Roy Buchanan was one of America's most soulful masters of the electric guitar. Even posthumously, he commands the ardent respect of his fellow guitarists and a devoted army of fans. The Buchanan sound is totally unique: heartbreaking, searing solos, trademark shimmering tone, and a mixture of snarls, wails and squeals that mark him as a wizard of the instrument. He was a pioneer in the use of controlled harmonics, and although this technique has been used by rock's greatest guitarists, especially Jeff Beck, Robbie Robertson and Z.Z. Top's Billy Gibbons, all acknowledge Buchanan as the master.
Roy Buchanan's musical career began in the tiny town of Pixley, California. His father was a farmer and Pentecostal preacher and Roy's first musical memories were of racially-mixed revival meetings his family would attend. "Gospel," he recalls, "that's how I first got into black music". Late night R & B radio shows also helped whet his appetite for blues-based music. But the music played by the folks in Pixley was country, so when the 7 year-old Roy first expressed interest in the guitar, his parents sent him to the local steel guitar teacher, Mrs. Pressure. Within weeks, he was picking out the Hit Parade favorites on steel guitar, spurred on by his teacher who, Roy remembers, would cry every time I made a mistake".
In 1953, at the age of 13, Roy bought his first Fender Telecaster (for $120!). "I liked the tone...it sounded a lot like steel guitar". Drawn to the blossoming R & B scene in Los Angeles, Roy ran away from home at 15 and headed for the big city. He fell under the wing of famed bandleader, producer, writer, arranger, impresario (and later on, Alligator recording artist) Johnny Otis. The young Roy studied the blues mastery of other great guitarists: "Jimmy Nolen (later with James Brown), Pete Lewis, Johnny'Guitar'Watson -- those cats won't ever be beat."
By 1955, Roy was leading his own rock 'n' roll band, The Heartbeats, and over the next few years he worked his way east, finally hooking up with rockabilly legend Dale Hawkins (of "Suzy Q" fame). "I met Dale in Oklahoma City on a TV show and I ended up playing on the road with him for three years." In 1957, Roy made his recording debut, playing the solo on Hawkins' "My Babe" for Chicago' s Chess Records.
Three years later, Roy switched from one Hawkins to another -- he headed north to Canada, where he took charge of the guitar role in Ronnie Hawkins' band (a group later to gain fame as The Band). The group's bass player studied guitar under Roy, and took over the lead guitar spot when Roy split -- Robbie Robertson.
The early 60's found Roy performing countless gigs as a sideman with nameless rock bands, and cutting a number of sessions as guitarist with musicians as diverse as pop idol Freddie Cannon and country star Merle Kilgore. His groundbreaking 1962 cut with drummer Bobby Gregg, "Potato Peeler', first introduced the trademark Buchanan harmonics. In the mid-'60's, exhausted by life on the road, Roy settled down in the Washington, D.C. area, playing as a sideman before starting his own group, The Snakestretchers.
In 1971, already riding on word-of-mouth reputation that included accolades from John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Merle Haggard, and an invitation to join the Rolling Stones, Roy "broke" nationally as the result of an hour-long Public Television documentary. Entitled "The Best Unknown Guitarist In The World", the show won Roy a contract with Polydor and began a decade of national and international touring. He cut five albums for Polydor (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 he was given total artistic freedom in the studio; it was also his first true blues album. Fans quickly responded, and the album entered Billboard's pop charts with a bullet and remained on the charts for 13 weeks. Music critics, as well as fans, applauded Roy's efforts with accolades and plenty of four star reviews.
His second Alligator LP, DANCING ON THE EDGE, was released in the fall of 1986. The album, featuring a generous dose of Roy's trademark guitar pyrotechnics and three cuts with special guest, rock 'n' soul vocalist Delbert McClinton, won the College Media Journal Award for Best Blues Album of 1986. Audio Magazine gave Roy an "A" for DANCING ON THE EDGE, saying "Buchanan plugs his guitar straight into your frontal lobes. His playing is alive with emotion and boasts a full, wild sound that consistently threatens to go over the edge. This is definitely a disc that will get your party started."
"Since coming to Alligator, I'm finally making the records that I've always wanted to make," Roy said of these years. He released the twelfth LP of his career and his third for Alligator, HOT WIRES, in 1987. In addition to Donald Kinsey (formerly with AIbert King and Bob Marley), keyboardist Stan Szelest, and seasoned studio greats Larry Exum (bass) and Morris Jennings (drums), this classic album includes guest vocals by veteran soul singer Johnny Sayles and one of Chicago's outstanding female blues belters, Kanika Kress.
Roy's musical career took him from underground club gigs in the sixties and seventies to national television, gold record sales and worldwide tours in the eighties with the likes of Lonnie Mack, the Allman Brothers and many other blues/rock guitar icons. Buchanan died in Virginia in 1988. He was 48 years old.