“Probably the most original country style rock and roll guitar player. Has the nicest tone, the most amazing chops technically – superfast. And much neglected.” – Jerry Garcia on Roy Buchanan.
“We never heard anything quite like what Roy was doing. He interested the hell out of me. He’s not playing an arpeggio the way you learn an arpeggio. If you had studied the instrument you played straight on, the chromatic scale you’re taught in school (sic). This guy was anything but conventional – he was just out there. He was unrestricted, as far as what he played. If he felt like getting from here to there, it didn’t matter how he got there. If he didn’t pick it, he plucked it with his fingers. There were no rules with Roy. He was cruising down his own lane.” – Les Paul on Roy Buchanan
“I found something at church I don’t believe I could quite explain. A feeling within – inside of us. It’s something I can always turn to. I think it shows in my music – how I feel. It’s kind of a sacred feel. Once you get it it’s hard to ever change it. I wouldn’t change it for the world.” – Roy Buchanan
In 1971, American public television (PBS) aired a documentary called Introducing Roy Buchanan! (sometimes referred to as The World’s Greatest Unknown Guitarist.) For the great majority of us, this was our first introduction to him. This special put him on the map, at least for those of us who loved the blues. This is his story.
AllMusic: “Although born in Ozark, AR, on September 23, 1939, Roy Buchanan grew up in the small town of Pixley, CA. His father was both a farmer and Pentecostal preacher, which would bring the youngster his first exposure to gospel music when his family would attend racially mixed revival meetings. (His father was a preacher and his mother taught Sunday school. Sounds like a good country song -ME.)
But it was when Buchanan came across late-night R&B radio shows that he became smitten by the blues, leading to Buchanan picking up the guitar at the age of seven.”
As well as gospel in the pews and R&B on the radio, country music was big in Pixley, and at the age of nine Roy’s parents sent him to the local steel-guitar teacher, a woman by the name of Mrs. Pressure. Those early lessons were instrumental in the development of the awesome technique Buchanan employs today. (Thanks, Ear of Newt blog.) Gospel,” he recalled, “that’s how I first got into black music.”
Realizing he couldn’t learn all the varieties of music he wanted to learn in Pixley, he moved to LA and started his professional career in 1954 at age 15, in Johnny Otis’s rhythm and blues revue. He eventually got his own band together and traveled small towns in the South. Times were tough. “I remember sleepin’ in fields. I remember sleeping in bars. I was lucky if I could sleep in a bar.” One time he got “stranded” in Chicago and worked his way back to California making 3 o 4 bucks a night playing clubs.
He eventually began backing rockabilly great Dale Hawkins whose big hit was “Susie Q.” You are probably not old enough to remember a 1958 Willie Dixon tune called “My Babe.” Hawkins recorded it and this is Roy a pickin’ and a grinnin’. As far as I know, this is Roy’s first recording. It actually still holds up pretty well:
In my series on The Band, I recount how Roy auditioned (and got the job with) Dale’s cousin Ronnie whose Hawks ultimately evolved into The Band. You can hear this ensemble doing a version of “Who Do You Love” over at that post.
Buchanan spent the ’60s as a sideman with obscure acts, as well as working as a session guitarist for such varied artists as pop idol Freddy Cannon, and country legend Merle Haggard. He admits to learning a lot of chord and lead work from Haggard’s guitarist, Roy Nichols.
In 1961 he released an instrumental single called “Mule Train Stomp”, It didn’t really do much on the charts but did establish his trademark sound.
After moving to Washington, D.C., in the mid-’60s, Buchanan formed a short-lived band called the Snakestretchers with then-bassist turned guitar great Danny Gatton. Around this time, Roy became very impressed with Jimi Hendrix’ Are You Experienced. The two greats met and talked but to my knowledge never jammed or recorded together. Buchanan later did “Hey Joe” which you can hear on the fine Live at Town Hall 1974 album at the end of this post.
During an interview in the documentary, Roy admits to having an inner loneliness, an inability to really relate much to other people. He reveals he had gotten messed up on drugs, overdosed and went to the hospital, sometime in the mid-to-late ’60s’s. He realized the lifestyle wasn’t working out for him. At some point he developed a drinking problem that was to haunt him for the rest of his days. He quit music, became a barber and cut hair for more than a year. (He was by now married with five kids.) But then he missed playing music and got back into it.
