Roy Buchanan - Biography

By J Poet

Roy Buchanan made scarcely more than a dozen albums under his own name during his tragically short career, but his techniques on the Telecaster – volume swells, note bending, sharp lightening fast single note runs and the use of pitch harmonics a technique he invented by muting a string after playing a note to bring out the lower overtones – influenced many of the great ‘60s guitarists including Jeff Beck, Robbie Robertson and Billy Gibbons of Z.Z. Top. He spent years playing lead guitar with Dale Hawkins and Ronnie Hawkins before striking out on his own. He had two gold albums Roy Buchanan’s Second Album (1973 Polydor) and You’re Not Alone (1978 Atlantic) during his career, but a self-destructive streak and dissatisfaction with the business side of the music business kept him for the star status of other less talented musicians. He was found dead in a jail cell under what some call mysterious circumstances after he was busted for being drunk in public in 1988.


Buchanan had one of the most unique electric guitar styles in American music, and while he was worshiped by other guitar players, he seemed to enjoy his status as The Best Unknown Guitarist In The World, which became the title of the 1971 PBS documentary that helped him break into the mainstream. Buchanan was born in Arkansas in 1938, but grew up in a small California town with his father who was a farmer and preacher. The family attended an integrated church, rare in those days, and Buchanan feel under the spell of black church music. When he was seven his family got him steel guitar lessons, since they were country music fans, but the second Buchanan got his first Telecaster it was all over.


He ran away from home at 15 and met Johnny Otis, who introduced him to the music of Jimmy Nolen (James Brown), Pete Lewis, and Johnny “Guitar” Watson. At 17 he had his own band, The Heartbeats, and toured the country. In 1956, Dale Hawkins hired Buchanan for lead guitar duties. He stayed withy the band for three years and made his recording debut playing lead on Hawkins’ “My Babe” for Chess. In 1959 he moved to Canada to become lead guitar for Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks (AKA The Band.) He taught the Hawks’ bass man, Robbie Robertson, how to play guitar and when he left the band Robertson took over lead guitar duties.


In the 60s Buchanan made his living as a sideman in touring bands and recording sessions with early rockers like Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon and country singers like Merle Kilgore. In 1971 he was living in Washington DC, already a legend among fellow guitarists. He had a band called The Snakestretchers and after being turned down my every major label, put out two albums on his own BIOYA label Buch & The Snakestretchers (1971) and Roy Buchanan & The Snakestretchers (1972.) The label initials contained his message to the music business – Blow It Out Your Ass. Around the same time he was allegedly offered the lead guitar chair in the Rolling Stones, but turned it down. Later that year a PBS crew filmed a biopic on Buchanan: The Best Unknown Guitarist In The World. This exposure finally led to a major label contract with Polydor where he cut five albums Roy Buchanan (1972 Polydor), an underproduced masterpiece with his Snakestretchers, Roy Buchanan: Second Album (1973 Polydor) which went gold, That's What I Am Here For (1974 Polydor) with his epic version of “Hey Joe,” In the Beginning, (1974 Polydor), and Live Stock (1975 Polydor) a live Town Hall gig.


Buchanan had achieved fame and fortune, but was annoyed by the label’s attempts to get him to play a more mainstream, less bluesy brand of R&B. He made three albums for Atlantic Street Called Straight (1976), Loading Zone (1977) and the gold You’re Not Alone (1978) before he quit the label, vowing to never make another record. In 1984 Alligator Records promised him total artistic freedom and he cut on of his best albums When a Guitar Plays the Blues (1985 Alligator) a collection of hard core blues jams. Despite being on an indie label it cracked the pop charts for 13 weeks and earned rave reviews from the critics. Dancing on the Edge (1986 Alligator) featured Delbert McClinton, another maverick on vocals and won CMJ’s Best Blues Album of the Year award. Hot Wires (1987 Alligator) was released just a few months before he died in 1988.


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