Long before he became king of the blues bar bores, Roy Buchanan was actually a great rock’n’roll guitar player. His best recordings unfortunately are spread out over a handful of obscure 45’s on small labels, coast to coast. By the time he’d made a name for himself the fire had pretty much gone out of his playing, and while he was always a great technician, he simply was not a much of a band leader, so his LP’s are dreadfully dull affairs.
Today, however, we will give a listen to those early sides, and these records I believe more than justify his reputation as one of the all time greats.
Buchanan was born in Ozark, Arkansas, September 23, 1939, and raised in Pixley, California which is in the Central Valley, south of Fresno. I think the Joads end up there at the end of Grapes of Wrath. His father was a Pentecostal preacher. Roy Nicholas, the country guitar great, star of the best Maddox Brothers & Rose 4-Star recordings and later Merle Haggard’s band lived ten miles away and was an early influence. Another influence was Jimmy Nolen of the Johnny Otis Show who Buchanan claims to have met at age 15, more likely he saw him on Otis’ TV Show (Buchanan was known for, lets call it, stretching the truth).
He would site Nolen’s Federal recording of After Hours as his favorite record through out his life.
Roy Buchanan left home as a teenager and in 1958 he hooked up with Dale Hawkins’ band in Tulsa, traveling with them to Shreveport, Louisiana, home of the Louisiana Hayride radio show (where Elvis started) and a hotbed of guitar playing talent– James Burton, Scotty Moore, Carl Adams, and dozens of other six string hotshits passed through Shreveport where Dale Hawkins and his brother Jerry were both based, Buchanan cut his some of his earliest sides with the Hawkins brothers.
It’s hard to figure out what order his earliest sides appeared, but in 1958 he may have recorded with Alis Lesley on Era, a moot point since I don’t have that particular record. He does appear on Jerry Hawkins’ rockabilly classic Swing Daddy Swing on Ebb (one of his best solos ever), as well appearing on several Dale Hawkins Checker 45’s, the best, guitar playing-wise being his rendition of My Babe (here’s an alternate take ), I Want To Love You, and Liza Jane. While touring with Dale Hawkins he found time for some session work and can be heard on two excellent rockabilly singles on Imperial from that same year– Al Jones’ Loretta (written by Merle Kilgore who penned Ring Of Fire) and Bobby Jay’s So Lonely, a nice Gene Vincent sounding rocker.
Meanwhile, back at the Hayride, Buchanan, following in James Burton’s footsteps moved from Dale Hawkins’ band to Bob Luman’s outfit, recording with four songs with Luman issued by Warner Brothers in 1959, the most interesting of these discs is My Baby Walks All Over Me.
Rockabilly is all about guitar playing, and especially on the Dale Hawkins sides Buchanan is really in his element. Dale was (and is) a great band leader, and he knew how to get the best of of his guitarists.
With the Hawkins band, young Roy Buchanan was touring constantly. He finally left Dale in Toronto and joined his cousin Ronnie Hawkins’ Hawks briefly around 1960, his only recording with them however was on bass. He soon settled in the greater Washington D.C./Maryland/Virginia area where he would spend the rest of his life. There was plenty of work for a guitar player, mostly in rough biker and cowboy joints (remember this is the time and place where Link Wray & the Rayman ruled the roost), and Buchanan soon made a name for himself as far north as Philadelphia where he started doing session work. It’s these Phili recordings that I’d call Buchanan’s best.
Again, it’s almost impossible to figure out the exact order these discs were released but the first record under his own name was After Hours b/w Whiskers (Bomarc) in 1961. I’ve already blogged about the a-side (see Feb. 6 entry), the b-side (actually a retitled version of Johnny Heartsman’s Johnnie’s House Party) is just as great, capturing Buchanan in top form, take a listen and and ask has a white guy ever bent strings so soulfully?
Later that same year came Mule Train Stomp b/w Pretty Please (Swan). The a-side is an instrumental workout on the old Frankie Laine number Mule Train with Buchanan’s Telecaster riding over a galloping beat and whip cracks, alternating between making his Tele sting at the high end and a rumbling, distorted groove on the low strings, he throws in his best guitar tricks, like using the volume control knob for wah wah effect and overdriving his amp for distortion. Many of the sounds that would become common place by the late 60’s through the use of pedals and boxes, Buchanan was mastering in the early 60’s, but doing it with his hands. He spent years perfecting these signature motifs and they mark his style. Pretty Please is a variation on the Peter Gunn riff which he’d return to at various times over the years, although I think this is his best version. I love the way he bends the strings just before the stops and just lets them ring, he really knew when not to play. As he works his way up the neck with each chorus his playing gets more ominous, more dramatic. He’d never make a better record.
Buchanan would end 1961 on a high note appearing on Cody Brennen and the Temptations (no, not the Motown Temptations) Ruby Baby b/w Am I The One. Buchanan, playing with his amp turned up for maximum distortion is the star of the disc, he just about overpowers the singer with his brutal sound. His solo is simply monstrous, listen to how it ends, did he just slam his guitar into the amp?
The only hit single of Buchanan’s career came in 1962 where he appears on Bobby Gregg and Friends’ The Jam pt.1 b/w The Jam pt. 2 (Cotton). For the record, Buchanan said of drummer Bobby Gregg “He was no friend of mine”. This crazed instrumental workout went top forty pop and R&B and was such a huge hit in the North East they were drawing thousands of fans a night. In typical, anti-social fashion Buchanan walked out on Gregg before a gig with 8,000 kids screaming for the band. The follow up– Potato Peeler b/w Sweet Georgia Brown (Cotton) finds Buchanan chickin’ pickin’ and using the volume knob to great effect. Too bad it fades as he begins his second solo.
