Lord Buckley

Ian Anderson tells the story of the noblest wig bender of them all, the blessed Lord Buckley …

Originally published in fRoots 194/5, Aug/Sept 1999.

To swiftly recap, in the March 1999 issue I was rambling on about shared enthusiasms in my Editor’s Box, in particular about how an unfeasibly large number of roots music people of a certain age treasure the works of a long-gone man who went under the name of Lord Buckley. I mentioned that for years I’d been trying to figure out a justification for running a piece on him in fRoots, and concluded by saying that if I didn’t get immediate complaints about the notion, I might just do it. Amazingly, not a single complaint, but instead a deluge of emails, letters and calls from all parts of the globe saying “Yes!” Well, if the grumpy old editor can’t indulge himself on the occasion of the 20th anniversary, it’s a sad old sphere, and if it has grown into a full feature, I can only blame it on you crazy readers out there.

Where to start? You remember the first words of Transglobal Underground’s Nile Delta Disco, “Hipsters, flipsters …”? That was a direct quote from Lord Buckley’s reworking of Marc Antony’s funeral oration from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Willie The Shake, in which “Friends, Romans and countrymen, lend me your ears…” magically metamorphosises into “Hipsters, flipsters and finger poppin’ daddies, knock me your lobes…” in Buckleyspeak, Hip Semantic. He worked up epic monologues on all kinds of themes, some literary, some biblical, some historical, and some just from out there in the far-gonasphere. Perhaps his most celebrated work was the story of Jesus (The Nazz) but others included Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, tales of Nero, Ghandi (The Hip Ghan), Jonah & The Whale, explorer Alvar Nunez Cabaza de Vaca (The Gasser – which commences “You heard about Vasco de Gama the Island Bumper?”) and Columbus (The Hip Chris), The Bad Rapping Of The Marquis De Sade, Dickens’ Scrooge and Poe’s The Raven. He was a genius with the English language and the rhythm of delivery, described recently by writer Douglas Cruikshank as “the Charlie Parker of talk, the Fred Astaire of the tongue dance, the Paganini of prose.” They’ve even staged dance choreography to the rhythm of his recordings. He’s my all-time favourite storyteller.

To hear him is to fall under a spell. In my case I was maybe 16 years old, thumbing it up to the big city for a lost weekend party with my seaside town’s small gang of art school beatniks. Apart from life’s great lesson that sherry and rough cider do not sit well together in the stomach, two other things stuck in my brain afterwards. One was an EP by Alexis Korner & Davy Graham containing a new guitar piece called Anji, the other was a remarkable American voice – black, I’d assumed – telling the story of J.C. For some years after I could still miraculously quote lines from it, but I didn’t know who it was. Then, around 1969, I was visiting with Andrew Lauder at Liberty Records who’d just released my first proper album. “You’ll like this,” he said, not realising the gargantuan understatement this would turn out to be, and gave me a copy of Buckley’s Best. Back home, the moment the stylus hit the groove, I knew I’d found my lost treasure. My vocabulary has never been quite the same since …

Dick Buckley 1930s-40s

Some years later, that same album took a terrible beating one night when Martin Carthy came to stay. For some reason we decided we had to finally decode the hidden messages within The Gasser for once and for all. Throughout the night that grand tale unfolded of three Spanish explorers and a parrot stomping from Florida to Texas to Mexico City in 1510, performing miracles and fighting off bugs, crocodiles and Indians. Back and forth until dawn went the needle, and on every play, with great hand claps and cries of glee, we figured out another previously unfathomable Buckleyism. If only we’d known that San Francisco’s City Lights Books had published a volume of transcriptions by Buckley himself called Hiparama Of The Classics, we could have had a night’s sleep. One of the nice side-effects of announcing this Buckley quest has been that, courtesy of Hijaz Mustapha (another Buckley fan, of course), I’ve been able to provide the good MBE with a copy.

