Roy Buchanan: The Best of Roy Buchanan (20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection)

Roy Buchanan
The Best of Roy Buchanan (20th Century Masters: the Millennium Collection)
20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection

It’s undoubtedly true what people say, that guitar great Roy Buchanan was underrated during his lifetime. He was raised in Pixley (great name for a guitarist’s hometown) which still is a miniscule agricultural town in what was the breadbasket of the nation. Near Delano if you’ve heard of that, about 50 miles north of central valley nowhere (which is what Bakersfield, California was in the early 1940s when his family moved there). Buchanan went on to play guitar in a rock and roll band and get dumped penniless as a teenager in Oklahoma by a tour manager. He then got picked up and played guitar for Dale (“Susie Q”) Hawkins in 1961, and gave some guitar lessons to guys who would soon become the Band. All before gaining any recognition of his own. This collection gathers his better-known work from his five albums with Polydor (1972-1975) and gives them the benefit of a good remastering job.

This is mostly blues-tinged electric guitar music urged out of Buchanan’s Telecaster back when he was discovered playing onstage and written up in Rolling Stone. Actually this collection is more like the “bluz” or “blooz”, a type of heavy approach to guitar so popular during that time. Some of this had to have been shaped to appeal to the listening public of that era (more than a little heavy, more like a downer mood) and tracks that have a long running time (nine of these 12 tracks hover at six minutes).

“Pete’s Blues” (7:12) has that ominous guitar lead-in made so popular to radio listeners by the Rolling Stones “Midnight Rambler”, and there’s a dark downer organ part and drums marching relentlessly in the background. This is 1972 remember, and everywhere in the nation, especially in Washington D.C. where Buchanan was living and playing, so much of the brightness had retreated from daily life that some brave souls converged on the Capitol to perform an exorcism on the Pentagon. On this blues, there are endless skillful bends and runs, and the fills are occasionally Middle Eastern sounds being coaxed out, but, man, it is dark and conflicted stuff.

“Filthy Teddy” is Buchanan at his finest, a strutting blues with humorous surprising licks. And his sense of the absurdity of it all shows up again in the tone and pitch of “After Hours”. But the record company wanted six more minutes, six more minutes, and then six minutes more of “I’m Evil”. Maybe it was the record company.

Some of this had to have been dictated by the record company, because Buchanan was also obliged to sing and probably because every lead guitarist sang. And they threw in an occasional horn section and backing gospel-like chorus to give it all a Southern-fried blues-rock flavor.

Roy Buchanan was a lot better overall than this compilation can ever show; it’s a hint of how he played. People still talk about seeing him perform onstage in small clubs even back as far as 1970. He was that memorable.

His records for Polydor didn’t gain much popularity in sales, and Buchanan nearly sank into obscurity until he came back strong and with a totally revamped and recharged approach to playing in 1985 on When a Guitar Plays the Blues. He’d lightened up, and his new creative spark showed with self-penned material like the supercharged “Short Fuse”, “Hawaiian Punch”, and the gonzo “Sneaking Godzilla Through the Alley”. Buchanan’s success with Alligator was cut short by his death in 1988, just shy of the age of 50. Arrested for drunkeness in Virginia, he supposedly hung himself with his own shirt in a jail cell. Well, that’s not how this story is supposed to end. But that’s what happened to the guitar player, so what ever happened to the Band?