The essence of genius

By Tom MacIntosh

Roy (Leroy) Buchanan was born on September 23, 1939 in the Ozarks, Arkansas, son to his father Bill, a farmer, and mother Minnie, a housewife. When he was 2 the family moved to Pixley California, by the age of 5 he picked up his very first guitar, and for his 9th birthday his parents got him a red Rickenbacker lapsteel and sent him to classes for 3 years. His teacher was Mrs. Clara Presher, and after all those classes she discovered that the boy couldn’t read music, it had been all by ear. It broke her heart, so she told him, “Roy, if you don’t play with feeling, don’t play it.” 

He would listen to other steel guitar players on the radio such as Jerry Byrd, who made the steel integral to country music. In Bakersfield, they had another country sound of Telecaster players like Buck Owens and Roy Nichols. Roy absorbed it all and could play anything he heard on the radio note for note. When he was 12 he joined his first band, The Waw Keen Valley Boys, and brought the house down night after night. Then in high school he formed his own group, The Dusty Valley Boys with his friends Bobby Jobe and Darrell Jackson. Before too long he and Jobe would score professional work at the honky tonks under bandleader Custer Bottoms. By now Roy’s interest in music had grown bigger than his interest in school, so he left home at 15, to go live with his older sister and brother. He took a Martin acoustic and a hollow body Gibson electric. His natural talents soon blossomed to where he could make an electric sound like a steel, bending strings, with incredible results. The first new sounds of rock and roll through R&B became the hottest thing with Elvis Presley’s Mystery Train, and young Roy wanted all of that. 

He got his first break while working as a staff guitarist on ‘Oklahoma Bandstand’ in Tulsa. One night ‘the human tornadoDale Hawkins made an appearance with his hit Susie Q (recorded with James Burton) and they hit it off immediately. It was the beginning of Roy’s rock and roll odyssey. In 1958 he and Hawkins recorded My Babe by Willie Dixon at Chess Records. It was Roy’s first commercial recording. They hit the road for two years, where he honed his gift that raised eyebrows wherever they played. He also learned how to drink, fight, and sleep anywhere with the help of those tiny white pills that were part of a rockers self-help kit in those days.
Over the next few years Roy was playing in a number of bands with renowned bassist Joe Osborn, and they toured the country with the likes of Jerry Hawkins and Bob Luman. In 1960 Buchanan cut 2 takes of the classic After Hours (aka the ’black national anthem’), one was with an unhurried touch, and the second was raw and frantic.This established his bonafides as one of the most adroit guitarists of his time. He was just 21.There were other remarkable white blues guitarists around like, Link Wray or Travis Womack, but none could match his dexterous talents. Then he went from his Gibson to a 1953 Fender Telecaster ‘Nancy’, and things got livelier. He could squeeze out the sweetest blues or make it cry for the country numbers. And he came up with his signature ‘pinch’ harmonic, also known as ‘squelch picking’ which can be heard on Potato Peeler (1962). A technique to get artificial harmonies from the instrument when the picking hand slightly catches the string after it is picked, leaving one of the harmonies dominate the sound.  

He is also given overdue credit for inventing the wah wah sound by bending the note with the left hand while the right manipulates the volume knob. He did it his way, and that was that.

In 1961 he toured with Dale up in Canada where he met Dale’s cousin Ronnie Hawkins who lived in Toronto. Ronnie was the king of Yonge Street, the entertainment centre of town, and before long he’d talked Roy into hooking up with his outfit Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks. This is when he meets a younger Robbie Robertson and schools him on all his tricks. When Robbie asked him how he knew all those licks, Roy quipped, “I’m half wolf”. Ironically he plays bass on the band’s hit Who Do You Love. He soon returned to the U.S, and the rest of the Hawks went on to become the legendary The Band.   

In the late 60s when he had a growing family to feed, and was messed up with “the dope thing”, feeling depressed and alone, he briefly left the music world and trained as a barber; to clean himself up. However ‘the calling’ was too great, and a year later he joined the Danny Denver Band, which were a hot item in Washington D.C..He got a name for his eclectic style, his soulful improvisations, and a commitment to his sound. He was so intimidating; even Jimi Hendrix refused a ‘pick-off’ with him. When Roy went to see the Jimi Hendrix Experience in Washington, he was miffed over how ‘his’ sounds, which he had so painstakingly worked out on his Telecaster through a Fender Vibrolux amp, were now done with pedals. Yet he was, like everyone, very impressed by Hendrix, to the point of covering some of his materials in sessions and onstage, like Hey Joe, and If 6 Was 9.

Things took a turn for the better in 1971 when the PBS documentary Introducing Roy Buchanan was released. This scored him a contract with Polydor Records and recognition from folks like John Lennon, Merle Haggard, and a supposed invite to play for the Stones, which earned him the moniker “The man who turned the Stones down”. He cut 5 albums with the label, one of which, Second Album (that features After Hours) went gold. He earned another gold album, Loading Zone, produced by famed bassist Stanley Clarke, with Atlantic Records. His following record was You’re Not Alone, which sold well, but the label wasn’t pleased with the quality. Roy became more and more detached from his former self, and the company was aching to find new material. He was frustrated with the recording sessions and admits he was to blame. 

In 1981, he stopped recording altogether; disgruntled and chased by inner demons, not to mention the forbidden fruit... But you can’t hold a good man down, and he was lured back to the studio by Alligator Records. His first record was When A Guitar Plays the Blues, on which he had total artistic freedom. He would release his second album, Dancing on the Edge, where he would replace the Telecaster for a goldtop Gibson Les Paul. In the end, he recorded 12 albums, Hot Wires was his last in 1987. 

The PBS piece mentioned before is sometimes referred to as ‘The World’s Greatest Unknown Guitarist’. In spite of his abundant talent, creativity and skill, he was a man uninterested in the spotlight, “the reason I didn’t make it big was because I didn’t care whether I made it big or not. All I wanted to do was play the guitar for myself, I didn’t really care about anybody else”. But they cared about him with effusive praise and admiration from within the blues/rock community, from Jeff Beck, to Jerry Garcia, who envied those “amazing chops”, and even jazzmen, like Les Paul, Charlie Byrd and Mundell Lowe, who aren’t the biggest rock/blues enthusiasts, confessed admiration for his talents. 

The death of Roy Buchanan on August 14,1988, came as both a shock and a mystery to the world. He was found hanging by the neck in a jail cell in Fairfax, Virginia. The coroner’s report states it was a suicide, but others sources claim he was beaten by the police in a drunken stand-off. It was tragic. Here was a man whose mastery of his instrument, to the point where he could change styles, from country to blues, to bluegrass, and flamenco in a series of riffs, (something that still amazes, and it all made sense), was gone. This unstoppable genius stopped...but his essence remains. 

Roy Buchanan left a deep footprint on blues/rock history. His story is one small step for music, and a giant leap for guitarists ever after.