Roy Buchanan-Still Unknown After All These Years

by Lee Gonnella on October 10, 2012

Roy Buchanan…….does that name mean anything to you?  Maybe you’ve heard of him, or saw his name on a list of guitar greats.  Maybe you came across a record or heard something about him…..and maybe you know who he is….or maybe not.  He’s been dead for about 25 years now, and it’s not like he was a household name even when he was alive.  In death, as in life, Roy Buchanan remains an enigma, a rumor shrouded in mystery.  Even in his hometown, Roy was never easy to know….

I was 16 years old, a high-school kid in suburban DC.  I worked a part-time job after school and spent most of my money at Korvettes Department Store, in the record department.   Albums were $3.99, but there were always sales, and an “all-label” sale meant every record in the store was 2.99.  I bought mostly rock, with a mix of folk & blues.  One day we got this new assistant manager at the restaurant where I washed dishes.  A worldly fellow, from Pittsburgh, married, and all of about 20 years old.   He couldn’t believe that we had never heard of Roy Buchanan.   He went on and on, compared him to Hendrix and Jeff Beck The next day, I went across the street to Korvettes and bought Roy’s “That’s What I Am Here For” album, mainly because it had Roy’s version of “Hey Joe” on side 1.  I was blown away.  By the end of the week,  I’d cleaned Korvettes out of Roy’s records, including “Livestock“, considered by most Roy fans to be  his best.   After hearing it, it was I who was in disbelief.  The best guitar player in the world was living in right in my hometown!

Roy Buchanan grew up near Bakersfield and had spent most of the 1950’s and 60’s on the road, a road warrior in every sense, eventually landing in Washington DC.  There he met his beloved wife Judy, and after starting what would grow to be a large family, settled into the Washington music community.  He played all the local haunts and started to build a reputation,  eventually gaining a residency at one of the largest clubs in the area, The Crossroads Tavern, at Peace Cross in Bladensburg. The Crossroads became the place to see Roy live.

Guitar players would come through town….hear about this incredible guitar player, and show up at the Crossroads.  Eric Clapton came and left with Roy’s arrangement of “Further On Up The Road”.  He plays it every night, it’s become his signature song, and as far as I know, doesn’t mention where he heard it.  Jerry Garcia came too, and was so enthusiastic about Roy, a PBS documentary ended up being made by Eliot Tozer and Joshua White…..the title was obvious….”Greatest Unknown Guitarist In The World”.

 

 

Thanks to a gentleman named Casey St, Amand, the documentary can be seen in it’s entirety on youtube, or watch it right here.  This is fantastic news for Roy fans!  This program was very seldom broadcast, and even today VHS copies are rare and sought after.   Most Roy fan’s have seen this or own it, but it’s an interesting starting point for anyone unfamiliar with Roy, as well as those interested in how music documentaries have progressed over the years.

The documentary has been broken up into 3 sections on youtube, and runs about 90 minutes.  The sound gets slightly out of sync starting in the second reel, but it still quite worth watching.

Roy is completely himself in this.  A soft-spoken family man who happens to love playing guitar. His voice itself is like the notes from his Telecaster, calm and soulful.  There aren’t a lot of Roy interviews out there, especially on video,  and the Roy interviews in the first part of the movie are some of the best parts of the show.  Roy doesn’t talk real fast, you can almost see his mind search for the right way to explain himself, but he is articulate,  and when he does make his point, he’s extremely compelling.

The most moving part of the entire program comes early, when Roy and his family return to his boyhood home in Pixley, California.  Roy’s mother, one arm in a cast,  embraces her son and cries the tears of a mother who wasn’t sure she’d ever see her son again.   The emotion is overpowering, there’s no way this was staged.  The single-camera crew was simply waiting with Roy’s parents for the arrival.  Roy talks about growing up there, the beauty of the land, and solitude.  Later,  away from the family, Roy talks about why he needed to leave,  to prove to himself and the world, that this lonely country-boy could play guitar with anyone.  Or by himself, as he does after church on the front porch of his family home, some of the most beautiful playing you’ll ever hear.  “A little jazz, a little country, a little blues…”.

