Roy Buchanan was born Leroy Buchanan in Ozark, Arkansas on 23 September, 1939.
Roy's father became a farmworker when the family moved to Pixley, California. Roy claimed his father was a pentecostal preacher although Roy's brother JD has said 'If my father ever went into a church, the roof'd fall in on him!'. His family would attend racially-mixed revival meetings and late R 'n' B radio shows were where he developed his love of music. 'Gospel,' Roy recalled, 'that's how I first got into black music.'
At the age of nine, Roy took his first steps onto the bumpy road that was his impressive but ultimately troubled career. It was at this time he first showed interest in the guitar, so his parents bought him a lap steel. They also set him up with a travelling teacher, called Mrs Presher (Roy performed a track called 'Mrs Pressure' so its possible this is the correct name). However, despite three years of tuition, Roy learned to play by ear and never learned to read music.
At the age of 13 Roy first bought a guitar of the type that would be associated with him for the rest of his career. For $120 he got a Fender Telecaster.
A year later he dropped out of school in favour of furthering his passion for the six-stringed instrument. Staying with his older brother and sister in Los Angeles, he met Johnny Otis who took him under his wing - but soon he found himself leading a band called The Heartbeats (nothing to do with Nick Berry). It was in the Heartbeats that he had a brief appearance in a small film of the time called Rock, Pretty Baby. Unfortunately, the agent of the band, Bill Orwig, left the band stranded and Roy had to move on.
Roy took a job playing guitar for Oklahoma Bandstand in Tulsa - but when Dale Hawkins came into town, Roy joined his band and enjoyed three years' touring with him. It was with Dale that Roy made his first record appearance playing the solo on Hawkins's 'My Babe.'
He switched from Dale's to Ronnie Hawkins's (Hawkins was Dale's cousin) band and moved to Canada. During this period Roy taught guitar to the bass player, Robbie Robertson. Robertson and other members of Ronnie Hawkins's band The Hawks later became known as The Band. Later, however, in 1961, 'the Hawk' arranged a 'showdown' between the two guitarists. Here, Arkansan Levon Helm continues the narrative: 'Robbie had actually learned a lot from Roy, whose technical accomplishments as a blues guitarist were without peer back then. Once I asked him where he learned to play so good and he said in all seriousness he was half wolf.'
Later that year, in the summer of 1961, Roy married Judy Owens and the couple settled down in Washington. Roy played local gigs whenever and wherever he could find them, but it wasn't paying enough so he enrolled at barber college. However, by 1970 he was back on the club scene. He started his own band, Buch and The Snake Stretchers, in which he made his debut as frontman, and they started to build up an underground following. With this band he did a gig with singer Danny Denver at the Crossroads bar (odd how crossroads keep on appearing in blues history). It was during this gig that Roy Buchanan was be 'discovered' by the media.
I Hear You Knockin'
Articles in the Washington Star, then the Washington Post (written by Tom Zito) led to a Rolling Stone reprint of the Post article. John Adams, a producer for WNET in New York, saw the article in Rolling Stone, and, after confirming that Roy was the real thing, he arranged to make a documentary about him. It was called The Best Unknown Guitarist in the World, and he was said to have been among those considered to join the Rolling Stones when Brian Jones left (he claimed to have turned them down). Adams arranged to have Roy play with musicians who had influenced him - this included a set with Merle Haggard and his Strangers (featuring Roy Nichols on Telecaster, as well as with Johnny Otis (with Margie Evans singing) and jazzman Mundell Lowe. The resulting film - interspersed with a live broadcast of rocker Nils Lofgren from WNET' New York studio - was broadcast on 8 November, 1971, and got rave reviews.
The show won Roy a contract with Polydor (then a fledgling company) and began a decade of national and international touring. He was assigned to agent Charlie Daniels. However despite the fact Roy worked on and off on the album (The Prophet) for several months it wasn't released. The way Charlie remembers it, a critic from Baltimore heard the tapes and said it was rubbish. Between the time The Prophet was recorded and the time it was released, Roy had sold out Carnegie Hall (he was probably the only act without a record on the market to do so).
In the years that followed he recorded Buch and the Snakestretchers, Roy Buchanan, and Second Album. Buch and the Snakestretchers was Roy's first ever release, recorded live in 1971 at the Crossroads, where his was the house band. Roy wanted to capture what he was doing nightly and this result, recorded on two-track quarter-inch reel to reel, is really a snapshot of that moment.
