David Randall reflects on a patchy early recording career, with Telecaster Titan Roy Buchanan only realising his full potential three years before his untimely death…
The story of Roy Buchanan is one of a great unsung hero, a feeling of real sadness, and unachieved goals.
Whether Buchanan actually had any career goals is a moot point. He carved out his early career sessioning for some of the early sixties rockabilly acts. His time with Polydor in the late sixties/seventies pigeon-holed him as a country blues player and his early albums were patchy, it was only the later works that unleashed his true potential.
Loading Zone (1977) in particular (with collaborators Ray Gomez and Steve Cropper) is outstanding with a wonderful rendition of ‘Green Onions’ – Buchanan trading fiery licks with the M.G’s guitarist. This might be seen as something of a career kickstarter for Buchanan with producer Stanley Clarke more sensitive to his musical talent and needs.
The follow-up You’re Not Alone (1978) was, however, disappointing and suffered from generally lack-lustre material (save perhaps for a version of Joe Walsh’s ‘Turn To Stone’), he was dropped by Polydor and it wasn’t until Alligator Records boss Bruce Iglauer approached him in 1985 that he started to regain his musical mojo. An interim album My Babe was released in 1980 (reissued by Angel Air in 2018 with an interview) but instantly forgettable and redolent of long nights on the US chitlin’ circuit.
There followed a superb series of albums including the Grammy-award winning When A Guitar Plays The Blues in 1985. He also teamed up with vocalist Delbert McClinton and members of Kinsey Report for the subsequent albums Dancing On the Edge (1986) and Hot Wires (1987). These were the first albums where Buchanan had total creative control.
Long admired by his peers, notably Jeff Beck (they exchanged musical compliments on their respective albums in 1975-6) and the late Danny Gatten, and subject to legendary stories about job offers with the Stones, Buchanan was a quiet but complex character who had to wait until the mid-1980s to realise his true vocation.
Sadly, on 14 August 1988, Buchanan was found hung in his police cell after his arrest for disorderly behaviour. Conspiracy theories abound, but the bottom line is that we lost one of the true great guitar innovators, a master of controlled feedback and harmonics. Buchanan’s playing was often intense, almost revealing a battling will within – a ‘screaming inside’ as he called it – but could also be delicate and understated.
Buchanan’s discography splits into the early session work, through the Polydor/Atlantic years to the Alligator revival. The Sweet Dreams anthology is a great starting point for those wishing to explore the Polydor/Atlantic years whilst the previously unreleased debut Polydor album The Prophet was made available via Hip-0-select in 2004.
Live In Japan (Polydor, 1978) is one of the better sounding live albums (recorded in 1977) and ‘Live From Austin TX’ (New West Records, 2012) is a good value CD/DVD package recorded in November 1976.
‘Live At Rockpalast’ (MIG Music, 2011) recorded in February 1985 deserves a mention because it is one of the few live albums from the later period of Buchanan’s career although sadly not fully reflecting his improved output for Alligator Records and still heavily reliant on an earlier setlist.
Sweet Dreams – The Anthology (Polydor 517086, 2-CD 1992)
Loading Zone (Polydor, 1977) Available as a 2CD with You Are Not Alone, BGO 2017)
When A Guitar Plays The Blues (Alligator 4741, 1985)
Phil Carson, Roy Buchanan – American Axe (Backbeat Books, 2001)
In these interview extracts originally recorded for Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Stanley Clarke chats about producing Roy Buchanan in 1977 and Steve Cropper recalls his session work on ‘Loading Zone’ arguably the strongest album of the Polydor/Atlantic years. Recorded in 2014 and 2017. (5:18)
© 2005-2020 David Randall/GRTR! All rights reserved.
David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 BST (GMT+1, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 26 July.. In the first hour David pays tribute to the blues/rock guitarist Peter Green.
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