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Leroy (Roy) Buchanan was a guitar innovator whose skill inspired an aptly titled documentary, The Best Unknown Guitarist in the World. For more than thirty years, the guitarist melded blues, country, jazz, and rock music into a unique sound.
Roy Buchanan was born September 23, 1939, in Ozark (Franklin County), the third of four children born to Bill Buchanan and Minnie Bell Reed Buchanan. When he was two, the family moved to Pixley, California, a tiny San Joaquin Valley farming town, where his father was a farm laborer.
At age five, Buchanan learned a few guitar chords. When he was nine, his father bought him a red Rickenbacker lap steel guitar, and, by age twelve, he was playing lap steel with the Wawkeen Valley Boys. He also picked up the standard guitar and learned to play along with songs on the radio.
Buchanan formed a band called the Dusty Valley Boys and began to get professional work in the area’s honkytonks. At sixteen, he left home to pursue a musical career in Los Angeles, California. A Los Angeles–area agent, Bill Orwig, enlisted Buchanan to play in a band called the Heartbeats. The band can be seen in the 1956 period film Rock, Pretty Baby. The band fell apart when Orwig left the members stranded in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Buchanan was playing as staff guitarist on Oklahoma Bandstand, a television show in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when rocker Dale Hawkins hired him. They toured together for three years, and Buchanan’s first appearance on a commercial recording was on Hawkins’s hit “My Babe” in 1958. In 1961, Hawkins’s cousin, Ronnie Hawkins, persuaded Buchanan to join his band.
In the summer of 1961, Buchanan married Judy Owens. They settled in the suburbs of Washington DC and had seven children. Buchanan spent the 1960s playing in the DC area in such bands as the Snakestretchers. In 1969, he reportedly turned down a job with the Rolling Stones, preferring to play in local venues.
In 1970, John Adams, a producer for WNET television in Washington DC, made the documentary The Best Unknown Guitarist in the World about Buchanan. Airing in November 1971, it led to Buchanan’s signing with the Polydor label. In 1972, Buchanan recorded two albums for Polydor: Roy Buchanan and Second Album. Both were critical, if not financial, successes. Through the 1970s, he recorded three more albums for Polydor, then three for Atlantic Records. From 1978 to 1985, he recorded no albums, but then he signed with Alligator Records, a Chicago, Illinois–based blues label, and in 1985 released When a Guitar Plays the Blues, his biggest success. It stayed on the Billboard charts for fifteen weeks and earned him a Grammy nomination for Blues Album of the Year. He recorded two more albums with Alligator, Dancing on the Edge (1986), which won the College Media Journal Award for Best Blues Album of the year, and Hot Wires (1988).
Buchanan’s alcohol and substance abuse became persistent problems. On August 14, 1988, his wife called the police to their Reston, Virginia, home about a domestic disturbance, and he was arrested. He died that night in his jail cell, the cause officially recorded as suicide by hanging. But some still dispute this finding.
The guitar innovator never achieved major commercial success, but he had a great influence on many guitarists, including Jeff Beck, Danny Gatton, and Robbie Robertson. His work has been featured on several posthumous releases, including American Axe: Live in 1974 (Powerhouse Records), 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection (Polydor), Deluxe Edition (Alligator), and Guitar on Fire: The Atlantic Sessions (Atlantic).
For additional information:
Bass, Kelley. “Guitarist Finally to Play in His Native State.” Arkansas Gazette, February 8, 1987, p. 17G.
Carson, Phil. “The Life and Times of Roy Buchanan.” Vintage Guitar Magazine (August 1999). Online at http://www.yee.ch/winter/rbuch_lifetimes.html (accessed February 19, 2013).
Roy Buchanan. http://www.roybuchanan.org/home.html (accessed February 8, 2013).
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Last Updated 1/10/2019
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