Scalawags: Lord Buckley Takes the Stage

One groovy flower.

In her terrific autobiography High Times, Hard Times, Anita O’Day, the jazz singer without vibrato, describes standing in the wings at a nightclub in Chicago and watching the act that she was to follow. The fellow wore a tuxedo and sported a racetrack tout’s moustache. The man was not a singer, dancer or comedian. He talked and talked some more, in a jive language mostly of his own devising. Then in the middle of his monologue, the man began climbing a beam and when he reached the rafters, he pulled out a marijuana cigarette, lit it, and continued talking while taking great big inhalations.

Another commentator has him finishing his act with a little speech: “Before I leave you, I’d like to say to you, PEOPLE are what it is all about … they are Mother Nature’s brightest flower, her sweetest, purest most elevating thing that ever was. You are groovy flowers in a garden where I am privileged to stand and share a few moments with you.”

That speech sounds now like your typical platitudes mouthed by some bland hippie before he cranks up the guitar at a festival to save the whales; the former incident might capture a performance artist insitu. Both of them could be happening tomorrow. Thing is, the latter speech was given after a show at a hotel in Las Vegas in 1954 and the former was observed in Chicago in 1934.

Both incidents illustrate that Richard Myrle Buckley, a former logger, was not only decades outside his time, he was untamable and unclassifiable. Some other way lies fame and fortune, his way lies legend.

No one is sure about when devotees started calling him Lord. Not many people are sure about anything to do with the man.

In his book Jazz Lives, Barry Ullman called Lord Buckley “the black comedian and social commentator”.

Of course, he was not a comedian and his social commentary was incidental; he wasn’t black either. What he was is thoroughly unique. Unlike anyone else before or since.

This is a man whose admirers range from Al Capone to Frank Zappa, Elvis Presley to Henry Miller, Whoopi Goldberg to Ed Sullivan. Some of his commentators had tried to place him in a rebel pantheon but the man wasn’t rebelling against anyone or anything, he was just being who he was, His Lordship.

He was born in 1906, the youngest of 10 children, in Tuolimine, an old mining town in California. As a young man he quit a logging job to go to Mexico to work in the oilfields. In Galveston, he met a musician who had a gig at a place called the Million Dollar Aztec Theatre. The musician, entranced by Buckley’s monolgues on the rooming house porch at night, got him a job at the theatre. He bombed. The manager of the place told him he was “the lousiest act I ever put on in my life.”

Buckley later said, “He was right.” And went out to pay his dues. He got on the vaudeville circuit and then became an emcee at dance marathons during the Depression. Soon he was working in radio and in small clubs as an entreacte between the jazz musicians. Some time in the late 30s, he began working in clubs backed by the Mob. Al Capone took a liking to Buckley and set him up with his own joint. Capone later said, “Buckley is the only person who can make me laugh.”

All this time Buckley was not only gaining experience, he was learning language. He had always loved language, the sounds and rhythms of it. Now he was hearing show business lingo, the argot of jazz, criminal slang and he absorbed it just as he had the language of loggers as he was growing up. All of this, in pre-television days, was the talk of subcultures, alternate ways of speaking from that of the dominant culture. Buckley took what he liked from all of these and soon had an argot all his own.

And during all this experience, he listened to stories. Listened to them in the woods at night, backstage in small towns, in entertainers’ boardinghouses, in dressing rooms while a bottle or a joint was passed around. Language and stories became his instrument.

There were plenty of people who didn’t appreciate what he was doing—because they had never heard anything like it—and he was booed off many a stage. People who travelled with him, remembered how Buckley would want to stop at a diner with a strange name, would become transfixed by the man working the grille, the story one truck driver was telling another one.

No one is sure about when devotees started calling him Lord. Not many people are sure about anything to do with the man.

And all this time, he was followed by trouble. A lot of it was women trouble, much of it law trouble. He went through five or six wives until he hooked up with a former chorus girl named Elizabeth Hanson, soon to be known as Lady Buckley. The were married in 1945 not long after Buckley’s one and only pot bust. Forty years after Buckley’s death she was still referring to him as His Lordship. “He spoke to everybody. They would wait for him and his invisible dog. He was inspiring to be with.”

It was Elizabeth who urged him to work his backstage stories into his act. Soon he was gracing audiences with what he called his “raps,” long takes on people such as Mahatma Gandhi (The Hip Gan), William Shakespeare (Willie the Shake), Nunez Cabexa de Vaca (The Gasser), The Marquis de Sade (The King of the Bad Cats). And then there was Jesus Christ, Himself.

And that’s who he was talking about when I first heard him in the late 60s. It was in the wee small hours, radio on, the roofs of the city in the window, the booming baritone voice, black-inflected, jazz inspired, “Now lookit here all you cats and kitties out there whippin’ and wailing and jumpin’ up and down and suckin’ up all that juice and pattin’ each other on the back and hippin’ each other who the greatest cat in the world is … I’m gonna put a cat on you was the coolest, grooviest, sweetest, wailingest, strongest, swingest cat that ever stomped this jumpin’ green sphere. And they call this here cat … the Nazz.”

And thus followed the tale of the wigged out dude from Nazareth.

It was just so great and different from anything else anyone was doing, had done and will do. There are plenty of people who have copied Lord Buckley, and some of them do it well, but the power is not there because the imitators are products of their times. The Lord was doing it in the 40s.

His former manager, George Grieff, remembers a party at the Buckley flat in Manhattan in the early 50s where the Lord was talking and Lenny Bruce and Charlie Parker were sitting at his feet.

Twenty-five years later, Grieff met George Harrison and when the latter heard he’d been The Lord’s manager, the former Beatle began to ply him with questions and later recited Buckley routines.

Harrison wrote a song about Lord Buckley called “Crackerbox Palace” that has a line: “the Lord is well and inside of you.” Harrison would later comment, “I meant Lord Buckley but everybody thought I was talking about the other Lord.”

And there was the time he had the entire circus at his apartment for a party and when the cops came, he got them drunk. The time he marched through the lobby of the Sheraton with a dozen naked Hawaiians. Or when he presided at the Church of the Living Swing in Hollywood; everybody sat on railroad ties while Buckley performed to jazz and there was the first ever light show in America.

Buckley had a small place in the hills called The Mattress Factory, a ramshackle place open to all at all hours where you were liable to see Rosalind Russell and Jonathan Winters sharing a mattress with a Bag Lady and James Dean while Buckley talked.

He took LSD in 1959.

The next year, about to open at a club in New York, his cabaret license was revoked because of that pot bust back in the 40s. The infamous Cabaret Law was devised and used to persecute jazz musicians and every other entertainer of that ilk. You could have been convicted of murder and your card would not be taken. But one toke of marijuana and that was it. Buckley was so upset by the incident that he had a heart attack and died.

At least his corporeal form ceased to exist. The rest of him, the best of him, will always be the swinginest scalawag that every trod the boards.

Photo via ©Ray Avery/


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Post Date:

February 1, 2005