While appearing in a recent episode of the “Vintage Rock Pod” show, guitar virtuoso Steve Vai looked back on his work with David Lee Roth in the 1980s, as well as his role in the 1986 film “Crossroads.” Of course, the film also saw him doing more than just the role of the Jack Butler character, the devil’s guitar player, but also recorded guitar parts for the legendary duel scene at the end.
Reflecting on his work with Roth, who had just left Van Halen and kicked off his solo career, Vai explained how this felt like another major leap in his career, ultimately helping him achieve his own success and fame. Vai, who previously worked with Frank Zappa and Alcatrazz, explained (transcript via Ultimate Guitar):
“That kind of success affects people differently. Sometimes you don’t even realize it’s happening as you’re going through it, at least that was the case for me. With Frank Zappa, if you leave, you got to go find [another] gig; it’s not like you suddenly become somebody that’s sought after.”
However, as Vai added, working with David Lee Roth was something different. After all, he was always next to Eddie Van Halen, one of the greatest guitar players of all time, so it was expected of Vai to be a part of this new “duo” if you will:
“But joining somebody like Dave Roth — that’s different. You’re now a part of a group, that [has] a personality that fits into a field, where now you’re known. Especially if the guitar behind the voice of Dave was Edward Van Halen. And all of a sudden, ‘Who’s this? Who’s the guitar behind the voice now?'”
“So, the recognition and the attention that was paid to me at the time that ‘Eat ‘Em and Smile’ came out, was big [for] the small sliver of the music community [that was] rock ‘n’ roll.”
Going more into the matter, Vai also explained how they pretty much spent over a year in Dave’s basement preparing all of this stuff and that it was all more or less secretive in a way:
“Plus, we were in Dave’s basement for maybe a year and a half, just writing and jamming. During this period, there was stuff going on in the outside world, but I wasn’t a part of it. I mean, [the press was asking], ‘What is Dave Roth doing?’ Everything was kept very secret. I was just going into a guy’s basement and playing. Then we went into the studio and recorded it.”
Now, around that same time, Steve Vai also got hired for the role of Jack Butler, the Devil’s guitar player, in the film “Crossroads.” Based loosely on the legend surrounding Robert Johnson, Vai appeared in the final part of the film, in a duel with Eugene Martone, played by Ralph Macchio.
Drawing a parallel between his work with David Lee Roth and his role in the film, Vai said:
“It was kinda like when I made ‘Crossroads’, I was just going into the studio and film. Then you go home, and you are a normal person, and then suddenly it comes out and everybody sees it. Then you go out, and people are like, ‘Hey, there you are.’ It takes an adjustment.:
As he adds, there needed to be an “adjustment” to that sort of fame since achieving success in just one film is so different compared to making hit records. After all, we’re talking about a visual medium:
“It was an adjustment because it was interesting at first, especially with ‘Crossroads’. Because you can make hit records till you’re blue in the face, but be in one hit movie, and just have a little part and [everyone goes], ‘Hey, there’s that guy’, every place you go. So that took an adjustment. It was fun.”
He concluded by saying:
“My fame with those bands, or my recognition with [previous] bands was never so much that I couldn’t lead a normal life, but it was really nice to be recognized for your contribution.”
“Because I started reading some nice things about what I had played on ‘Eat ‘Em and Smile’, and the way I played. I felt accepted. I felt well supported in that role with Dave, so I was very content and happy with what I had done, and what I had contributed.”
“Was it great? I don’t know. I just know I did the best I could, and it was just so nice when it was not rejected.”
The film’s music also featured Ry Cooder who handled most of Macchio’s parts in the duel. But, the most interesting fact about that legendary final scene is that Steve Vai recorded that piece, inspired by Nico Niccolò Paganini’s “Caprice No. 5,” which Macchio’s character performs and ultimately defeats Jack Butler. What’s also interesting to know is, that among the people considered for the role of Jack Butler, was none other than Stevie Ray Vaughan. Other potential candidates also included Keith Richards and Frank Zappa.