In the mid-’90s, things were looking pretty good for Jeff Buckley. Although his 1994 debut album, Grace, hadn’t been a blockbuster, it was a massive critical success. Upon the record’s release, Buckley seemed to become the favorite newcomer for rock’s elite, earning praises from Bono to Jimmy Page to David Bowie to Bob Dylan, who called him “one of the great songwriters of this decade.”
While Buckley toured incessantly, his album eventually went gold in France and Australia and began to sell better in the U.S. as well. After two years of touring, in 1996, Buckley began working on his follow-up album in New York. As he was writing, he helped Patti Smith on her record, Gone Again, and met former Television guitarist Tom Verlaine – who agreed to produce Buckley’s next CD. In New York City, Buckley began testing out songs for the upcoming record (to be titled My Sweetheart, the Drunk) at live shows. Lou Reed attended one, and told Buckley he’d like to work with him in the future.
In ’96 and early ’97, Buckley and his band began laying down tracks with Verlaine producing, but Buckley wasn’t happy with the results. He felt a change of scenery might be in order and moved to Memphis in February. The singer rented a shotgun shack in Memphis and planned to record at Easley McCain Recording.
Verlaine and Buckley’s band soon joined him in Memphis to take another crack at some sessions, but the magic still wasn’t there. Buckley called upon Grace producer Andy Wallace to replace Verlaine and sent his band back to New York while he continued to work on writing and demos in Memphis. In the meantime, Buckley continued to test out his new songs live, playing regular gigs at Barrister’s, a downtown bar.
He sent his demos to his band, who were thrilled with the results and excited to begin work on the songs. Arrangements were made for the musicians to fly in on May 29, 1997. Sadly, the day would prove a tragic one and the band would never see Buckley alive again.
On this day in 1997, with his band scheduled to arrive in the evening, Buckley went out to dinner with friend and road manager Keith Foti. The two guys were heading to a rehearsal studio when, at about 9 p.m., the singer decided to go for a swim in Wolf River Harbor – while wearing boots and all of his clothing. Apparently, this is something Buckley had done before. Legend has it that Buckley was singing “Whole Lotta Love” to himself and he jumped in. Foti watched from the shore.
As a tugboat approached, Foti turned his back to the water so that he could move a guitar and radio away from the shore, so that the wake from the boat wouldn’t soak them. When he turned back, Buckley was nowhere to be seen. Shortly after, rescue attempts were made, but Buckley remained missing.
More than a week later, on the evening of June 4, Buckley’s body was discovered on the banks of the Mississippi River, reportedly right at the foot of Memphis’ famous Beale Street. Foti later identified his friend’s body. Buckley was 30 years old.
Following his death, rumors circulated about Buckley’s mental state when he decided to go swimming fully clothed. Many suggested he was drunk or on drugs. But an autopsy proved those rumors false – there was nothing like that in his system – and his death was ruled an accidental drowning. To clarify what happened, his family released a statement:
“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.”
Following his death, Buckley became a well-known musical figure. His unfinished material was released in 1998 as Sketches for My Sweetheart, The Drunk. Many musicians, from PJ Harvey to Rufus Wainwright to Chris Cornell, have written songs in tribute to him. And Grace, which went gold in the U.S. in 2002, is now considered by many to be a classic recording.