Roy Buchanan’s death seemed an almost cliche one for a blues man — the official story was that he hung himself in a Virginia jail cell after being arrested for public intoxication.
The account was disputed by his family, who suspected foul play.
But it was nonetheless a tragedy, because what was never in dispute was Buchanan’s ability and influence as a real-life blues guitar legend, once prompting famed guitarist Jeff Beck to dedicate a song to him.
And long before his death in 1988, Buchanan had earned the respect and awe of both his fans and his peers for one simple reason: He was one of the greatest electric blues guitar players to ever come along.
(photo courtesy of Powerhouse Records)
The ultimate tragedy of Buchanan’s life is that he never received the wider public acclaim he had long ago won from others in the music world. Rolling Stone magazine put him firmly on the list of the top 100 guitar players of all time, and Beck dedicated the song “‘Cause We Ended As Lovers,” a Stevie Wonder tune, to Buchanan on Beck’s 1975 classic, Blow by Blow.
Born in Arkansas, Buchanan relocated as a youngster to rural California, where his father was a sharecropper. He mastered the guitar at a young age and, by the late 1950s, was recording and touring.
While playing for his cousin, Ronnie Hawkins, Buchanan even tutored a young guitar player named Robbie Robertson, who later rose to fame with The Band.
Building a name for himself, Buchanan drew more attention in 1971 when he was featured in an hour-long documentary titled “The Best Unknown Guitar Player in the World” — a title that stuck with him.
The documentary led to a record contract with Polydor, and his first release for the label was Second Album. He went on to record a total of five albums with the label, but retired from recording in 1981, frustrated with his lack of control over his music.
He ultimately did return to the studio with Alligator Records, and released When a Guitar Plays the Blues, which remained on the Billboard charts for 13 weeks. In all, he released a dozen albums before his death, the last in 1987 — although other recordings were released posthumously.
By then, Buchanan had long struggled with an alcohol addiction, which culminated with his controversial death in August, 1988, inside the Fairfax County Jail in Virginia.
What didn’t die with him was his legacy — and the well founded respect of other blues guitar greats.
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(NOTE: This is part of my ongoing series of reports on guitar players who fly under the mainstream radar. Keep checking The Listening Room for future installments of guitar players you should know – JF)
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