Possessed of a striking, multioctave voice and a passion for high drama in his performances, Jeff Buckley emerged out of New York's avant-garde music scene in 1994 with Grace, an album that would garner him international critical acclaim and a devoted cult fan base. Three years later, just shy of his 31st birthday and the recording of his second album, he drowned in a freak accident.
Throughout his life, Buckley was haunted by the shadow of a famous father he never really knew, singer/songwriter Tim Buckley (who also died young, of a heroin overdose at age 28). Buckley met his father only once, spending a week with him when he was eight. He was closer to his stepfather Ron Moorhead, an auto mechanic who helped inspire Buckley's pursuit of music by giving him his first Led Zeppelin album. Growing up in Southern California, Buckley was known as Scotty Moorhead until his mother, Mary Guibert, divorced her second husband.
After performing in a handful of cover bands throughout high school and attending the Los Angeles Musicians Institute, Buckley moved to New York City in 1990. He went back to L.A. after seven months, then returned to somewhat reluctantly participate in a Tim Buckley tribute concert at Brooklyn's St. Ann's Church in 1991; his buzz-winning performance led to a relocation to New York in 1992 and a short stint performing in the band Gods and Monsters with former Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas. He soon left the group to focus on a solo career and took up residence at the tiny cafe Sin-é in the East Village. His eclectic performances —which revealed as much of an affinity for Edith Piaf as Zeppelin led to a contract with Columbia Records in 1993. Live at Sin-é, a foursong EP, was released while Buckley assembled a band to record his full-length debut, Grace (Number 149, 1994).
Featuring Buckley originals such as "Last Goodbye" as well as a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," Grace sold only modestly but was warmly received by critics. He would tour behind the album for nearly three years. In mid-1996 Buckley began recording demos for his second album — to be titled My Sweetheart the Drunk — with producer Tom Verlaine (of Television fame). He intended to record the album itself with Grace producer Andy Wallace in Memphis, Tennessee, where Buckley had recently relocated. On May 29, 1997 — the night he was expecting his band to arrive from New York — Buckley and a friend were en route to a rehearsal space when they decided to take a break alongside the bank of the Wolf River channel of the Mississippi River. After Buckley waded into the water fully clothed and began swimming, he was sucked under by a wake created by a passing boat; his body was spotted six days later by a riverboat passenger.
Following his death, Buckley's mother began to work closely with Columbia on all affairs concerning his posthumous releases. The first was Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk (Number 64, 1998), a double-disc set featuring the Verlaine-produced studio sessions and a selection of unfinished songs that Buckley had recently recorded on four-track. The live album Mystery White Boy followed in 2000, along with the DVD/VHS release Jeff Buckley — Live in Chicago. An extensive collection of Buckley's raw emotive power is compiled in the Live at Sin-é(released in 2003), a two-disc set of his early live performances at the East Village café.
Portions of this biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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