Jeff Buckley: NME’s guide to the ‘Hallelujah’ challenger

Read our history of Jeff Buckley

Looking likely to enter the top three in next Sunday’s (December 21) UK singles chart, Jeff Buckley‘s ‘Hallelujah’ is seen as the definitive version of the song – despite the fact that it was originally written and recorded by Leonard Cohen.

Buckley‘s ‘Hallelujah’ was the centrepiece of his only official album, 1994’s seminal ‘Grace’. In 2003, the album was voted Number 33 in NME‘s 100 Best Albums Ever poll, beating the likes of Oasis‘(What’s The Story) Morning Glory’ and Joy Division‘s ‘Unknown Pleasures’.

Born in Anaheim, California on November 17, 1966, Buckley was the son of cult musician Tim Buckley and Mary Guibert. Although he never had a close relationship with his father – his parents divorced and Jeff lived with his mother – comparisons between Tim and Jeff‘s looks, voices and songs were made throughout Buckley Jnr’s career.


After being brought up with the music of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, Buckley started playing the guitar at the age of 13. He finished school in 1984, spending the next six years playing in various bands with little success. Things would begin to pick up in the early ’90s, when Buckley started to perform and write with experimental guitarist Gary Lucas. The duo worked on a number of ideas that eventually turned into some of Buckley‘s best-loved songs – including ‘Grace’ and ‘Mojo Pin’.

Playing at venues including the Sin-é in New York‘s East Village, Buckley built up a reputation for performing obscure covers, ranging from Bob Dylan to Edith Piaf. His unique voice – Buckley was a tenor capable of reaching a falsetto pitch – also garnered much attention.

Buckley signed to Columbia Records in 1992 and set about recording his debut album in mid-2003.

‘Grace’ was released in 1994. Initially, the album generated poor sales, reaching Number 149 in the US Billboard charts. However, its legacy was assured due to almost universal critical praise, celebrity endorsement (David Bowie named it one of his favourites), and sadly, Buckley‘s death in 1997.

While preparing to record ‘Grace’‘s protracted follow-up, Buckley moved to Memphis in March 1997. Sessions for the album were fraught, with ‘Grace’‘s producer Andy Wallace being brought in to replace Television‘s Tom Verlaine, who Buckley had originally chosen for the job.

On May 29, the day his band were due to fly to Memphis to continue work on the album, Buckley went swimming in Wolf River Harbour, a tributary of the Mississippi River, while his friend and roadie, Keith Foti, remained ashore. After moving Buckley‘s radio and guitar away from the water, Foti looked up to see that Buckley had disappeared under the tide.


Despite a frantic rescue effort, Buckley‘s body was not found in time, eventually being spotted by a tourist on June 4. Buckley was taken ashore and later cremated, with his remains scattered at his estate. He was 30.

Rumours that Buckley‘s death was not accidental have constantly been denied by his mother, who wrote the following on

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.”

Since his death, a number of posthumous albums have been released, including an collection of demos originally intended for the follow up to ‘Grace’ (‘Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk’, released in 1998).

In a review of live album ‘Mystery White Boy’, which was released in 2000, NME wrote of Buckley: “Here was a dude who could deliver his voice to so many emotional addresses but, like Thom Yorke, resisted using it as a virtuoso instrument, and whose music invoked such a heady and heavy atmosphere. On top of that, he and his band rocked hard.

“We’re much poorer without him, but still richer for this.”

Although Buckley looks set to receive his highest chart entry in the UK ever next Sunday (thanks to the interest generated by ‘The X Factor’ in his version of ‘Hallelujah’), it’s worth remembering that while he was alive he was also fiercely revered by fans and contemporaries.

Speaking to NME shortly after Buckley‘s death, Suede guitarist Bernard Butler praised Buckley, saying: “The soundscapes of his songs were very intense. With Tim Buckley, the drums are kind of patterning, and the guitar is very mellow and very jazzy, but with Jeff Buckley, they were really quite noisy. He was a great guitar player and he used to do a lot of stuff with open string tunings on his guitar which I was only just starting to find out.

“I met him twice, the second time was backstage at the London Shepherds Bush Empire, when I went to see him with Lisa, my wife, and he was kind of being led around by all these record company people, but he came over straight away and had a chat. He didn’t just remember me, he remembered my wife as well, and in the record business that’s kind of unheard of. He was a sweetheart.”

Meanwhile, Radiohead‘s Thom Yorke reputedly recorded his vocals for ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ directly after seeing Buckley perform in Highbury, north `London, armed only with an acoustic guitar and pint of Guinness. Yorke was apparently so impressed by the passion and simplicity of Buckley‘s performance that he recorded his vocals in just two takes, bursting into tears at the song’s end.

Other famous fans include Brad Pitt, who says he has an “obsession” with Buckley, Patti Smith, and Cocteau Twins singer Liz Fraser, who reportedly had a brief relationship with him.

As NME,COM reported today, a new Jeff Buckley compilation is set to be released next year.

You can find out more about the history of ‘Hallelujah’ at NME.COM/PHOTOS – and debate which version of the song is the best on the NME Office Blog.