Jeff Buckley - Biography

Jeff Buckley

Jeff Buckley (November 17, 1966 – May 29, 1997), born Jeffrey Scott Buckley and raised as Scottie Moorhead, was an American singer-songwriter and guitarist.

Known for his vocal range of 4 octaves, Buckley was considered by critics to be one of the most promising artists of his generation after the release of his 1994 debut album Grace. However, at the height of his popularity, Buckley drowned during an evening swim in 1997. His work and style continue to be highly regarded by critics and fellow musicians.

Early life

Born in Anaheim, California, Jeff Buckley was the only son of Mary Guibert and Tim Buckley. His mother was a Panama Canal Zonian of mixed Greek, French, American and Panamanian descent, while his father was the descendant of Irish emigrants from Cork.

His father was a songwriter who released a series of highly acclaimed folk and jazz albums in the late 1960s and early 1970s before his own untimely death in 1975. Buckley was raised by his mother and step-father Ron Moorhead (for just a few years) in Southern California, constantly moving in and around Orange County. Additionally he had a half-brother, Corey Moorhead. During his childhood he was known as Scott "Scottie" Moorhead, but at the age of 8 he chose to go by his birth name after meeting his father for the first (and only) time; to his family he remained Scottie.

At eighteen, Buckley moved to Los Angeles, where he graduated from the Musician's Institute's two-year course. Buckley often called his time at the Institute a "waste," although he made life-long friends there. Like his hero Jimmy Page, he wanted to play guitar. His diverse musical background was reflected in the bands in which he participated before going solo. At one point he was in a punk band, and lead guitar in the reggae band Shinehead, where he limited his singing to backing vocals.

Early career

Buckley moved to New York in 1990. His public debut as a singer was the 1991 tribute performance for his father, Tim Buckley, at St. Ann's Church in New York City. Jeff was not billed as a performer, choosing simply to pay his respects to his father, saying "This is not a springboard, this is something very personal." He performed "I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain" with experimental rock guitarist, Gary Lucas, accompanying him, and did an acoustic/a cappella performance of "Once I Was" that brought the venue to stunned silence. When questioned about that particular performance, Buckley said "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." Lucas convinced Buckley to stay in New York, and to form a musical duo; the two prepared to sign with a major label.

In the meantime, Buckley became a regular solo performer at the East Village cafe Sin-é, singing covers as well as his own songs, where he attracted admiring crowds — and the attention of executives from Columbia Records. An EP of four songs recorded there, Live at Sin-é, was released on Columbia in 1993.

Buckley performed with Gary Lucas' band Gods and Monsters, but soon split with Lucas in order to form his own band.


In 1994, Buckley's debut album Grace, recorded with a recruited band in Woodstock, New York, was released. He invited ex-bandmate Lucas to play guitar on the album versions of "Grace" and "Mojo Pin" — the two songs on which Lucas is credited as a co-writer. While sales were slow, the album quickly received critical acclaim and appreciation from other revered musicians (among them Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Bob Dylan, Thom Yorke, Daniel Christos, Paul McCartney, Neil Peart, Elvis Costello and Elton John), and has remained in high esteem. Grace features cover versions of "Lilac Wine" (based on Nina Simone's version on the 1966 album Wild Is The Wind) and a rendition of the Middle English hymn "Corpus Christi Carol". Buckley's seminal version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" was a highlight, and is still considered by many to be the definitive recording of that song; it has since become Buckley's best-known song.

After the release of Grace, Buckley spent more than two years touring around the world. It seemed to be a tiring yet effective means for him to keep his independence from his record company, with which he had a strained relationship. From the album's release, he played in numerous countries, from Australia, to the UK (Glastonbury Festival). In 1995 Buckley played a concert at the Paris Olympia, a venue made famous by the French vocalist Édith Piaf, that he considered the finest performance of his career. Sony has since released a live recording of that performance.

Buckley also went on a so-called "phantom solo tour" of small clubs in the U.S., starting in December of 1996, using several aliases including: Father Demo, Topless America, Smackcrobiotic, A puppet named Julio, The Halfspeeds, Crackrobats, and Martha & the Nicotines. By way of justification, Buckley posted a note on the Internet stating that he missed the anonymity of playing in cafes and local bars:

There was a time in my life not too long ago when I could show up in a cafe and simply do what I do, make music, learn from performing my music, explore what it means to me, i.e., have fun while I irritate and/or entertain an audience who don't know me or what I am about. In this situation I have that precious and irreplaceable luxury of failure, of risk, of surrender. I worked very hard to get this kind of thing together, this work forum. I loved it and then I missed it when it disappeared. All I am doing is reclaiming it.

Much of the material from the tours of 1995 and 1996 was recorded, and has been released posthumously on albums such as Mystery White Boy and Live a l'Olympia.

Buckley was an impassioned fan of Pakistani Sufi musician Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and during his cafe days Buckley had often covered his songs. He interviewed Khan for Interview magazine and wrote liner notes for Khan's The Supreme Collection compilation.


After completing touring in 1996, Buckley started to write for a new album to be called My Sweetheart the Drunk. In 1997 he moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he rented a shotgun house of which he was so fond he contacted the owner about the possibility of buying it. Buckley started recording demos on his own 4-track recorder. He went into the studio again, recruited a band, and plans for the new album looked hopeful.

On May 29, 1997, as the band's plane touched down on the runway to join him in his Memphis studio, Buckley went swimming in the Wolf River, a tributary of the Mississippi River. His friend Keith Foti remained ashore and, after moving a radio and guitar out of reach of the wake from a passing tugboat, looked up to see that Jeff was gone. Despite a rescue effort mounted that night, Buckley's body was only spotted a week later by a tourist on a riverboat and brought ashore.

It was widely speculated that Buckley may have committed suicide, partly because he went swimming in the river wearing his heavy boots. The biography Dream Brother, written about him and his father, reveals that the night before his death Buckley reportedly admitted to several loved ones that he suffered from bipolar disorder. It has been confirmed by autopsy that Buckley had taken no illegal drugs before his swim and that a drug overdose can be ruled out as the cause of his death.

A recent statement from the Buckley estate insists:

“Jeff Buckley's death was not "mysterious", related to drugs, alcohol, or suicide. We have a police report, a medical examiner's report, and an eye witness to prove that it was an accidental drowning, and that Mr. Buckley was in a good frame of mind prior to the accident.”

After Buckley's death, a collection of demo recordings and a full length album he had been reworking for his second album were released as Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk. Three other albums composed of live recordings have also been released, along with a live DVD of a performance in Chicago.

Director Brian Jun has announced plans to make a film biography of Buckley, in cooperation with his mother. A separate project involving the book Dream Brother has not been greenlighted.

Jeff Buckley Official Website

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