At this point, although Roy had never recorded an album, his name started to get bandied about as “one of those guitarists you must hear.” Rumor has always had it that Buchanan turned down a spot as guitarist in the Rolling Stones. This sounded apocryphal to me but I tracked down a Buchanan interview where he confirms it.
“Yes. That came about through my first manager, Charlie Daniels. I never actually met the Rolling Stones, but they had heard of me some way or another. They mentioned to Charlie that they wanted me to tour with them.
The main reason I decided not to go with them—beside the fact that I don’t want to travel—was that I didn’t know the material, and I didn’t figure I could do the job right. To sit down and learn all those songs—that would have taken a lot of work. I guess I’m lazy. I figured that there were other people who knew the music better.” He also said he didn’t want to be the next casualty in the band.
Keith Richards remembers it a bit differently: “Roy Buchanan – it’s very funny. Eric and Ronnie [Wood] and I pissed in his beer once [laughs]. It’s the only time we ever got that mean with anybody. It was an Atlantic recording session in the Seventies. I said, “Go ahead, Eric, get your cock out. We’ll be pissing in that fucker’s beer. He’s being too pushy.” Eric will deny it, of course, but don’t worry about that. I’ve got Ronnie Wood to back me up.”
As mentioned above Buchanan’s life changed in 1971 when he gained national notice as the result of an hour-long PBS television documentary. Entitled Introducing Roy Buchanan, and sometimes mistakenly called The Best Unknown Guitarist in the World, it earned a record deal with Polydor Records.
The documentary – which you can find here – is an interesting pastiche of home movie-like visits back to California interspersed with great concert footage. Bill Graham introduces the band for a show that looks like it might have been filmed just for this documentary. At about 1:08, Graham introduces a young guitarist named Nils Lofgren. Lofgren has previously credited Roy with helping him develop his sound and in fact, the first Grin album is dedicated to Roy.
Buchanan’s eponymous debut album was released in 1972 and one song, in particular, became a kind of off-beat classic. “I wrote a song,” says Buchanan,” called ‘The Messiah Will Come Again.’ I had this place (Pixley) in mind. But instead of using this place I generalized the whole world. Because the whole world is like this place to me.”
In 1976, Roy and a hot band played Austin City Limits which back then featured all sorts of guitar players. Think SRV was checking this out? Bet he was. This is a fine and funky Booker T. song called “Soul Dressing:”
I mentioned the Live at Town Hall album earlier. There’s some really nice tunes on this album. If you think he’s just a country or blues guy, check out his funky version of “Can I Change My Mind.” The band gets in a groove and Roy just lays down some tasty, tasty stuff:
Buchanan quit recording in 1981. He said he wouldn’t enter a studio again unless he had complete artistic control. By 1985, the great blues label Alligator Records had gotten him back into the studio. In 1985 he recorded an album called When A Guitar Plays the Blues. (Which, BTW, has a song called “Mrs. Pressure.” Now how the fuck many people know why, but you and I do, eh?)
With the strange sounds, volume swells, pinch harmonics and other weird things Roy coaxes from his guitar is it any wonder why Jeff Beck dedicated “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” from Blow by Blow to him?
There used to be a great club in Harvard Square called Jonathan Swift’s. One night in the mid-Eighties my guitar buddy Bill and I had tickets to see Buchanan. But he never showed up. Near as I can recall he spent the night in the drunk tank. A few years later we again tried to catch his show but again, he didn’t show up. Something in the universe felt off.
Wikipedia: “According to his agent and others, Buchanan was doing well, having gained control of his drinking habit and playing again, when he was arrested for public intoxication after a domestic dispute. He was found hanged from his own shirt in a jail cell on August 14, 1988, in the Fairfax County, Virginia, Jail.
Buchanan’s last show was on August 7, 1988, at Guilford Fairgrounds in Guilford, Connecticut. His cause of death was officially recorded as suicide, a finding disputed by Buchanan’s friends and family.
Sources: AllMusic, Rolling Stone, Wikipedia, PBS documentary