Jeff Buckley was the one of a kind performer. His voice and range was unmatched at the time and has often been imitated since, and his guitar playing and songwriting skills were a thing of beauty. His time on this earth was all too brief, sadly cut short in 1997, but his legacy has only grown 20 years after his passing.
Despite being estranged from his father and folk musician, Tim Buckley, he spent his formative years around music. He would sing with his mother as a child, and began playing guitar at 5 years old after finding an acoustic guitar in the home of his grandmother. Buckley later gravitated towards hard rock such as Led Zeppelin and Kiss, before finding an interest in prog rock like Genesis and Rush in ‘70s, followed by jazz fusion.
After spending several years in struggling bands and session work throughout the Los Angeles area, Buckley headed for New York City. While there he would play bars around the city, performing original and cover songs, gaining experience of playing in front of live audiences. He would eventually gain the attention of several label executives, opting to sign with the home of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, Columbia Records.
By 1993, Buckley was gearing up to record what would be his debut album with revered producer, Andy Wallace. An EP was released that year, Live at Sin-e, which included a cover of Van Morrison’s The Way Young Lovers Do, which Buckley toured and started to garner interest for his upcoming debut album, Grace.
Released in 1994, the album is some of the mostly finely crafted song writing and musicianship of the past 30 years. From the delicate folk-laden refrains to guitar driven alternative rock, tracks such Mojo Pin and Forget Her cut deep into the soul. Even the covers on the record, including Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and Elkie Brooks’ Corpus Christi Carol, are given a unique new life and sound like they belong to Buckley. Although the album was somewhat of a slow burning release, it received critical acclaim and over the years has been featured among countless ‘Greatest Albums of All-Time’ lists.
The next few years would see Buckley undertake a heavy touring schedule across the globe, achieving success wherever he went. Some of the music from these tours would be posthumously released on the Live at The Bataclan EP and Mystery White Boy album as he began to wind down touring and prepare to put together the follow up to Grace early in 1997.
Buckley and his band started sessions in New York, but was unhappy with the output and expressed an interest in working in Memphis, Tennessee. From February to May, 1997, he worked on new material such as The Sky Is a Landfill and Everybody Here Wants You, with a working album title, My Sweetheart The Drunk. The band was ready to rehearse and record again, which was due to begin on May 29th, but sadly, that never got to happen.
That evening, Jeff Buckley and one of his roadies, Keith Foti, went to Wolf River Harbour, just off the legendary Mississippi river and Buckley decided to go swimming. Foti remained on the shore and recalls Buckley singing the chorus to Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love. In the blink of an eye, he vanished while swimming, and while a detailed search took place, Buckley was missing for five days. His body was eventually found on June 4th, 1997, and with nothing toxic in his system, the autopsy ruled his death as accidental drowning. He was 30 years old.
As briefly mentioned before, years after his passing his legacy is almost unmatched. Grace has gone on to influence a whole new generation of both musicians and listens, and the unfinished album was posthumously released as Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk to critical acclaim.
Today would have been Jeff Buckley’s 51st birthday, and it’s the perfect time to revisit his excellent catalogue that should have been much larger. We can only imagine where he would have headed next, but his legacy will live on. Happy Birthday, Jeff.
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