Richard Myrle Buckley was born on April 5th 1906 in Tuolumne, California, one of ten children. His father, William Buckley, had emigrated to America from Manchester, and his mother Annie Laurie Bone Buckley, although American born, had parents who had emigrated to Seattle from Cornwall. As a child he was said to have earned coins from wandering cowboys by singing with his sister Nell on the streets; later he worked as a lumberjack before heading south to Mexico to meet up with his brother to become a labourer in the oil industry. He never made it: in Galveston he fell in with a Texan guitarist and somehow got diverted into show business, doing their first gig at a theatre in San Antonio.

In the late ’20s and early ’30s, depression time in America, Dick Buckley made his name alongside Red Skelton as a humorous MC for the then-current craze of dance marathons and walkathons. He worked widely in vaudeville and the speakeasies, hooked up with jazz musicians, became a personal favourite of Al Capone (who set him up for a while with his own night club) and is said to have acquired an altogether notorious lifestyle. When you start reading the tales of Buckley, there are numerous extraordinary anecdotes about his entertaining antics, stunts and scrapes. (At the end of his career, he did voice-over for a gem of a beat-era cartoon called The Wild Man Of Wildsville: it could have been named after him). During World War II he entertained the troops and toured with Ed Sullivan, who was later to regularly feature Buckley on his influential US TV shows, and by the ’40s was working in the casino cities of Las Vegas and Reno. Later still, he even appeared in a Hollywood movie with Marilyn Monroe and Ginger Rogers and did a walk-on in Spartacus.

After the war, Buckley was based in New York and worked in a Broadway production called The Passing Show. Already having been married and divorced a number of times, he met and married Elizabeth Hanson, one of the show’s young dancers, and this final partnership seems to have marked a significant turning point in his life. By then, Buckley had perfected a staple stage act which included a hilarious Amos ‘n’ Andy routine. Four people would be seated and, when prodded from behind by a kneeling Buckley, would mime the southern black voices which Buckley would project onto them by what he called “mass pantomimicism”. But in private and after shows, Buckley was developing the style of hip monologues which would eventually become his crowning glory, and it was Elizabeth who persuaded Buckley that he should introduce these into his regular act. What was a private talent evolved from the centuries-old traditions of storytelling grew into one of the most influential deliveries of our lifetime.

Buckley in action. Photo: Charles Campbell — Lord Buckley Online

Another of the delights resulting from researching this feature was being pointed at a truly amazing web site called Lord Buckley Online, administered by Michael Monteleone. Stuffed full with transcriptions of interviews and press features, it has provided me with lots of factual meat. Thanks to the help of Michael, I was able to see an hour’s worth of Buckley on video, and one of the most telling exerpts is a 1949 clip where you can see him on the verge of change from the vaudeville act to the Buckley we best know. Kicking off with impressions of Louis Armstrong singing When The Saints Go Marching In, he finishes with a short monologue where he acts out the sinner below, caught with his hands in the till by the Lord above. There before your eyes is the Buckley everybody describes: not a black man at all, but a very tall, noble looking white man with a military moustache, slightly balding, wearing a tailed coat and white tie, speaking with a musical delivery that somehow manages to sound like both an English aristocrat and a strutting Harlem jazz musician all at once. The pith helmet was to come later, but it’s a religious experience in more ways than one.

“He almost went broke, starving to death, doing this interpretation but he could not stop himself,” said Buckley’s daughter Laurie when I called her at her Las Vegas home this summer. “Mother had encouraged him. So little by little, in the quiet times in the clubs in the late part of the night, he’d begin to do these monologues. Harry The Hipster, a beat hero who wrote Who Put The Benzedrine In Mrs Murphy’s Ovaltine? said, when he first heard dad’s stuff when they were working together, that he was doing his AA act, because they used to go to Alcoholics Anonymous together. But eventually it was everywhere that he could do them.”

The Buckleys lived in a flat on 71st Street in Manhattan’s Upper West side, and soon their home became the Royal Court, a bohemian centre for artists, jazz musicians, dancers, proto-beatniks, socialites and whoever came by. Tales abound of Lady Buckley giving ballet lessons to jazz legends including Charlie Parker. “I was a princess born into a royal court, which existed only amongst those who agreed that it was so,” says Laurie. “It was an adventure, constantly filled with beautiful people, fabulous musicians. We had Zoot Simms; mother told me that Charlie Parker stood over my crib. She had a thing called Ballet For Living which was about posture, a twenty minute exercise that you’d do every day to keep the body subtle and loose and she got everybody doing it.”

