Born Jeffrey Scott Buckley, November 17, 1966, in Orange County, CA; died by accidental drowning, May 29, 1997, Memphis, TN; son of Tim Buckley (a singer-songwriter) and Mary Guibert (a classical pianist). Addresses: Record company--Columbia Records2100 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404.

With nothing more than a live EP, one full-length studio recording, and contributions to several other artists' recods to his credit, singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley distinguished himself as the rare artist who makes a lasting impression on both critics and fans. Thus, when the promising, alternative rocker died in a drowning accident in the Mississippi River on May 29, 1997, a stunned music industry mourned the loss of one whom Entertainment Weekly described as a "virtuoso" guitarist, an exceptionally promising songwriter of "soul-searching hymns," and a singer "capable of angelic delicacy and demonic fire." From the time he emerged on the music scene in the early 1990s to the time of his death, Buckley worked to establish himself as an artist to be reckoned with. Ultimately, he became one who--like Tim Buckley, the musician father he scarcely knew--would leave a legend and a legacy in his wake.

Buckley was born on November 17, 1966, in Orange County, California, during the brief marriage between his mother, Panamanian-born classical pianist Mary Guibert, and his father, 1960s and 1970s eccentric singer-songwriter Tim Buckley. Despite that lineage, Buckley endured an often difficult and rootless childhood that was marked by poverty. Along with his mother, he moved repeatedly, packing his possessions in paper bags because he didn't have any luggage. As friend and New York performance artist Penny Arcade recounted to Fred Schruers in Rolling Stone, "Jeff has been going through turbulence ever since he was born."

When he began to perform, the younger Buckley seemed in danger of falling under the long shadow cast by his father, in spite of the elder's notable absence in his son's life. Tim Buckley was revered by many for his musical daring, as he restlessly shifted from folk to jazz to rock and seemed indifferent to the mixed commercial fortunes that resulted. But while Tim Buckley enjoyed professional success, his parenting skills apparently left something to be desired. Jeff reportedly met his father only once, when he spent a week with him at age eight. In 1975, an almost penniless Tim Buckley died of an accidental heroin overdose, just a few months after that encounter. It was Jeff's stepfather, auto mechanic Ron Moorhead, whom he came to consider as his father. Between 1971 and 1973, Buckley and his mother lived with Moorhead, whose surname Buckley adopted for several years before returning to his given name, Jeffrey Scott Buckley. Moreover, Buckley kept in touch with Moorhead even after the relationship with his mother had ended.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the fact that both of his biological parents were musicians, Buckley connected with music at a young age. Inspired by a copy of Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti given to him by his stepfather, Buckley decided, at the age of 12, to become a musician. But even before then, Buckley was immersed in music. He told reporter Ray Rogers of Interview, "I just always sang. My mom and I would always listen to the radio while driving to school. 'Summer Breeze' would come on, and she would sing the second harmony, and I would sing the third harmony. Music was like my first real toy."

The teenage Buckley was something of a misfit and loner at Loara High School in Anaheim, California, a place he would later say was populated by "'Disneyland Nazi youth,'" in Rolling Stone. After high school, he played in a few fledgling Los Angeles bands while he studied guitar at the Los Angeles Musicians Institute and got a job in a hotel.

It wasn't until he relocated to New York in the early 1990s that Buckley "blossomed," as he told Interview reporter Ray Rogers. Soon thereafter, a reluctant Buckley agreed to perform at a tribute concert for his father in April of 1991 at St. Ann's Church in Brooklyn. As he recalled in a 1994 Rolling Stone interview, "'It wasn't my work, it wasn't my life. But it bothered me that I hadn't been to his funeral, that I'd never been able to tell him anything. I used that show to pay my last respects." While he may have been uneasy about the gig, Buckley's performance caught the attention of many notable individuals in the music industry, including show organizer and producer Hal Willner. Performers and audience members alike were astonished by Buckley's remarkable vocal prowess. As Willner sums up in New York, the younger Buckley "just absolutely had it. It's definitely a voice from Heaven."

It was at the tribute concert that Buckley met guitarist and former Captain Beefheart member Gary Lucas, who invited Buckley to join his band, Gods and Monsters. Although creative differences eventually drove Buckley to split from the band, Lucas and Buckley were able to mend those differences long enough to collaborate on two songs that appeared on Buckley's first full-length solo record.

In the artistic mecca of New York, Buckley found the ideal spot in which to nurture his burgeoning songwriting and musical skills. He took up residence in an East Village apartment and began performing a mix of covers and original material at New York coffeehouses and clubs, most notably Sin-e. It was there that Buckley said he learned to perform. "I learned how to use everything in the room as music," he was quoted in Interview. "A tune has to resonate with whatever is happening around it. So if people are talking, I let them talk. That just means they're part of the music." Buckley's Sin-e performances resulted in his first record, the 1993 EP Live at Sin-e. With its two original tracks and covers of Edith Piaf's "Je N'en Connais Pas La Fin" and Van Morrison's "The Way Young Lovers Do," the album concisely demonstrated Buckley's eclectic musical influences, including jazz legend Billy Holiday, Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant, and Pakistani devotional singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. As producer Andy Wallace, who later worked with Buckley on his full-length debut, recalled in Rolling Stone, "{Buckley} had the audio equivalent of a photographic memory.... Not only everything from {Charles} Mingus to Sonic Youth, but every verse of 'Yummy, Yummy, Yummy.'"

