dewey Don Lyon, recounts it:
“… John…grabbed the mic with both hands, locked eyes with the audience, and said in that jolly sort of voice, “Hey, y’all! Nobody wants to see Bob Marley more than I do! Why do you think I’m right up here so close, anyway? Think about it. I got the best seat in the house! Now, here’s how it is. I’ve been hired to play 45 minutes before the Wailers come on, and I’m gonna do it. Now, y’all can sit there and yell for Bob Marley, or you can kick back, burn one, and enjoy the show!” Deafening silence. Suddenly, the Hall erupted in delighted laughter and applause and people jumped to their feet and cheered!
Before we go, let’s bring the big guy back out for an encore, “just an old sweet song” to keep John Vandiver on our minds.