In the early ’50s, Buckley’s first two albums were released on the Vaya label (some of these recordings, including the definitive Jonah & The Whale, can be found on the CD His Royal Hipness, Discovery/Elektra). In 1954, the family moved west to Hollywood, settling in Topanga Canyon in a large house dubbed “The Castle”. Oliver Trager, who has nearly completed a biography of Buckley [published in 2002 as Dig Infinity! The Life And Art Of Lord Buckley], describes him as the “Hollywood hep-cat in residence” and reports that his admirers included Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jnr.

This was where Buckley distilled and composed his greatest works, while the beginnings of the beat era were swirling around him. “He was the only one who said wonderful things about the beat generation,” says Laurie Buckley. “When everyone was putting down the James Deans and the motorcycles and the Marlon Brandos, he was saying how beautiful they were and how they represented a new age and a new time. I’m sure that Lord Buckley must have met Kerouac, they all struggled in the same struggle. Allen Ginsberg loved Lord Buckley. As much as they tried to put down the beat generation, we’re all living like them now. They were giving us highlights of our future.”

History says that Rambling Jack Elliott and Derroll Adams first met up in a Topanga Canyon house owned by actor Will Geer where Buckley was part of the scene. “I was amazed by his wonderful talent and storytelling… saw him do it twice, once at a nightclub in Hollywood called Cafe Renaissance across from Ciro’s on Sunset Boulevard…”, Jack reminisced to Paul Kahn earlier this year.

Central to that scene was a health food café in Topanga Canyon run by Bob DeWitt and his wife Zoe, where Buckley had set up The Church Of The Living Swing not long after moving to the area. Singer Dorris Henderson met him there later in the decade. “They were fans of folk music and I was singing at the folk clubs like the Troubadour and the Ash Grove where they met me and invited me up,” remembers Dorris. “That’s where I met Lord Buckley several times. He did a couple of concerts up there for Bob. Every Sunday they used to have folk people dropping in, and he heard me sing up there and asked me if I’d accompany him on these concerts he was doing at the Ivar Theatre.”

Dorris Henderson


The 1959 Ivar Theatre concerts were recorded and released by World Pacific (later in the UK some of these tracks made up the Liberty album that caught me). This most famous version of The Nazz has Dorris singing Rock Of Ages in the background, whilst behind the altogether more serious The Black Cross, a harrowing moral tale of a southern lynching that was later to be performed by Bob Dylan, Dorris is to be heard singing Cumbaya. Later, after moving to England where she’s lived since the early ’60s, the records caught up with her one day when visiting Collett’s Folk Shop in London. “I wasn’t aware at all that people in England knew of Lord Buckley until Gill Cook said ‘We’ve got some Lord Buckleys in, have you heard him?’. I said ‘Yes, I’ve met him’ and so she played the album and I said ‘That’s me!’”

I mentioned to Dorris that there was still some controversy about Buckley’s use of black street talk and slang and wondered if she’d thought it dubious. “I didn’t get that impression. It was hip talk in the jazz world, and I never thought it was a rip off of any sort. Most of the people I knew around the jazz area did speak that way. It didn’t matter at all whether they were white or black. I was never offended; in fact it didn’t even occur to me that what he was doing was deliberately mimicking black talk at all.”

Laurie Buckley was still a young child at this time. “I was at the Ivar concerts. Dad put us right up on stage. We could sleep across the piano. The concerts were all early in the morning like 1.30 because there were no stages for Lord Buckley to perform, so he started renting the Ivar Theatre. He just loved the theatre and wanted it to be like that all the time, which turned out to be everywhere we went, it didn’t matter. In the grocery store, down the street, he performed everywhere. To go grocery shopping with Lord Buckley, being in a line at a grocery store, was brilliant. I’d have thirty more friends than I had before I went in there.”

What was the ‘real’ Lord Buckley and what was the stage persona, then? Dorris Henderson assured me that “it wasn’t just a stage performance. He was just like that all the time. Off and on stage he was the Lord Buckley. A very stately manner.”