The Secrets’ Twin Exhaust b/w Hot Toddy (Swan) came out in ’62 is basically an excuse for Buchanan to wail, which does in top form. Extra points for dumbest drum solo ever recorded. I love the way it seems to modulate into a completely different song halfway through.
The same year he did session work with Swan appearing on Freddie Cannon’s Teen Queen of The Week and Danny and the Juniors’ Doin’ The Continental Walk. I’ve never heard the latter, and Freddie Cannon (who owns his Swan catalog) is against downloading, so I’ll respect his wishes.
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller produced a four song session in ’63 for Bob Moore and the Temps’ which feature Roy’s guitar heavily — Mary Lou b/w The Shuffle (ABC-Paramount) and Trophy Run b/w Braggin’ (Daisy). These are killer sides. Mary Lou is the Young Jessie/Ronnie Hawkins classic and Buchanan is all over it, playing like a maniac. The second single is an instrumental, and it would be Buchanan’s last truly great disc. He’s reach the peak of his style here. Roy claimed Leiber and Stoller recorded other material with him including another version of After Hours, but if they did, none of it was ever issued.
In 1962 Buchanan started playing with a two bit country singer named Danny Denver, appearing on his record Image Of Love on Go Go (later leased to Chancellor), not much of a record, but with Denver, Buchanan would find a steady job that lasted on and off for the next seven years. He’d appear on many of Denver’s self released 45’s and LP’s,although the only good tracks to emerge from this union that I’ve ever heard are this 1966 waxing of Let’s Twist Again, worth hearing only for Buchanan’s out of control solo, and a version of Peter Gunn recorded live with Denver’s band the Soundmasters that same year.
There are a few more spotty recordings from the mid-sixties: the British Walkers’ I Found You on Try was an attempt to sound like the Beatles, he may be playing on on a record by the Hi-Boys on Unicom called They Say, but I’ve never heard it, he also played harmonica on two rare Link Wray singles– Rumble ’68 (Heavy) and Rumble ’69 (Mr. G), but let’s face it, Rumble don’t need no harmonica. Mostly he stepped out of the spotlight, only in his mid-twenties he was already embittered by lack of success, and found a regular gig backing Danny Denver, playing country bars, far from the limelight. With the introduction of wah wah pedals, fuzztones, etc. he felt lost, tricks he’d spent years learning to do were now available for a small price at your local guitar shop. The emergence of Jimi Hendrix in ’67 must have shook him because he told an interviewer later: “when you play at that volume the amps and guitar plays you, I like to use the smallest amp possible, it gives you maximum control”. Roy was feeling the heat, and competing was against his reclusive nature, he would shun the limelight for the rest of his life. Sometimes he appeared with his own band– Roy Buchanan and the Poor Boys but mostly he backed up Danny Denver until a Rolling Stone magazine article in 1969 proclaimed him “the greatest guitar player alive you never heard of” which led a path of rock stars to the crappy clubs Denver was playing to herald Buchanan’s talent. He claims the Rolling Stones asked him to replace Brian Jones but he turned them down because he didn’t want to learn their repertoire. This is most likely bullshit.
Still, players like George Harrison and Jeff Beck sung him praises and soon a PBS documentary brought him to fame’s doorstep, kicking and screaming. He was signed by Polydor and cut a series of boring ass records. He retired and came back several times, the last on Alligator Records in the late 80’s. Unfortunately the fire had gone out. Unlike our previous subject, Charlie Christian, given the freedom to stretch out, Buchanan had become a bore. Under the tight restraints of the three minute 45, and with a strong band leader like Dale Hawkins or producers like Leiber and Stoller, he was great, but as heard on his LP’s, twenty minute solos on standards like Green Onions were duller than dishwater. He became hugely popular in an era that worshipped “chops” and “tasty riffs”, even selling out Carnegie Hall at one point.
His was praised in print by critics and guitar players everywhere, toured the world, had his own signature model guitar marketed by Fender, and was doing quite well despite his inability to make an interesting album.
Each time he reached a commercial peak however, he’d bore audiences to tears and end up back on the Maryland/Virginia/D.C. bar circuit, but even there the competition was nipping at his heals. His friend and student Danny Gatton had become his main competitor, and made records that were much more interesting than Buchanan’s. He was a depressed man in his final years. On August 14, 1988 he was arrested in Fairfax, Virginia for public intoxication, and that night was found hanging in his cell, a suicide according to the police (murdered by the police according to some of his friends).
Sad fuckin’ story, no? But not unique. There’s a million tragic stories in rock’n’roll: Lafayette “The Thing ” Thomas, who made Jimmy McCracklin’s The Walk a hit ended life working as a hose fitter, Pete “Guitar” Lewis of the Johnny Otis Show died a homeless wino, Kenny Paulson, star of Freddie Cannon’s Tallahassee Lassie and Buzz Buzz A Diddle It (and one time Dale Hawkins side man) was almost murdered in prison, and died of an overdose, utterly forgotten, in 1972, and oddly enough, Buchanan’s one time pal and student Danny Gatton, who would commit suicide, shooting himself in his garage, Robert Quine, committed suicide in 2004 had not recorded commercially in four years at the time of his death. Buchanan did better for himself than any of those guys. Hell, he made a living at music, which is more than most musicians do.
In 1989 the U.K. Krazy Kat label released an LP Roy Buchanan: The Early Years, I’m not sure if it ever made it to CD but it had fourteen of the above tracks and is well worth looking for.
As far as his Polydor and Alligator output, I find them unlistenable and recommend them only for students and collectors.