The first album to appear on Polydor (named simply Roy Buchanan) was recorded in July, 1972 and released in the September. It sold 200,000 copies. Roy cut five albums for Polydor overall (one went gold) and three for Atlantic (one gold), while playing virtually every major rock concert hall and festival. The major labels gave him fame and fortune, but no artistic freedom. 'They kept trying to make me into some sort of pop star.' Finally, disgusted with the over-production forced on his music, Roy quit recording in 1981, vowing never to enter a studio again unless he could record his own music his own way.
Four years later, Roy was coaxed back into the studio by Alligator. His first album for Alligator, When A Guitar Plays The Blues, was released in the spring of 1985. It was the first time Buchanan was given total artistic freedom in the studio, on what was also his first true blues album. Fans quickly responded, and the album entered Billboard's pop charts with a bullet, remaining on the charts for 13 weeks. Music critics, as well as fans, applauded Roy's efforts with accolades and plenty of four-star reviews. He enjoyed his time with Alligator and released another two albums.
Fate was to deal him a cruel blow though. On the night of 14 August, 1988, Roy was arrested for public intoxication (drunk and disorderly) and taken to the Fairfax County Virginia Adult Detention Center. Official accounts say that Roy hanged himself in his cell by his shirt. He was the father of seven children and had five grandchildren. Some of his family and friends believe that the official account doesn't tell the whole story. Roy seemed to be very happy with Alligator Records and his home life. Also, Roy had seemed at pains over the remaining years that he was free of an alcohol and drug problem that had previously plagued him. Jerry Hentman was a man in the cell opposite and his report of the events has been published on the web.
Roy developed an impressive unique style. He had a clear trebly tone, which could be either hypnotic, or cut through with urgency. He pioneered techniques like pinched harmonics, overtones, feedback, and in particular use of the volume/tone controls. With the volume control he could make a note come out of silence and increase to a crescendo - without any sound of the pick. It was this, in conjunction with the tone control, that made him popularise use of the wah wah pedal. However, he wasn't just a pretty-sounding single note player. He was also capable of stringing together a fast finger picking technique, that made his hand seem like a blur. Despite these obvious abilities Roy always said he felt one note in the right place could be more important than several put in for the sake of it.
People he impressed, or inspired include Steve Vai, Gary Moore, Jerry Garcia, Les Paul, Billy Gibbons, Jeff Beck (which explains why he has sometimes been coined as The Guitarist's Guitarist's Guitarist) John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, Kim Simmonds, Merle Haggard, Nils Lofgren, Danny Gatton, Charlie Byrd, Barney Kessell, Mundell Lowe and of course Robbie Robertson.
Roy Buchanan builds whirlwind solos with brilliant technique and flat-out blues feeling. A master technician and simply one heckuva guitarist.
- Guitar Player
A master of his instrument.
- Guitar Magazine
I believe Roy Buchanan to be the best blues guitarist ever. No one before or since has been able to capture emotion in the same way. Neither has anyone been able to play the guitar with such finesse as if it was surgically attached to them from birth, in the context of blues or soul. Do yourself a favour, if you haven't heard any Roy go out now and buy one of his records. Your ears will thank you (well not literally that would be silly).
- Guitar World
- Buch and The Snake Stretchers - 1971
- Roy Buchanan - 1972
- Second album - 18 January, 1973
- That's What I Am Here For - 1973
- Rescue Me - 1974
- In the Beginning - 1974
- Live Stock - 1974
- A Street Called Straight - 1976
- Loading Zone - 1977 (featuring Steve Cropper)
- You're ot Alone - 1978
- My Babe - 1981
- When a Guitar Plays the Blues - July, 1985
- Live in USA and Holland 1977-85
- Live in Japan - 1977
- Live - Charly Blues Legend Volume Nine - 1985-87
- Dancing on the Edge - 1986
- Hot wires - 7 July, 1987
- Early Years - October, 1989
- In the beginning - 24 May, 1991
- Guitar on fire - The Atlantic sessions - 1993
- Roy Buchanan - Sweet dreams - The Anthology - 22 September, 1992
- Malaguena (The Collectors Edition) - 1997
- Deluxe Edition - 2001
- The Millennium Collection - 2002
- American Axe: Live in 1974 - 2003