A Most Immaculately Hip Aristocrat
WRITTEN BY JOSH RAY – MAY 2015
“Hipsters, flipsters and finger-poppin’ daddies, knock me your lobes!” I’ve got a story to tell you about “the sweetest, gonest, wailingest cat that ever stomped on this sweet swingin’ sphere.”
Described by Bob Dylan as “the hipster, bebop preacher who defies all labels”, Richard Myrle Buckley is one of history’s forgotten innovators. Adopting a Beatnik sensibility long before Jack Kerouc ventured On The Road, his Lord Buckley persona influenced everyone from Ken Kesey to Tom Waits, Frank Zappa to Robin Williams and George Harrison to Jimmy Buffett. However, his legacy is too often overlooked…
Born in Tuolumne, California’s lumber boomtown in the foothills of Sierra Nevada, Buckley would often perform on the street with his sister Nell, picking up pocket money from the stream of cowboys and lumberjacks passing through. Performing came naturally to the idiosyncratic character but the pressure of making ends meet forced him into the lumber industry, taking the incredibly dangerous role of ‘tree topper’.
It wasn’t until he set off to Mexico with his brother on an oil venture in the mid-1920s that he found his way into performing again. Only getting as far as Galveston, Texas, Buckley met a guitarist and found himself performing at San Antonio’s Million Dollar Aztec Theater. Although the manager described it as “the lousiest act I ever played in my life” – which Buckley himself confirmed – the call of show business proved too hard to resist.
By the turn of the 1930s Buckley found himself performing across Chicago and by the middle of the decade he was frequenting the mob-run speakeasies throughout the city. Eventually catching the eye of none other than Al Capone, Buckley was set up with his own club Chez Buckley by the formidable gangster. He quickly proceeded to book some of the finest jazz musicians for his club, including Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Cab Calloway. All of whom influenced the persona he’d later gain notoriety with.
During his time in Chicago, Buckley was invited to a bankrupt circus his friend Midas had just bought and found an elegant purple robe – originally intended to be worn by elephants – that was encrusted in emeralds, rubies, sapphires, “all of fine solid glass.” Upon adorning his newfound garb, his Lord Buckley persona was born, but it wouldn’t be until a decade later that he began using it in his performances.
After a while the Chicago vice-squad forced him out of the city and in the 1940s Buckley found himself performing on the vaudeville circuit where he gained fame with his Amos n’ Andy routine, a glimpse at what was to come. During WWII, Buckley used this skit extensively on his U.S.O. tours, impressing TV personality Ed Sullivan so much that he was invited on his show no less than nine times.
In the 1950s he moved to Los Angeles hoping to break into the film industry. This never materialised, but it was around that time that he adopted his ‘Lord Buckley’ stage character; a heady combination of an aesthetic derived from the British aristocracy – complete with a waxed moustache, tuxedo and pith helmet – and the ‘hipsemantic’ of African-Americans. “Negroes spoke a language of such power, purity and beauty”, the Lord notes. “I could not resist this magical way of speaking, nor the great power it had for good in its purity and sweetness.”
Recasting historical and legendary events as well as excepts from popular literature in his own distinct style, it soon became clear Lord Buckley had found his true calling. From his tales of the “carpenter kiddie” Jesus in The Nazz or “the sweet, precious” Gandhi in Hip Gahn (both above) to the reimagining of Mark Anthony’s speech from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in Friend’s, Romans, Countrymen (below), Buckley’s recordings – released via imprints including World Pacific, Vaya, Straight and RCA – are revered with a cult status by those in the know, despite being resigned to relative obscurity in the mainstream.
The West Coast allowed Buckley to pursue his free-spirited living in relative peace, whether residing in the dilapidated Chicken Coop and Crackerbox Palace – the latter an inspiration for a George Harrison song of the same name – or in the luxurious mansion in Hollywood Hills, dubbed ‘The Castle’. Never one to turn down a mind-altering experience, Buckley participated in psychiatrist Dr. Oscar Janiger’s clinical research into LSD during his time in LA, describing his experience as follows…
“I first felt a tenseness in my groin and chest, as if something big was there, something I knew was going to rise up to break through to something new. My whole body was jingling with alert signals. This is gonna be one mother of a takeoff! Hang on! It felt like a soul pressure. I felt strong. I felt words shooting out of me like projectiles, acres of untapped sound were waiting to be put in the gun of expression! And with the physical feelings of rising and breaking through, came a great sense of expanding freedom. I knew I was there when I saw the high florescency of vivid colors…”
As well as extensively recording throughout the fifties, Lord Buckley made several television appearences on programmes like Steve Allen’s Tonight Show, Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life and The Milton Berle Show, whilst also voicing the Go Man Van Gogh character in the Wildman In Wildsville episode of Bob Clampett’s ABC cartoon Beany and Cecil.
At the turn of the 1960s, Buckley was to have trouble with the vice-squad again, this time that of the city of New York. While working at the Jazz Gallery his cabaret card was confiscated due to the fact that no one with a criminal record could work in the restaurants or clubs of New York – Buckley having been busted in Reno in 1941 for public drunkenness. Coming to his defence a Citizens Emergency Committee – predominantly comprised of magazine and book editors – argued that cabaret cards weren’t issued unless a bribe was paid to the Police Cabaret Bureau.
Although this revelation made front page news and eventually led to the abolition of the cards, Lord Buckley was never to work again. A lack of money and purpose sent him into a downward spiral of angst and hunger, leading to him suffering a fatal stroke caused by “hypertension”. When His Lordship could no longer perform, he had nothing left to live for.
Perhaps offering the most acute description of his legacy, Ken Kesey explained that “Lord Buckley is a secret thing that people pass under the table. You ask writers who they think is the best writer, and they all mention someone above them. Gradually you get up at the top, and you get to Samuel Beckett and not many people have read him. But a lot of people have been influenced by Beckett. I think the same was true of Lord Buckley. There were a lot of people influenced by Lord Buckley who never heard his material.”
One of Super Weird Substance’s key influences, Lord Buckley’s The Nazz features twice on the Blind Arcade Meets Super Weird Substance In The Morphogenetic Field mixtape – first appearing at the end of Crazy Shit: “and I dig all you cats (and kitties) out there whippin’ and wailin’ and jumpin’ up and down and suckin’ up all that fine juice…” recited by Cynthia Robinson of Sly & The Family Stone, before it’s reprised by the man himself between Under My Nose and The Glue.
More info on His Lordship can be found here