August 14, 1988 – Leroy “Roy” Buchanan was born on September 23rd 1939 in Ozark, Arkansas and was raised there and in Pixley, California, a farming area near Bakersfield. His father was a sharecropper in Arkansas and a farm laborer in California.
His first musical memories were of racially mixed revival meetings he attended with his mother Minnie. “Gospel,” he recalled, “that’s how I first got into black music.” He in fact drew upon many disparate influences while learning to play his instrument (though he later claimed his aptitude derived from being “half-wolf”). He initially showed talent on steel guitar before switching to guitar in the early 50s, and started his professional career at age 15, in Johnny Otis’s rhythm and blues revue.
In 1958, Buchanan made his recording debut with Dale Hawkins, including playing the solo on “My Babe” for Chicago’s Chess Records. Two years later, during a tour through Toronto, Buchanan left Dale Hawkins to play for his cousin Ronnie Hawkins and tutor Ronnie’s guitar player, Robbie Robertson. Buchanan plays bass on the Ronnie Hawkins single, “Who Do You Love?”. Buchanan soon returned to the U.S. and Ronnie Hawkins’ group later gained fame as The Band.
By the dawn of the ’60s, Buchanan had relocated once more, this time to Canada, where he signed on with rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. The bass player of Ronnie Hawkins’ backing band, the Hawks, studied guitar with Buchanan during his tenure with the band. Upon Buchanan’s exit, the bassist-turned-guitarist would become the leader of the group, which would eventually become popular roots rockers the Band: Robbie Robertson.
In 1961 he released “Mule Train Stomp”, his first single for Swan, featuring rich guitar tones. Buchanan’s 1962 recording with drummer Bobby Gregg, nicknamed “Potato Peeler,” first introduced the trademark Buchanan “pinch” harmonic. An effort to cash in on the British Invasion caught Buchanan with the British Walkers. 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, country artist Merle Kilgore, and drummer Bobby Gregg, among others, before Buchanan settled down in the Washington, D.C., area in the mid- to late ’60s and founded his own outfit, the Snakestretchers. Despite not having appeared on any recordings of his own, word of Buchanan’s exceptional playing skills began to spread among musicians as he received accolades from the likes of John Lennon, Eric Clapton, and Merle Haggard, as well as supposedly being invited to join the Rolling Stones at one point (which he turned down).In the mid-1960s, Buchanan settled down in the Washington, D.C. area, playing for Danny Denver’s band for many years while acquiring a reputation as “...one of the very finest rock guitarists around”.
Reputedly Jimi Hendrix would not take up the challenge of a ‘pick-off’ with Roy. The facts behind that claim are that in March 1968 a photographer friend, John Gossage gave Buchanan tickets to a concert by the Jimi Hendrix Experience at the Washington Hilton. Buchanan reportedly was dismayed to find his own trademark sounds, like the wah-wah that he’d painstakingly produced with his hands and his Telecaster, was created by electronic pedals. He could never attempt Hendrix’s stage show, and this realization refocused him on his own quintessentially American roots-style guitar picking.
Gossage recalls how Roy was very impressed by the Hendrix 1967 debut album Are You Experienced?, which was why he made sure to give Roy a ticket to the early show at the Hilton. Gossage went backstage to take photos and tried to convince Jimi to go and see Roy at the Silver Dollar that night after the show, but Jimi seemed more interested in hanging out with the young lady who was backstage with him. Gossage confirms Hendrix never showed up at the Silver Dollar, but he did talk to Roy about seeing the Hilton show. That same night at the Silver Dollar, Roy did several Hendrix numbers and “from that point on, had nothing but good things to say about Hendrix”. He later released recordings of the Hendrix composition “If 6 Was 9” and the Hendrix hit “Hey Joe” (written by Billy Roberts).
At the end of the 1960s, with a growing family, Buchanan left the professional music industry for a while to learn a trade and trained as a hairdresser. In the early ’70s, Roy Buchanan performed extensively in the Washington D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area with the Danny Denver Band, which had a large following in the area. He became widely appreciated as a solo act in the DC area at this time.
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 and praise from John Lennon and Merle Haggard, besides an alleged invitation to join the Rolling Stones which he turned down and which gave him the nickname “the man who tumbled the stones down”. In 1977 he appeared on the PBS music program Austin City Limits during Season 2. Buchanan spent the remainder of the decade issuing solo albums, including such guitar classics as his 1972 self-titled debut (which contained one of Buchanan’s best-known tracks, “The Messiah Will Come Again”), 1974’s That’s What I Am Here For, and 1975’s Live Stock, before switching to Atlantic for several releases. But by the ’80s, Buchanan had grown disillusioned by the music business due to the record company’s attempts to mold him into a more mainstream artist, which led to a four-year exile from music between 1981 and 1985.
Buchanan vowed never to enter a studio again unless he could record his own music his own way. Four years later, Alligator Records coaxed Buchanan back into the studio.
His first album for Alligator, When a Guitar Plays the Blues, was released in the spring of 1985. It was the first time he had total artistic freedom in the studio. The album entered Billboard’s pop charts and remained on the charts for 13 weeks. His second Alligator LP, Dancing on the Edge (with vocals on three tracks by Delbert McClinton), was released in the fall of 1986. The album also charted, on the Billboard album chart for 8 weeks. He released the twelfth and last album of his career, Hot Wires, in 1987.
Although playing a number of guitars, he was most often associated with a 1953 Fender Telecaster guitar nicknamed “Nancy”, the one he used to produce his trebly signature tone
But just as his career seemed to be on the upswing once more, tragedy struck on August 14, 1988, when Buchanan was picked up by police in Fairfax, VA, for public intoxication. Shortly after being arrested and placed in a holding cell, a policeman performed a routine check on Buchanan and was shocked to discover that he had hung himself in his cell. Buchanan’s stature as one of blues-rock’s all-time great guitarists grew even greater after his tragic death, resulting in such posthumous collections as Sweet Dreams: The Anthology, Guitar on Fire: The Atlantic Sessions, Deluxe Edition, and 20th Century Masters and the live When a Telecaster Plays the Blues, which appeared in 2009. He was 48 at the time of his death.
Buchanan has influenced many guitarists, including Gary Moore, Danny Gatton, Arlen Roth, and Jeff Beck. Beck dedicated his version of “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” from Blow by Blow to him. His work is said to “stretch the limits of the electric guitar,” and he is praised for “his subtlety of tone and the breadth of his knowledge, from the blackest of blues to moaning R&B and clean, concise, bone-deep rock ‘n’ roll.” Danny Gatton, who was also features as “the World’s Greatest Unknown Guitar Player”, committed suicide in 1994.
In 2004, Guitar Player listed his version of “Sweet Dreams,” from his debut album on Polydor, Roy Buchanan, as having one of the “50 Greatest Tones of All Time.” In the same year, the readers of Guitar Player voted Buchanan #46 in a top 50 readers’ poll. Roy is the subject of Freddy Blohm’s song “King of a Small Room.”