Roy talks about his early days of travelling and playing all over North America, and pays tribute to some of those who influenced him along the way,  Merle Haggard and Roy Nichols in nearby Bakersfield, Johnny Otis, and Mundell Lowe.

Most of the second half of the program is of Roy and his band live on stage, hosted by Bill  “Uncle BoBo” Graham.  Roy plays a number of songs that would remain in his repertoire for his whole career, including “Sweet Dreams”, “Johnny B Goode”,  an early version of “Roy’s Bluz”,  and “Down By The River”.  This is an excellent performance by Roy and his band.  Unintentionally, this also brings the one element of humor we have here,  which is Roy’s tambourine man.  Kind of a cross between Alice Cooper and Arnold Horseshack, the guy rocks the hell out of every song, even the ballads,  all while shaking his shoulder length permed mullet.  You gotta love the 70’s!

As the concert comes to a close, Roy’s then protegé, Nils Lofgren, comes out to join the band for a lengthy jam of “Shotgun”.  15 minutes later you want to shoot Lofgren for being there in the first place.  It’s the only overdone part of the film,  seemingly endless,  even Roy looks bored by the end.  The Tambourine-man takes it all in stride though.  After the concert, it’s back to Pixley, with goodbye hugs and kisses.  As Roy and his family drive away in the station-wagon,  we’re left with the cries of a mother who wonder’s when and if.

Rock-docs have come a long way since 1970.  While this one has some real heart at times, the church scene seems staged and awkward.  Roy certainly never let the truth get in the way of a good story either, but for the most part, this is a pretty straightforward look at Roy on the cusp of making it from “sideman” to “star”.  For Roy fans, it’s a must own, along with the “Rockpalast” and “Live in Austin” DVDs.  For the casual fan or newcomer,  this is a great chance to hear Roy play a variety of genres, but all with his classic “Roy” tone and style.

Without knowing it, the documentary would end up mimicking Roy’s entire career. Part 1 shows Roy playing sideman to  a variety of those who would influence him.  The second part shows Roy as the featured act,  which he would be following the success of the 1970 documentary.  The last part, the jam with Lofgren, represents the all-star jams he became known for at the end of his career.  The other eerie thing about this program, came early on when Roy said “the reason I never got famous is because I never cared about being famous”.  Roy’s entire career can almost be summed up in that one sentence.

I still listen to Roy Buchanan all the time.  I keep my Roy CDs in the special cabinet that houses all my best shit, Dylan, Garcia, Richmond Fontaine, Jerry Joseph,  Los Lobos, and Hendrix.  Roy didn’t make a lot of records, and the ones he did didn’t sell very well,  but they all have some great songs and moments.  Taken as a whole,  I’d even say it’s masterful.  Roy’s playing never get’s boring, he’s not at all dated either.  In fact, he’s timeless.  Most Roy fans talk about how Roy played with such incredible feeling,  with a sadness that somehow evokes joy,  which is exactly how Roy describes the solitude and bleak landscape of  Pixley when he was a boy.

Invariably, I’ll be listening to Roy and somebody will stop by…..hear a few licks of something, and always say the same exact thing….”Who’s that?”

 

Sandor Garcia de la santisima Trinidad January 9, 2013 at 10:06 pm

Thanks for this great article and appreciation for the greatest blues guitarist ever.
No other player expressed soul like Buchanan did!

Theresa February 12, 2013 at 8:48 am

Really liked what you had to say in your post, Jerry Garcia saw Roy Buchanan at the Crossroads Tavern in Maryland — Drive It To The Moon, thanks for the good read!
— Theresa

http://www.terrazoa.com

Bob February 20, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Does anyone have any images of the Crossroads Tavern. I too saw Roy there sometime in the 70’s.

Lee Gonnella March 17, 2013 at 1:51 am

This I believe was fimed at The Crossroads Tavern. It’s an eight-part video of Roy Buchanan showing off his custom made “Roy Buchanan” model guitar. Not the greatest quality but worthwhile for Roy fans.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bjf0L6nKz0M

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