I had just come home from a dreary day in junior high school in 1971 and flipped on the television for a quick look when I happened upon something completely unexpected on Channel 13. Our local public broadcasting station, as staid and frankly boring an outfit as one could imagine, having all of the hipness of an appendectomy, had some live rock gracing its airways. School books forgotten, I was fascinated by the taciturn guitarist playing a beat-up Fender Telecaster, coaxing some astonishing sounds out of it in ways that seemed even beyond what Page and Beck were doing. The show of course, was the now legendary “Introducing Roy Buchanan”, commonly (and very incorrectly) known as “The World’s Greatest Unknown Guitarist”.
“Introducing” was a bit of a holy grail for me to find, as it was seemingly nowhere to be found. I frequented various record shows and conventions and came up with bootlegged copies of various items of interest from the sands of time but my mention of “Introducing” only induced blank stares from most of the purveyors in the dealers rooms at these shows. I began to doubt my memory, and let the matter fall by the wayside as other priorities took over. About two years ago, when perusing eBay for various items, on a whim, I searched for Roy Buchanan video, and I was delighted to find a VHS copy for sale. No Buy It Now, so I had to sit there and snipe for it, but less than a week later the tape popped up in my mailbox, and I was once again hooked.
The show had several distinct parts intercut, a rare visit home to Roy’s parents in Pixley, California, which (somewhat disingenuously) tried to show his roots, a series of jams with influences and favorites, including Merle Haggard, Johnny Otis and Mundell Lowe (the latter playing an unbelievable duet with Roy on “Misty”), and a live concert staged at WNET’s Manhattan studios that showcased Roy and his band at the time, the Snakestretchers. Future E-Streeter Nils Lofgren even joined Roy and the band for an extended jam on the show. The Snakestretchers were a bar band, first and foremost, a bit sloppy here and there, and a bit goofy as well (percussionist Marc Fisher’s exaggerated movements make Ray Cooper’s shtick seem sedate).
The music is what wows you in this show. Aside from the aforementioned “Misty”, Roy shows off his gentler side on his parents’ back porch with his Telecaster plugged into a small amp with an astonishing display of circle picking, pedal steel-inspired licks when playing along with Merle Haggard, “chicken pickin” while backing up a church service, plus his concert tours de force, “Sweet Dreams” and “The Messiah Will Come Again”. “Sweet Dreams” takes the old Patsy Cline song to another plane, with its exquisite slow bends and volume swells, and “Messiah” runs from anguished country blues to Page-like excess, again with Roy’s lightning neck runs, pinched harmonics and his uncanny ability to make the guitar seem like it was crying and talking. Timing concerns caused WNET to fade out “Messiah” on the broadcast, but every time it aired, the performance generated a lot of phone calls asking about this awesome guitarist.
Buchanan’s career was very checkered, and other than his very first album, his records didn’t really capture Buchanan’s smoldering passion for playing. Most of his records were disjointed jams, and frankly, his singing was better left unheard. The recordings were corporate affairs, trying to capitalize on the “guitar hero” aspect of the times, but looking for something commercial, which truth be told, Buchanan wasn’t. He was a player’s player. I saw him on several occasions at places such as The Bottom Line and My Father’s Place, with bands that were looser and sloppier than the Snakestretchers (if such a thing were possible). Roy could be a bit infuriating to watch if you were looking to hear only “Sweet Dreams” or “The Messiah Will Come Again”, as he played whatever came into his head that evening, and maybe, if we were lucky we’d get one or the other (on one rare occasion we did get both pieces in the set), but as a guitarist sitting in the front row eagerly absorbing every note, you know you’d be challenged, frustrated and ultimately awed by seeing Roy in concert.
Roy’s death is still the subject of conjecture, and to some extent his recorded legacy needs to be managed better. I would imagine that releasing this and perhaps some of the other extant footage of him would go a long way to acknowledging this legendary player’s talents.Powered by Sidelines