Laurie Buckley confirms this. “He was always that way, there was never a slip. He spoke very clearly, it was always very British. He had his moments that might have been quieter than others but it was always there. The whole Royal Court was just a royal court of love, whether you were the millionaire or the alcoholic guy that dad brought home from the AA meeting. It was always a highly stimulating atmosphere, musicians, artists, actors and actresses, always a collection of interesting, interesting people. He just had such tremendous insights into lives and souls, he had kindness and compassion and he never put people down. I might look over and say ‘what an asshole that guy is,’ but he’d have said ‘well, he’s just not himself today’! He could identify the negative in people but he never used it against them.”

“My brother and I were so very well behaved children; ‘Yes ma’am, no ma’am, thank you’, very well-mannered. They often say that we were so perfect that the people who met us would go home and beat their children, because they’d say ‘why aren’t you like those Buckley children?’ It was required, simply because we travelled around in the business, up all hours, and you just couldn’t be disorderly children and make the gig. So it was very important to my parents that we be well-behaved as we were travelling constantly. We were so straight in such a wild world. When they smoked marijuana they never said what it was, not that we cared – we just knew that everybody was very happy.”

“To show you how square we were as kids, I did not realise until I was in my early twenties at the first Renaissance Fair we had here in Las Vegas, and I heard these words that only my father would speak. I looked over and there’s this hippie dude on bales of hay on a stage and he’s doing Jonah & The Whale. So I go over and I’m sitting there listening to him and it was only then that I realised what the great green vine Jonah was smoking was!”

But she is well aware of how influential Buckley has been, not just on comedians like Lenny Bruce but across the spectrum of entertainment. “I found Judy Collins talking about dad in a song book,” she remembers. “They’d met at a jazz festival at Pebble Beach in ’59. We were all there, I was just a little kid hanging along. They came together because so much of dad’s material was of that folk level. Quincy Jones said that he considered Lord Buckley one of the first rappers. Lord Buckley totally changed Bob Dylan’s life – he came to New York a few weeks after Lord Buckley died. He went down into the village and met an unknown comic by the name of Bill Cosby and Bill turned him on to Lord Buckley albums. When he heard The Black Cross it just made him bonkers until he’d copied down every single line. They say from that moment on he was to write about the downtrodden man, so Lord Buckley changed Bob Dylan’s life. Arlo Guthrie said that Lord Buckley was one of the few heroes of his life.” From Bill Cosby to Transglobal Underground – some sphere of influence!

Buckley’s demise was as tragic as it was unexpected. Not long after a final recording for World Pacific in 1960 (on the CD Bad Rapping Of The Marquis De Sade, World Pacific), he’d travelled across country via a stint at Chicago’s Gate Of Horn to appear at the Jazz Gallery in New York’s Greenwich Village. He came up against the corrupt Cabaret Card system, dating back to the Prohibition era, and had his card confiscated by the police, supposedly because of a long-forgotten drunkedness conviction from the ’40s, more likely because he didn’t pay the right bribe. A high-powered group of people from New York’s intelligentsia formed an Emergency Committee to deal with the affair, but shortly before it came to court, Buckley had a stroke brought on by the stress and died on November 12th. That December, Dizzy Gillespie and Ornette Coleman played for a memorial benefit for the Buckley family at the Village Gate.

Buckley leaves a tremendous legacy of influence on others. Sadly, only a few complete Buckley CDs are available – some already out of print but still listed on Amazon – and Oliver Trager’s book is already a collector’s item. You can get the complete Ivar Theatre recording as a download album titled So You Thought Hip Was New, though, and a few things have found their way to YouTube.

Even better for web people, there are endless hours of fascinating reading at Lord Buckley Online – www.lordbuckley.com It includes an extensive discography, lots of interviews, and the truly wonderful Buckley Hipesaurus, “A glossary of His Lordship’s swinging verbiage,” indispensible for cutting down on those all-night stylus frenzies.

Thanks to Laurie Buckley, Dorris Henderson, Michael Monteleone, Dick Waterman, Sid Soffer, Paul Kahn, Ken Hunt and Roger Armstrong, and to the writings of Oliver Trager and Douglas Cruickshank which I have relentlessly pillaged for biographical information.

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