Jeff Buckley was a songwriter, and a talented one. But his most famous and enduring recording is one that came from another pen…
Singer and guitarist Jeff Buckley would have turned 45 today, had he not drowned in 1997 when he was just 30 years old. Buckley was a songwriter, and a talented one… but his most famous and enduring recording is one that came from another pen.
“Hallelujah” was written by Leonard Cohen and released in 1984 on his album Various Positions. It was a stripped-down tune, sung with quiet emotion, and biblical references in every verse. (At least, every verse he recorded. The original recording is four verses long, though Cohen is said to have written more than 80 verses to the song.) Cohen’s “Hallelujah” made a modest showing on charts in the UK, Sweden and the Netherlands, but in most of the world, it didn’t catch on.
Ten years later, Jeff Buckley recorded his version. It wasn’t the first cover of Cohen’s song — John Cale turned in a well-regarded recording for a 1991 tribute album — but Buckley’s rendering slowly began its climb to the forefront of the public’s consciousness. It wasn’t an instant hit, but as it began being used in TV shows and movies, viewers were captivated by the haunting guitar and Buckley’s gorgeous vocals.
Ironically, it was another singer’s take on the song that would propel Buckley to the top of the charts — and it wouldn’t happen until 11 years after his death. In 2008, Jason Castro was a dreamy fan favorite on the smash TV show American Idol. When he sang a Buckley-influenced “Hallelujah” on the show, viewers flocked to download the song from iTunes and propelled the song to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Digital Songs chart — Buckley’s first time at the top of the charts.
It’s a song that’s been covered over and over — by artists as diverse as k.d. lang and Bon Jovi, Willie Nelson and Bono. But, with apologies to Leonard Cohen, Buckley’s version outshines them all. From his opening sigh to his final haunting chord, Jeff Buckley owned “Hallelujah.”