Looking back on his 30-year career, guitarist Roy Buchanan may have some regrets, but declining an invitation to join the Rolling Stones after Brian Jones' death in 1969 isn't one of them.
"If I had joined the Stones I'd probably be dead by now," says Buchanan, who performs tonight at the Warner Theatre. "That's really life in the fast lane and at that time I wasn't mentally or physically prepared for it. I got into the drug scene real bad toward the end of the '60s."
Case in point:
In 1971 Buchanan met John Lennon at a recording studio in New York. The two hit it off and Buchanan asked Lennon to play guitar on his first album. Lennon agreed but when he showed up for the session Buchanan was in sorry shape. "I was too torqued to play," he says. "I just passed out."
Buchanan may get to play with the Stones yet. Or at least with one or two of them. He says either Keith Richard or Ron Wood (he's not sure which) recently contacted Alligator Records, the label Buchanan records for, and expressed an interest in performing on his next album.
"Jeff Beck will be on it, too," says Buchanan. "All these guys have played blues, which is good, because that's what I want to play now."
Beck and company will have to wait a while, though. Buchanan's new album, "When a Guitar Plays the Blues," has just been released and he doesn't plan to go back into the studio until next year.
Besides, since swearing off drugs in the '70s and hard liquor a few years ago, Buchanan says he enjoys performing more than ever. "I was down in Nashville a couple of years ago and a friend told me I was wasting my talent," he says. "I never really thought about it before. I always thought if I was having a good time, then everybody else was having one, too. Suddenly I realized that what he was saying was true."
Buchanan considers his new album his finest recording yet, and even fans of his early Polydor albums such as "Live Stock" are likely to find it on a par with his best. As with "Live Stock," the new album was recorded with virtually no overdubbing so Buchanan's trademark Telecaster licks stand out in the mix, as fierce a sound as you're likely to find this side of heavy metal.
Buchanan says his guitar style is firmly rooted in the kind of rhythm and blues he heard in the mid-'50s when he met and later played with the legendary R&B maestro Johnny Otis on the West Coast. Otis was delighted that "a 15-year-old white kid was into his music," says Buchanan. They became close friends and, through Otis, Buchanan met much of the then-reigning R & B royalty, including T. Bone Walker and Big Mama Thornton. However, it was Otis' guitarist, Jimmy Nolan, who impressed Buchanan the most.
"He was the first guy I saw bend guitar strings," Buchanan says of Nolan. "It was unheard of back then. I started to do the same thing and slowly created my own kind of style. As far as I know, I was the first white guitarist in rock 'n' roll to do that. Now everybody bends notes, but not back then." Not surprisingly, "When a Guitar Plays the Blues" is dedicated to Nolan.
Buchanan eventually combined what Nolan taught him with what he picked up listening to rockabilly guitarists such as Scotty Moore. By the time Buchanan was recording with Dale Hawkins, he had forged a style that would influence the next generation of rock guitarists on both sides of the Atlantic. Jeff Beck and Robbie Robertson of the Band (whom Buchanan played with in Ronnie Hawkins' band) are just two examples.
Although he was considered primarily a sideman in those days, Buchanan says, there were always people around who wanted to groom him for pop success. "A pop star -- that's what they wanted to make me. But it always ended up a mess," he says.
Years later Buchanan discovered that some of the records he cut in the '50s, though never released in the United States, were issued in Europe. "It wasn't until 1971 when I went over there that I found out I could have toured Europe in the '50s," he says, savoring the irony. "They've been buying my records ever since. I guess I'm considered to be like the white B.B. King over there."
Now living in Reston, Buchanan moved to the Washington area more than 20 years ago. He spent seven years playing clubs around town five or six nights a week until he was featured in a 1971 PBS film. After that, things happened quickly.
"That film was shown all around the world and changed the whole ball game," Buchanan says. Among the changes was a recording contract. He cut five albums for Polydor and a few more for Atlantic in the '70s, but his albums were often marred by overproduction and mediocre bands. Finally, he says, he decided that if he couldn't record the music the way he wanted to, he'd stay out of the studio.
And he's done just that. Buchanan went back into the studio this time with assurances that he could call the shots -- pick and arrange the tunes, choose the musicians, oversee the mixes.
He also felt the timing was right. "I think there's been a resurgence in the popularity of blues lately," he says, citing the success of younger guitarists like George Thorogood and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
"They sure help old codgers like me," he says with a laugh. "When the kids start listening to them they also start looking into the music to see who else was around. There's nothing wrong with that."