Former BlackHawk Guitarist Van Stephenson Dies

Founding member of popular group succumbs to cancer at age 47.

Former BlackHawk guitarist Van Stephenson died of cancer at his home in Nashville on Monday morning (April 9) at age 47.

Stephenson underwent surgery for skin cancer in February 1999 and later left the band to continue his fight against the illness and to spend time with his family.

Van Wesley Stephenson was born November 4, 1953, in Hamilton, Ohio. His family moved to Nashville when he was 10. Seven years later, Stephenson met composer Kenny O’Dell (“Behind Closed Doors”), who became his first songwriting mentor. Subsequently, Stephenson became a staff writer at House of Gold. His first cut was Crystal Gayle’s “Your Kisses Will,” which went to #7 in 1979.

In the early 1980s, Stephenson made his first foray into recording when O’Dell produced his pop disc China Girl for Handshake Records. While the album did little to advance Stephenson’s recording career — netting him only the #79 single “You’ve Got a Good Love Coming” — John Mellencamp covered the title track.

In 1983, Richard Landis, who was then producing Juice Newton, secured a pop deal with MCA Records for Stephenson. There he recorded the album Righteous Anger, which in 1984 yielded the #22 single “Modern Day Delilah.” The follow-up single, “What the Big Girls Do,” topped out at #45. Suspicious Heart, Stephenson’s next album, produced no chart singles.

The group Restless Heart made its debut in 1985, taking its name from the title of a song Stephenson co-wrote for the group. His other Restless Heart cuts included “Back to the Heartbreak Kid,” “Bluest Eyes in Texas,” “New York (Hold Her Tight)” and “Big Dreams in a Small Town.”

Stephenson’s frequent co-writing partners during this period were Dave Robbins, who would later join him as a founding member of BlackHawk, and Tim DuBois, who, as president of Arista/Nashville, would sign the group to a recording contract. Made up of Stephenson, Robbins and Henry Paul, BlackHawk made its bow on the country charts in 1993.

The group’s self-titled debut album produced five top-10 hits: “Goodbye Says It All” (RealAudio excerpt), “Every Once in a While,” “I Sure Can Smell the Rain,” “Down in Flames” and “That’s Just About Right.” BlackHawk were named Star of Tomorrow at the 1995 fan-voted TNN Music City News Country Awards.

BlackHawk have continued to record and tour without Stephenson but are no longer affiliated with Arista.

Stephenson is survived by his wife, Karen, and children Katie, Julie and Wes. Funeral arrangements were incomplete at press time.