BlackHawk’s Van Stephenson Dead at 47

Former BlackHawk member Van Stephenson died at his home in Nashville this morning (April 9) of cancer. He was 47. Stephenson underwent surgery for skin cancer in February 1999 and later left the band to continue his fight against the illness and spend more time with his family.

Van Wesley Stephenson was born Nov. 4, 1953, in Hamilton, Ohio. His family moved to Nashville when he was 10. When he was 17, 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 No. 7 in 1979.

In the early 1980s, Stephenson made his first foray into recording when O’Dell produced his pop album, China Girl, for Handshake Records. While the album did little to advance Stephenson’s recording career — netting him only the No. 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 Stephenson a pop deal with MCA Records. There he recorded the album Righteous Anger, which yielded in 1984 the No. 22 single “Modern Day Delilah.” The follow-up single, “What the Big Girls Do,” topped out at No. 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 its: “Goodbye Says It All,” “Every Once in a While,” “I Sure Can Smell the Rain,” “Down in Flames” and “That’s Just About Right.” BlackHawk was named Star of Tomorrow at the 1995 fan-voted TNN/Music City News Country Awards.

BlackHawk has continued to record and tour without Stephenson but is no longer affiliated with Arista Records.

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

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to