April 26, 1985
number of people in rock have been gifted with unique and unmistakable voices.
Elvis Presley comes immediately to mind. Roy Orbison and Gene Pitney gained distinction
through their uncontested vocal originality. Rod Stewart has a streamlined set
of personalized pipes, as do Robert Plant and Eric Burdon.
one extraordinary white rock vocalist tends too often to be overlooked. Although
he was relatively small, Tim Buckley had a voice that reached peaks rarely touched
by others. Through a recording career that only seemed to lead from one frustration
to another, Buckley's voice just got better and better.
after his Washington, D.C., birth on St. Valentine's Day, 1947, his family moved
to Amsterdam, N.Y., where they lived for the next 10 years before moving to Bell
Gardens, CA. Around age 12, Buckley discovered a Miles Davis record in his mother's
collection. He was fascinated by some of the trumpet player's high notes.
that, Buckley's musical affections tended toward such music artists as Johnny
Cash, Hank Thompson and Hank Williams. Those early influences had prompted him
to learn to play the banjo. But after hearing the upper reaches of the trumpet,
Buckley began trying to duplicate some of those brassy high notes vocally. He'd
heard Little Richard get up there, so he knew it was possible.
his bicycle through traffic around his home he would practice stretching his vocal
chords with full-toned shrieks and screams. Later, when he heard the low notes
of the baritone saxophone, he started working his voice in the opposite direction.
Buckley's self-disciplined voice lessons didn't resemble any sort of formal training,
but through more attention to trumpet and sax records, and through more bicycle-pedaling
practice sessions, he was firmly absorbed in the early development of what came
to be a five-and-a-half-octave vocal range, practically unheard of in pop music.
time he was 15, Buckley was playing in local bands which he later called "those
'Louie, Louie,' carburetor soul bands." In high school he also found himself
serving as quarterback on the varsity football team. During his gridiron tenure
he broke the fingers of his left hand, leaving him permanently unable to play
barre chords on the guitar. In time, though, the handicap was overcome somewhat
by adapting a system of open chording that contributed greatly to his compositional
even halfway through high school, Buckley had had enough of football, let alone
classes. Recalling those days in a 1969 New York Times interview he said, "I
was playing and studying music all the way through the morning, then it was time
to go to school and I'd go and couldn't relate to anything."
country'n'western bands such as the Cherokee Riders came to the area, Buckley
would sometimes gig with them. His music obsession quickened as he got to know
some of the musicians and hear their stories of the road. Solo gigs were soon
coming more frequently and he did some traveling along a southwestern roadhouse
circuit in Arizona and New Mexico.
repertoire he developed and stuck to was straight blues and country. But on periodic
truant officer-inspired returns to high school, Buckley befriended a young poet
named Larry Beckett. Before long the two were writing songs, Buckley putting music
to Beckett's words. Buckley was also writing lyrics of his own, though the association
with Beckett as contributing lyricist lasted throughout his career.
original songs steadily added to his club sets, a bass player was added to make
the act a duo. The bassist was Jim Fielder, who became a charter member of Blood,
Sweat And Tears. The duo worked places such as the "It's Boss" club
in Los Angeles county.
working as a music teacher in a Santa Ana music shop, Buckley met Jimmy Carl Black,
an instructor at the shop by day and by night, drummer with Frank Zappa and the
Mothers Of Invention.
night in early 1966 Black caught Buckley's act at a club and was impressed by
what he heard. He suggested that Buckley get in touch with Mothers' manager Herb
Cohen. Impressed by the singer's versatile voice and by the quality of the original
material, Cohen signed Buckley and booked him into the Nite Owl Cafe in New York
City. During Buckley's Nite Owl debut in summer 1966, Cohen assembled a six-song
demonstration record and presented it to Jac Holzman, then president of Elektra
didn't have to play the demo more than once," Holzman was quoted as saying,
"but I think I must have listened to it at least two times a day for the
next week. Whenever anything was bringing me down, I'd run for Buckley."