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90s | Music | Pop Culture

The Chilling Story Behind Jeff Buckley, A Rising Star Who Was Literally Swept Away

Konbini / Pitchfork

The sun was just beginning to set on a warm evening on May 29, 1997. Wolf River Harbor, a water channel of the Mississippi River, was calm and still.

30-year-old singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley was captivated by the serene surroundings, unable to keep his eyes off the tranquility as he waded into the water, while still wearing his boots, shirt, and pants.

Then he began singing the chorus of Led Zeppelin's song "Whole Lotta Love," which is basically the name of the song repeated over and over again.

And that's where his story ends, leaving millions of fans shocked and confused by his last day on earth.

Buckley got his first taste of fame when he performed his first gig at a club, and after that he was hooked. He was only a teenager, and spent most of his time playing guitar and singing cover songs instead of focusing on school.

A few years later, he spent a decade working as a session guitarist in Los Angeles. In the early '90s, Buckley went to New York City to play cover songs at venues. And people loved him. His voice was unique, authentic, and the vibrations in his vocal chords told a heartfelt story.

That's around the time he started focusing on his own material, and with the help of his late father's music connections, Tim Buckley, who was also a singer-songwriter and guitarist, he signed with Columbia Records.

By 1994 he recorded his first, and only, studio album, Grace. Tracks like "Lover, You Should've Come Over," "Mojo Pin," and "So Real" are still some of the most heart-wrenching melodies out there.

However, the rising star became well-known internationally for his beautiful rendition of Leonard Cohen's song "Hallelujah."

Buckley's version was described by Time magazine to be "exquisitely sung."

"Buckley treated the ... song like a tiny capsule of humanity, using his voice to careen between glory and sadness, beauty and pain... It's one of the great songs."

After everyone knew the young star's name and could recognize his voice instantly, it was time for Buckley to release his second studio album.

That's when the story turns grim...

Buckley's band flew to Memphis, Tennessee to join him in his studio to work on their next album. The same evening they were going to meet up, Buckley decided to go swimming, which he'd done several times before.

He stepped into Wolf River Harbor fully clothed and never reemerged from that muddy rush of water.

Buckley and his fellow musician, and roadie, Keith Froti, were sitting on a bank of the river listening to the radio and playing the guitar.

When Buckley had an urge to go swimming, his friend didn't think too much about it, but warned him that it could be dangerous.

Buckley waded in the water, floated on his back, and began to sing one of his favorite songs.

Then a boat came by, creating large waves, and in that moment when Buckley's companion got up to move the radio to a dryer area, Buckley had vanished.

Memphis police searched the area by helicopter until it became too dark. The next morning, a scuba team and harbor patrol looked everywhere for Buckley's body for days, but he was not found.

It wasn't until almost a week later that a passenger aboard a riverboat spotted his body among branches and other debris. The corpse was almost unrecognizable, but autopsy reports noted that they recognized Buckley's navel ring with a purple bead.

The following statement was released from the Buckley estate:

"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."

Questions we still have today: Was Buckley's death a mere accident?  

The last photo of Jeff Buckley, just hours before his untimely death. MojoPin

Buckley's father died from drug overdose when he was only a child, but he grew up admiring his musical talents, and remarkably became more famous than his father could ever dream of.

That being said, he started to hate the comparisons people made between him and his father.

Intense rock stardom, constantly writing sad tunes, and touring around the world took a toll on Buckley. He was asked to take some time off, and he felt completely afraid of making a second album. His father released a couple dozen albums before he died, and Buckley had only released one.

It was rumored that Buckley abused drugs, specifically heroin. Some people described him as someone who looked "blatantly junked out," but many of his friends said he only experimented with drugs, but was never an addict. His fellow musicians always remembered that he'd promise to "never end up like [his] old man."

Lastly, his mother said he was a great swimmer. So how could a few waves in a harbor cause him to drown? Especially when his friend was right there to save him if he felt like he was in danger?

Almost two weeks after Buckley's death, his road manager, Gene Bowen, stared at the muddy water wondering, "Why would you even put your toe in that? But it's typical Jeff. He was a butterfly, you know? He was just like: 'Go with it.'"

"He was unpredictable," Foti said of the late musician. "That was the beauty about Jeff. Every moment was an expression."

Perhaps it was a mere accident, a few lapping waves that sent the rising star to his death bed...