By: Greg Johnson
Sometimes it's funny how death can bring up images of enjoyable memories. Ten years ago, (in 1988) I was planning a trip to visit my sister, then living in Norfolk, Virginia, with a side trip planned for Washington, DC. While making our final preparations, I heard the news of the death of guitar player Roy Buchanan, at age 48. After being arrested in his hometown of Reston, Virginia, for public drunkeness, Buchanan was found in his cell hung with his own shirt; a fact that still raises question to this day. I found myself reaching for a Roy Buchanan recording the other day and instantly these memories returned. After listening for several moments, it suddenly came to my realization: it actually has been 10 years, almost to the day, that this unfortunate event transpired.
Buchanan had been playing professionally for well over a decade when he first decided to become a solo performer. At first he received unheard of accolades for any musician, let alone an artist who had only appeared as a backing musician for the cousins Ronnie and Dale Hawkins. A television story claimed him as "the best unknown guitarist in the world" and Rolling Stone Magazine heralded him as "one of the three greatest living guitarists." Tough credentials for anybody to live up to. But Buchanan could play in almost any style he aspired: Rock, Country, Gospel, Hillbilly or Blues. He was also a remarkably influential player, giving inspiration to future guitar wizards Robbie Robertson and Danny Gatton, among others. Word of his talent was widespread, as notables such as Les Paul and John Lennon sought to hear him play. It was also said that The Rolling Stones offered Buchanan a position in their band to replace Brian Jones in 1969.
Buchanan's luck seemed to give out right from the start. His debut recording, with guitarist/vocalist Charlie Daniels playing alongside, was panned by the critics upon hearing pre-release samples. Citing that the band moved too much between styles, the album was shelved and remains unreleased to this day. Buchanan's career seemed to see-saw throughout the 1970s. Though never a great singer, he was unquestionably touted for his guitar technique. He eventually called it quits towards the end of the decade, but was convinced to give it another go by Bruce Iglauer and the folks at Alligator Records four years later. Alligator worked around his vocal inability by teaming him with artists such as Delbert McClinton and Otis Clay. Still, his fate seemed unchanged and drug and alcohol problems, compounded with his seeming rejection by the critics, ultimately lead to that momentous arrest on that mid-August night in 1988. Speculation arose questioning why Buchanan would kill himself, but was quickly answered, when reviewing his life overall.
Buchanan left the world with a large selection of wonderful music. His guitar work does not seem aged a bit a decade later, and still can stand beside both today's Blues and Rock guitarists. Nice cover tunes of "Down By The River", "Turn To Stone" and "Green Onions" are brilliant displays of Buchanan's tasteful technique, as are originals like "The Messiah Will Come Again" and "Five String Blues". All of these are available on the wonderful two-CD release from Polygram entitled, "Sweet Dreams: The Anthology", as are four selections from the unreleased debut recording, "The Prophet". On Alligator, "Dancing on the Edge" with Delbert McClinton is exceptional, especially on the song "The Choking Kind". And, for those wishing for a glimpse of the guitarist on film, "Further On Down The Road'', with Albert Collins and Lonnie Mack, is a first-rate concert performance of the three masters live at Carnegie Hall, individually and together.
It is still hard to fathom that 10 years have passed since Buchanan's untimely demise. My memories will always bring up Washington, with his music providing the soundtrack in my mind. This is an artist whose career should not go overlooked. Masterful, precise, innovative and 10 years later he still sounds fresh and invigorating. Roy Buchanan deserves to be remembered; it is now time to truly appreciate the talent so often neglected during his lifetime.
© 1998 Cascade Blues Association