Buckley spent early 1994 on a solo tour of clubs and coffeehouses throughout North America and Europe. Shortly before the release of Live at Sin-e, Buckley, guitarist Matt Johnson, and bass player Mick Grohdahl started working in the studio with Wallace on tracks that would eventually appear on the 1994 LP Grace. The album was released in the United States to generally positive and, in some cases, positively glowing reviews. Entertainment Weekly's Dimitri Ehrlich called it a "dreamy and stunningly original set of songs," while Gentlemen's Quarterly's Rob Tannenbaum applauded Buckley's "spectacularly sensitive tenor" and "imagistic lyrics." The heartbreaking single "Last Goodbye," which chronicled the end of a relationship, hit number 19 on the Billboard modern rock chart, while the album itself went on to sell roughly 250,000 copies.

Buckley spent much of the next couple of years on the road in the United States and abroad in support of the album. In 1995, he was awarded France's Gran Prix International Du Disque for Grace. Recipients of the honor--who include Edith Piaf, Yves Montand, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen--are selected by music industry professionals, journalists, producers, and the president of French Culture.

Besides his work as a solo artist, Buckley collaborated on a number of other recordings. He sang "Jolly Street" on 1994's In Love, the sixth album from the progressive New York jazz outfit the Jazz Passengers, and he added vocals or instrumentation to albums by Brenda Kahn, Rebecca Moore, Patti Smith, and John Zorn, among others. Known to occasionally read his own poetry, Buckley read Edgar Allan Poe's poem "Ulallume--A Ballad" on Closed on Account of Rabies (Poems & Tales by Edgar Allan Poe), and added instrumentation to a track with Nymph's vocalist Inger Lorre on kicks joy darkness, a compilation tribute to poet Jack Kerouac. And it was Buckley who penned the liner notes for Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn's The Supreme Collection.

Despite his increasing fame, Buckley never forgot the tiny venues where he began making a name for himself. Returning several times to Sin-e and playing a series of surprise solo shows in late 1996, he appeared under various pseudonyms, including the Crackrobats and A Puppet Show Named Julio. Even after he and his bandmates headed to Memphis in February of 1997 to prepare for June recording sessions at Easley Studios, the small gigs continued. He started a series of weekly shows at a local club called Barrister's in late March of that year. Determined not to place himself in "an ivory tower," as he told Rogers, Buckley was modest about his songwriting skills and vowed that he would continue to play intimate venues. He said, 'I'm not the greatest songwriter yet; I daydream thinking about great songwriters. I was brought up with all these different influences--Nina Simone, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Patti Smith--people who showed me music should be free, should be penetrating, should carry you."

On the night he drowned, Buckley was traveling to a rehearsal with friend and roadie Keith Foti. En route, they stopped at a Memphis marina, where Buckley waded into the river fully-clothed to cool off. Waves tossed ashore by a passing boat forced Foti to briefly turn his attention away from Buckley as he protected the musician's radio and guitar. By the time he looked back to the river, Buckley had vanished. Six days after his disappearance, a massive search was ended when police discovered Buckley's body near Memphis's famous Beale Street. As of late 1997, there were plans to honor Buckley with a bench and a plaque at the city zoo, a spot he reportedly frequented. Buckley was survived by his mother and half-brother Corey.

A posthumous two-CD set, SKETCHES (for my swetheart, the drunk) was slated for release. Compiled under the direction of his mother and friends such as Chris Cornell and Michael Clouse, the set consisted of home recordings and Buckley's final studio work. At the time of his death, he was believed to have penned more than 100 songs since the release of Grace. Although Buckley had not yet officially begun recording his second album, he and his bandmates had recorded from time to time during 1996-97 with producer Tom Verlaine (formerly of Television). During his time in Memphis, Buckley had also made recordings of cover songs and new material on a four-track machine at his rented cottage. In a Columbia Records press release, Guibert reflected on the process of assembling her son's album: "Listening to the recordings was both painful and fulfilling.... It was heartrending to listen to the sound of Jeff's voice, but the songs were stunningly beautiful! Even the rough four-tracks had their own particular charm because they showed so vividly Jeff's musical genius."

Those who knew him were often struck by what they say was Buckley's genuineness and pure artistic gift. As friend and Shudder to Think guitarist Nathan Larson commented in People, "Jeff was music. He was the real thing, undiluted, ferocious. He was in direct communication with a spiritual place that a lot of artists can only theorize about. No one came away from him unmoved."

by K. Michelle Moran

Jeff Buckley's Career

Performed at a tribute concert for his late musician father in New York in April of 1991; became regular performer at New York clubs and coffeehouses in early 1990s; signed with Columbia; released debut EP, Live at Sin-e, in 1993; released full-length album Grace in 1994; collaborated with artists such as Patti Smith, Jazz Passengers, and John Zorn; died shortly before he was to start work on second album in a Memphis studio.

Jeff Buckley's Awards

Academie Charles CROS, Gran Prix International Du Disque, 1995, for Grace.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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