Born: September 23, 1939 in Ozark AR
Died: August 14, 1988 in Fairfax VA
One of the most tragically overlooked guitarists in the blues, Roy Buchanan could make his instrument sing like nobody else. Counting such talents as Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons as fans, Buchanan stretched the boundaries of guitar playing much like Jimi Hendrix, mixing elements of blues, R&B, rock, and country music into his unique, rootsy sound. Although Buchanan tragically died young, his legacy endures, and he left behind an impressive body of work for guitarists to study.
Born in rural Arkansas but raised in Pixley, California, a farming community outside of Bakersfield, Roy Buchanan's father was a sharecropper and farm laborer. Buchanan often said that his father was also a Pentecostal preacher, a claim disputed by an older brother. Regardless, Buchanan was exposed to gospel and blues music at an early age, attending mixed-race tent revivals and listening to R&B on the radio. He began playing steel guitar at the age of seven, switching over to electric guitar at thirteen, eventually favoring the Fender Telecaster as his instrument of choice.
Buchanan left home at fifteen to seek a career in music in Los Angeles, where he came to the attention of noted R&B bandleader Johnny Otis. Performing in Otis's rhythm and blues revue, Buchanan refined his guitar playing under the tutelage of players like future James Brown sideman Jimmy Dolen and Johnny "Guitar" Watson. Sometime during the latter part of the 1950s, Buchanan formed his own band – the Heartbeats – which would later back up rockabilly singer Dale Hawkins, even performing a guitar solo on his Chess Records hit "My Babe."
Guitar Player For Hire
While touring Canada with Hawkins, Buchanan ended up jumping ship and hooking up with Hawkins' cousin Ronnie as part of his backing band the Hawks. While touring with Hawkins, Buchanan tutored the Hawks' bass player, Robbie Robertson, on guitar. The Hawks would later back up Bob Dylan before becoming better-known as the Band. In the meantime, Buchanan drifted from gig to gig during the 1960s, backing up artists like Freddie Cannon and Merle Kilgore, touring and doing session work as a journeyman guitarist.
Buchanan eventually landed in the Washington, D.C. area where he performed with a number of bands, including the Danny Denver Band, a popular local outfit, as well as forming his own band the Snakestretchers. As word of Buchanan's electrifying performances began to spread beyond the Washington/Maryland area, he made fans of such high-profile artists as Eric Clapton and John Lennon. His newfound infamy led to the making of a documentary film for PBS, The Best Unknown Guitarist in the World, which in turn led to a record deal with Polydor Records.
The Polydor Years
Buchanan released his critically-acclaimed self-titled debut album in 1972, the album's raw, unfiltered mix of roots-rock, blues, and country showcasing the guitarist's immense skills. Recorded on the cheap, the album includes all of Buchanan's missteps and bum notes alongside his stellar tone, which only endeared the guitarist to both critics and fans. Buchanan followed up with Second Album, another solid set that would earn a Gold™ Record. Buchanan would record four studio albums for Polydor, as well as an incendiary live set, Live Stock, that was released at the end of his tenure with the label.
Buchanan signed with Atlantic Records in the mid-1970s, releasing his label debut, A Street Called Straight, in 1976. Buchanan's second Atlantic album, 1977's Loading Zone, would also be certified Gold for selling in excess of a half-million records. After the release of 1978's You're Not Alone and 1981's mediocre My Babe, Buchanan stepped back from the music business in disgust for a while, eventually resurfacing in 1985 when he signed with the notable blues label Alligator Records.
The Alligator Years
Given creative control by Alligator, Buchanan released the stunning comeback album, When A Guitar Plays The Blues, in 1985. He followed it up a year later with the equally impressive Dancing On The Edge, which featured vocals by Delbert McClinton on three songs, the album placing Buchanan back in the upper reaches of the Billboard magazine albums chart. Buchanan's twelfth album, Hot Wires, was released in 1987 and would prove to be the artist's swansong.
Buchanan's career was experiencing a well-deserved revival when tragedy struck. The guitarist had long suffered from substance abuse problems, and while several people close to Buchanan claimed that he had gotten his drinking under control, Buchanan was arrested in August 1988 on a public intoxication charge following a domestic dispute in Fairfax, Virginia. While imprisoned, Buchanan was found by officers to have hung himself in his cell. Friends and family members dispute the official finding of suicide, citing bruises on the guitarist's head as from a beatdown. After Buchanan's death, posthumous live and compilation albums would be released well into the new century.
Recommended Albums: Buchanan's self-titled 1972 debut is a work of brutal honesty and great guitar performances, and is available at a discount price from most vendors. The posthumous Sweet Dreams anthology is a great way to introduce yourself to Buchanan's talents, two discs of material from his Polydor and Atlantic Records years. The Prophet, recorded in 1969 for Polydor and shelved until its archival release in 2004, is Buchanan's long-unreleased debut album. Recorded with Southern rock legend Charlie Daniels and a host of studio pros in Nashville, the features phenomenal performances that place Buchanan's talent in an entirely different light.
Roy Buchanan Select Discography
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- Roy Buchanan (Polydor Records, 1972)
- Second Album (Polydor Records, 1973)
- That's What I Am Here For (Polydor Records, 1974)
- In The Beginning* (Polydor Records, 1974)
- Live Stock (Polydor Records, 1975)
- A Street Called Straight (Atlantic Records, 1976)
- Loading Zone (Atlantic Records, 1977)
- You're Not Alone (Atlantic Records, 1978)
- My Babe (AJK Records, 1981)
- When A Guitar Plays The Blues (Alligator Records, 1985)
- Dancing On The Edge (Alligator Records, 1986)
- Hot Wires (Alligator Records, 1987)
- Sweet Dreams: The Anthology (Polydor Records, 1992)
- Guitar On Fire: The Atlantic Sessions (Atlantic Records, 1993)
- The Prophet – The Unreleased First Polydor Album (Hip-O Select Records, 2004)