The first time you hear Jeff Buckley's voice, it can be tough to get it out of your head. His control was almost operatic, and over the course of his album Grace, he goes from howling over the end of a romance in "Last Goodbye" to soaring above a spare guitar in a lullaby version of "Corpus Christi Carol" by the English composer Benjamin Britten.
And then, of course, there's his haunting, powerful "Hallelujah," his best-known recording, and considered by many to be the definitive take on Leonard Cohen's classic lyric:
Today marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Grace, the only album Buckley released in his short life. Born in 1966, Buckley was the son of Mary Guibert and Tim Buckley, an experimental American folk singer and songwriter, whom he met only once. After struggling to get his own music career off the ground, Jeff came to the attention of the wider music world in 1991 when he sang at a tribute concert to his late father called "Greetings from Tim Buckley." The song Jeff chose to cover: "I Never Asked To Be Young Mountain," in which Tim makes reference to leaving his young wife and infant son. "It was about him having to take the gypsy life over a regular one," Jeff told Interview Magazine. "It’s a beautiful song. I both admired it and hated it, so that’s what I sang."
Soon after that appearance, Buckley's career took off. He landed a three-record deal with Columbia the next year, and on August 23, 1994, he released Grace. Like so many other albums that have gone on to become classics, it initially sold poorly, and wasn't always favourably reviewed. But Grace also won Buckley some significant fans, including Jimmy Page, one of his heroes:
The 2002 documentary Everybody Here Wants You includes tributes from some of his other notable fans and collaborators, including Patti Smith, Brad Pitt and Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins:
In 1996, Buckley started work on a followup to Grace that was going to be called My Sweetheart the Drunk. The next year on May 29, shortly before he was to launch into a new recording session for the album, Buckley took a swim in Wolf River Harbor near Memphis and drowned. He was only 30 years old.
In the years since his death, Buckley's reputation cemented as one of the great vocalists and songwriters of the '90s — and his legend has given rise to not one but two separate biopics. 2012's Greetings From Tim Buckley stars Penn Badgley as a young Buckley, and centres around the 1991 tribute concert. Here's the trailer:
And a new film called Mystery White Boy is currently in the works. Unlike Greetings From Tim Buckley, it's being executive produced by Buckley's mother Mary Guibert, and will reportedly star Reeve Carney in the lead role.
Before we go, one more example of the raw power of Buckley's voice and the inventiveness of his songwriting. Here's "Grace," the album's title track: