This Week In History: Jeff Buckley Passes Away Suddenly

Twenty years ago the world suddenly lost one of music's most promising up-and-comers, Jeff Buckley.

In 1997, Jeff Buckley had quickly become one of music’s most promising up-and-coming singer-songwriters. Three years earlier he had introduced himself to the world with his highly revered album Grace. Sadly it would be his only completed album.

Buckley had toiled in New York City for years, playing in various cafes and bars in struggling bands. It wasn’t until a tribute concert for his late father Tim Buckley (a renowned folk singer who died suddenly at 28) that Jeff stepped into the limelight as a lead singer. He made a strong impression on the audience when his guitar string broke during his finale, a cover of his father’s “Once I Was”, and he finished the song A capella:

“Suddenly, before the last chorus, a string broke on his acoustic guitar, and Jeff sang the lines, ‘Sometimes, I wonder for a while/Do you ever remember me?’ unaccompanied. If that weren’t dramatic enough, his voice spiraled up on the last word –‘me’– like a thin plume of smoke, holding on for a moment before drifting up to the ceiling. He took a quick bow, said ‘thanks,’ and trotted offstage, and the concert ended. It would not have been a more perfect finale if he had planned it.”

The performance would end up being his first major step into the music industry. He began writing songs that would end up appearing on Grace including “Mojo Pin” and the title track, “Grace,” and started building a following with regular appearances at the Sin-é cafe in the East village. It wasn’t long until major record labels got wind of of Buckley’s talents, and soon the block outside Sin-é was lined with limousines as record company executives jockeyed to sign him. He ultimately signed with Columbia because his hero Bob Dylan was with them.

He released the now classic album Grace in August of 1994. After a disappointing initial release, the album started gaining traction when “Last Goodbye” was released as a single. The record also featured a chilling cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” a song would later become lauded as one of the best recordings of all time.

After extensive touring over the next three years, Buckley found himself exhausted, and especially tired of life in New York City. Struggling to write new music, he moved to Memphis for a change of pace. He began working on his second album My Sweetheart The Drunk, writing new music and working through it by performing regularly at a downtown club. Eventually he was ready to bring his band down to record the album. On May 29 1997, the same day the band arrived in Memphis, Jeff took a guitar and a boombox and went for a swim in the Mississippi River. He was pulled underwater by a current and never seen again until his body was discovered days later. Suddenly the world had lost one of its most promising talents. After his death his star continued to burn brighter, and his fandom grew more and more. The songs Buckley had started before his death were released on a compilation called Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk.

Over the years, tributes have been penned by numerous notable artists including Coldplay, Rufus Wainwright, Pete Yorn, Aime Mann, Lana Del Rey, and Chris Cornell. In 2008, Jeff Buckley earned his first No. 1 song when “Hallelujah” suddenly gained mainstream popularity after being sung on American Idol.