Roy Buchanan, a blues guitarist who became a favorite in Washington-area clubs and later enjoyed an enthusiastic following throughout the country and abroad, was found hanged in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center Sunday night after being arrested near his Reston home on a charge of being drunk in public.
Police ruled the death a suicide and said he was found in his jail cell hanging by his shirt from a grated window. He was 48.
Buchanan had struggled with drug abuse in the early 1970s and more recently with alcohol abuse, but friends and colleagues said his drinking had appeared to be under control and his career was on track.
"I just finished a tour with him a week ago," said Carey Ziegler, a bass player who had worked with Buchanan about four years. "He was in great spirits. He had stopped drinking . . . . Everything was going as smooth as silk."
"Artistically, he was at the peak of his career," said Ken Morton, director of publicity at Alligator Records, which released his last three albums.
Fairfax County police spokesman Warren Carmichael said police responded to a call about a family fight at Buchanan's home in Reston about 10 p.m. Sunday. His wife Judy told police Buchanan had been drinking and that he had left after they had had a fight, adding that "she could not handle him," according to Carmichael.
Police picked Buchanan up a few blocks from his home. He was charged with being drunk in public and taken to a jail cell, where police routinely let people sober up before taking them before a magistrate, said Chief Deputy Sheriff Carl Peed. Normal precautions against suicide attempts, such as removing the person's belt and shoelaces, were taken before Buchanan was locked up shortly before 11 p.m., Peed said.
His cell was checked at 11:05 p.m. and again at 11:16 p.m., when a deputy found him hanging by his shirt, according to Peed. Attempts by the sheriff's medical staff to revive Buchanan were unsuccessful, and he was pronounced dead at 11:59 p.m., after being taken to Access emergency center in Fairfax, Peed said.
"He was a real quiet, sensitive, soft-spoken person," said Morton of Alligator Records.
Buchanan started playing guitar with a Los Angeles band called The Heartbreaks in 1955, when he was 15, and began moving in musical circles that brought him in contact with some of the best-known names in popular music.
He backed Dale Hawkins, most famous for his recording of "Susie Q," for three years, and taught Robbie Robertson to play guitar in 1960 when they were with a Canadian group called The Hawks, later known as The Band, Morton said.
Buchanan finally settled in Washington. Over the years, he developed "an underground cult following" and became "an obscure favorite" of such artists as John Lennon and Merle Haggard, according to Morton.
Buchanan rose to immediate fame after Rolling Stone magazine published an article on him in 1971, quickly followed by a television documentary in which he was dubbed "the best unknown guitarist in the world."
He made his first of 12 albums in 1972, and the same year he produced the first of two gold albums, "Roy Buchanan's Second Album." The second, "Loading Zone," was made in 1977. His most recent recording, "Hot Wires," came out last year, and he was scheduled to start recording an all-instrumental album in the fall.
"The world was getting larger for Roy Buchanan," said Teddy Slatus, his manager, recounting successful tours in Europe, Japan and Australia. "He was a man with everything to live for."
Slatus said he last talked to Buchanan on Saturday and said he was looking forward to a joint appearance with guitarist Johnny Winter in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., scheduled for Friday. His last performance was in New Haven on Aug. 7, Slatus said.
The manager said Buchanan never showed any signs of having a drinking problem when he was on the road during the four years they had worked together, or any signs of being troubled: "He has always performed at the maximum level."
Buchanan had tried to hang himself after he was arrested on Jan. 1, 1980, and put in the Loudoun County jail, according to Loudoun County police spokesman Greg Stocks.
Buchanan, born in Arkansas, had seven children and five grandchildren, Morton said.
Ziegler, the bass player, said he had taken time out during his career so he could be home with his children more.
"He wasn't into the star routine," said Ziegler. "You felt like he was born with a guitar in his hand."
Staff writer Pierre Thomas contributed to this report.