The late great guitarist Roy Buchanan, who died on this day in 1988, liked to say he was the son of a preacher man. And that as a boy he attended church revivals with Black congregations, where he first heard blues music. He was the first white guy to absorb the blues, he liked to say, and to build a career around the form.
These claims may not be the gospel truth–Buchanan also insisted he was “half-wolf.” His own brother denies that their father did any preaching at all. The truth is that Roy Buchanan was a dark and complicated man and artist.
What is also unmistakably true is that few have mastered their instrument to the depth Roy did. Buchanan’s close listeners praise his array of astonishing techniques, and how he used them to express uniquely emotive statements. As with a good Hendrix solo, you catch your breath at the sheer intensity of sound and soulfulness that Buchanan summons up when he’s running hot. His Fender Telecaster screams and cries, whistles and whines in ways are piercing in one second and tender in the next—Roy could recreate the human voice in uncanny ways. But then he’d spin into machine-like rapid-fire notes that make your teeth hurt. He didn’t need effect pedals to achieve this sonic richness—he was a purist in his way, defiantly old-school in a period that expected progressive experimentation.
Roy made his mark on early rock ’n’ roll recordings by the likes of Gene Vincent and Ronnie Hawkins. Many of the biggest British blues stars of the ’60s–Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton among them–took ideas and inspiration from the music Buchanan recorded in the 1950s and early ’60s. Jeff Beck dedicated his most popular song to Buchanan. The problem was that people in his own country weren’t listening, beyond a few followers in the Washington D.C. area. His career stalled out before the ’60s were over. He traded his axe for a pair of scissors, becoming hairstylist for a time.
The turnaround began in 1971 when PBS aired a 90-minute special about Buchanan. The profile might as well have been tagged, “How Does a Guy This Freaking Good Not Have a Recording Contract, Let Alone Worldwide Fame?” Record execs were watching. Roy mounted a comeback, releasing several major label albums during the ’70s–a couple even went gold. Only one or two of his originals got attention; mostly, the fuss was about the covers: country music and blues standards, soul and R&B pieces, and of course straight-ahead rock music old and new.
Buchanan never achieved the expected “Guitar God” fame, and hardly got beyond the small club circuit. His limits defined him as much as his strengths: he wasn’t a good singer or a strong writer, and he struggled to keep a solid steady band together. He quit recording for a time. Alligator Records lured him back into the game with promise of full artistic control, but this later work is not his best. Free rein was perhaps the last thing he needed at a time when he couldn’t control his appetites. Roy Buchanan died in a jail cell in 1988; the death was ruled a suicide.
He leaves a legacy of amazing recordings and performances that may never get the wider audience they deserve, but that will never fall into obscurity. As long as guitars are around, we will listen to the music of Roy Buchanan with awe and with deepest appreciation.
Roy Buchanan–Can I Change My Mind (Tyrone Davis cover)
When soul singer Tyrone Davis released his debut single in 1968, it displaced Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” from the number one chart position. Buchanan’s cover is fairly straight-ahead R&B, or at least more soul and funk than Roy’s usual country and blues-rock blend. It leans on band dynamics and a strong fluid groove–the guitar solo is relatively restrained, but still worth a close listen. Not to take away from his keyboardist or the singer, but Roy’s supportive comping behind them is a particularly engaging part this song.
Roy Buchanan–Hey Joe (Jimi Hendrix cover)
Jimi Hendrix didn’t write “Hey Joe”—it’s unclear who did, something we’ve talked about before—but his cover of it is definitive. As the first single for Jimi Hendrix and the Experience, the song quickly became a standard. Roy Buchanan’s rendering (on this performance for Austin City Limits) is pretty gutting. His singing is detached and dispassionate, as if reserving emotion for the guitar to express. In terms of fretboard firepower, Roy unleashes it at a level at least comparable to Hendrix. (In terms of showmanship, stage presence, and groovy threads, Jimi may have the edge.) Billy Roberts, the guy who wrote “Hey Joe” (or maybe he’s just the guy who’s got it copyrighted) composed a song especially for Roy, presumably after hearing Roy’s take on “Hey Joe.” Roberts may have been watching Austin City Limits when the spirit moved him to do so.
Roy Buchanan–Sweet Dreams (Don Gibson)
Patsy Cline helped popularize Don Gibson’s country classic “Sweet Dreams.” It’s a number that is steeped in sweetness and romance (even if the lyrics are a little anguished—it is a country song, after all). Roy’s instrumental treatment is one of his most popular covers–it probably helped that Martin Scorsese included this song on the final scene of The Departed). Unlike most of Roy’s other covers, it’s suitable for a dance that’s close and slow, provided your partner doesn’t mind some show-off shredding on Roy’s part, and doesn’t have the last scene of The Departed in mind.
Roy Buchanan–Misty (Errol Garner cover)
Jazz pianist Errol Garner composed this piece as an instrumental, but it wasn’t until Johnny Burke added lyrics and Johnny Mathis sang them that “Misty” drew a sizable audience. Suddenly the world–not just the jazz world—-fell head over heels for the song, and anyone with a recording contract seemed to take a run at it. In the Clint Eastwood film “Play Misty for Me,” the deranged radio listener doesn’t specify which version of “Misty” she wants the dj to play–the first sign that she might be a psycho, in my opinion. It wasn’t Roy Buchanan’s version she was asking for, since he never recorded it. This clip is from the PBS profile about Roy, and, like “Sweet Dreams,” it captures a gentle side of the man that is important to remember.
Roy Buchanan–Down by the River (Neil Young cover)
Trey Anastasio of Phish has said, “If I was ever going to teach a master class to young guitarists, the first thing I would play them is the first minute of Neil Young’s original ‘Down by the River’ solo. It’s one note, but it’s so melodic, and it just snarls with attitude and anger. It’s like he desperately wants to connect.” Agreed. Young’s solos can hit the target despite the fact that he doesn’t have or need impressive technical command. Roy is like Neil in that he plays with feeling–attitude and anger” is dialed in exactly right–but Roy’s virtuosity is on display as well, and those two aspects make this live recording one of the all-time great guitar pieces. (Accept no substitutes: Roy has his best band right with him on this night, unlike on other of his recordings and performances of the song: this is peak Roy.)
Roy Buchanan–Green Onions (Booker T. and the MGs cover)
Roy sinks his teeth very deeply into one of the all-time great instrumentals, “Green Onions.” He duels it out with an honored guest, Steve Cropper, who co-wrote the song, and played on the original recording in 1962. Joining in is Cropper’s old buddy in the MGs, Donald “Duck” Dunn, bass player of choice for everyone from Elvis Presley to Eric Clapton to Tom Petty. This is one of the few times that Roy had truly formidable partners with him on stage or in the studio.