Hipster, Flipster and Finger-Poppin’ Daddy
The welcome full-scale biography of Lord Buckley may signal the long-overdue revival of this avant-garde stand-up, nonstop jazz-talking ecstatic visionary preacher with a three-octave range and febrile surrealist imagination who loomed decades ahead of his time. His death in 1960 was largely overlooked by the standard obits, except as an opportunity to dismiss him as a “cult comic.”
Those obits neglected to add that the ever-growing “cult” quoted at length in Oliver Trager’s exhaustive tribute, “Dig Infinity!,” included Steve Allen, Ed Sullivan, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Robin Williams, Ken Kesey, Henry Miller, the Grateful Dead, the Beatles, Studs Terkel, Jonathan Winters, Frank Sinatra, Laurence Olivier, Frank Zappa, Dick Gregory and the Nicholas Brothers. Not to forget an early employer, Al Capone, reputed to have called Buckley “the only man that ever made me laugh.”
Those familiar with Lord Richard Buckley only on recordings tended to assume he was black and were aghast to discover that, in the flesh, he embodied the Hollywood stereotype of a crusty British Lord, what Eric Hobsbawm, who writes as a jazz critic under the name of Francis Newton, described as “a Colonel cashiered from the Indian army in 1930.” His Lordship, a title self-conferred and lived to the hilt, offstage as much as on, was noted for recasting Shakespeare, the Bible and the lives of Jesus and Gandhi into the jazz argot of a black hipster. At 6 feet, 3 inches tall and weighing 185 pounds, his barrel-chested gymnastic physique reflected an early stint as lumberjack in the environs of Tuolumne, Calif., in the High Sierra, where he was born in 1906.
Teaming up with Red Skelton as emcee in the walkathons, those grueling marathons of the Great Depression, Buckley reinvented his persona even more radically than Jay Gatsby did. A charismatic con man and bunco artist, he lived the flamboyant epicurean lifestyle of an oil-rich potentate, conferring honorific titles on his “royal court” of idolaters (“Lady Doris, Prince Valentine”) eager to lavish him with free rent, motorcars and unlimited credit. Tubby Boots, who joined the Buckley Royal Court at the age of 12, said, “Buckley should have been born with money because he thought he had money. He’d go out and tell the butcher, ‘My God, I’m having a party in your honor. Every Hollywood star is going to be there. I know you’re going to want to put the meat in the party.’ And before you knew it, Buckley had all the trimmings for a party. He was always in debt, but people loved him because he only took advantage of his friends. If he liked you, he’d con you. If he didn’t like you, he avoided you.”
His road manager, Charles Tacot, recalled: “Buckley led sixteen nude people through the lobby of the Royal Hawaiian where [Frank] Sinatra was performing. Sinatra had got him the job. When he learned of this caper he phoned Buckley. ‘It’s the funniest thing I ever heard. Just don’t ask me for any more favors.’ ”
Trager also quotes the late comic Adam Keefe: “Buckley was working in a Chicago club, the Suzy Q. He hired an open-backed hearse and was lying in an open coffin in the back of the hearse. There was a big sign that said, ‘The Body Comes Alive at the Suzy Q’ and he’s lying there in the coffin smoking a joint riding around Chicago.”
Buckley carefully tailored his act to fit the audience. His frequent gigs on “The Ed Sullivan Show” stuck to safer material, including his audience participation Amos ‘n Andy ventriloquist routine and the phantasmagoric sounds of a Fourth of July picnic replete with brass band and double-talk political speechifying. Working a hipper crowd, like the one at the Coffee Gallery in San Francisco’s North Beach during the heyday of the beatnik invasion of the 1950s, Buckley openly smoked pot on stage while he regaled the societal dropouts with “The Nazz,” shorthand for “The Nazarene”: “So The Nazz and his buddies was goofin’ off down the boulevard one day and they run into a little cat with a bent frame. So The Nazz say, ‘What’s de mattawid you baby?’ And the little cat say, ‘My frame is bent, Nazz--it’s been bent from in front.’
“So The Nazz put the golden eyes of love on this little kitty and he looked right down into the window of the little cat’s soul! And he say, STRAIGHT-EN!!! Ka-zoom! Up went the cat like an arrow and ever-body jumpin’ up and down say, ‘Would you look what The Nazz put on that boy! You dug Him before--re-dig Him now!’ ”
Half a century ago, you might have had only a hazy notion of what he was talking about, unless you were a new wave comic, actor, writer or a jazz musician like his protege, Anita O’ Day, who considered him “the forefather of Professor Irwin Corey, Lenny Bruce, Mike Nichols and Elaine May.”
Actor-comic Larry Storch “never saw him write anything down. He was able to pick four people out of an audience and do a routine with them, but it would take him fifteen minutes--it was absolutely hypnotic: ‘You! Up on stage immediately! You don’t want to make me angry!’ And by God, they would go right up on stage. I saw old people with canes hobble up on stage. And he’d sit them on stools in front of him, and tap each one on the back and tell them to move their lips and suddenly here ‘vas un olt Chewish man’ and Buckley would tap someone else and they’d move their lips and out would come Louis Armstrong’s voice, and it was absolutely hysterical.”
The public notoriety that evaded Buckley in life surfaced immediately after his death in 1960 at 54, when the Manhattan media led by the Village Voice discovered that he was another victim of the New York Police’s notorious “cabaret card” law, which prevented anyone convicted of a felony, no matter how remote or trivial, from being employed in a venue that served alcohol. (Buckley had been charged with a minor misdemeanor 15 years earlier.) His death set loose a firestorm of organized protest among theatrical unions, show people and journalists, including Nat Hentoff, that resulted in the abolition of the “cabaret card” insanity.
Comic and political activist Dick Gregory provides a clue to the possible reasons behind a revival of interest today in Buckley’s recordings and appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and Groucho Marx’s “You Bet Your Life”: “His use of the African American idiom was brilliant. It wouldn’t take nothing to do that now, but imagine the guts and integrity it took for him to do that in his time. Political Correctness notwithstanding, I think his material would go over big now because America, despite its many problems, is more mature than it was then.”
Trager’s obvious labor of obsessive passion covers Buckley’s obscure origins, with expansive interviews with nearly everyone who had contact with His Lordship, including his beauteous, supportive and infinitely patient wife, “Lady” Elizabeth Buckley. The CD included with Trager’s book contains some of his most memorable live routines to suggest why Buckley was embraced with messianic fervor by leading writers, comics, actors and opinion makers of our time, many of whom can still recite “The Nazz,” “The Bad-Rapping of the Marquis De Sade” and “Willie the Shake” from memory. Perhaps His Lordship’s time has finally come.