The Tim Buckley Archives

Tim Buckley: An Overview

April 26, 1985

by Stuart Winkles

A 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.

But 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.

Shortly 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.

Before 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.

Riding 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.

By the 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 style.

Not 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."

When 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.

The 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.

With 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.

While 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.

One 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 Records.

"I 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."
   


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