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"A most immaculately hip aristocrat," Lord Buckley was the epitome of comedy cool; a onetime vaudeville performer and a hulking ex-lumberjack, he was a comic philosopher, a bop monologuist whose vocalese fused the rhythms and patois of the street with the arch sophistication of the British upper crust to create verbal symphonies unparalleled in their intricacy and dexterity. A comedian who didn't tell jokes and a word-jazz virtuoso riffing madly on the English language, Buckley combined the frenetic intensity of Beat poetry with the lessons and moral heft of Biblical tales and historical discourse; holding court over the "hipsters, flipsters, and finger-poppin' daddies" of the postwar era, he was a true visionary, the original rapper.
His Lordship was born Richard Myrle Buckley on April 5, 1906, in Tuolumne, California, a mining town located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. After spending his formative years as a lumberjack, in the mid-'20s Buckley set out to find work in the oil fields of Texas and Mexico; he never made it, instead teaming with a traveling guitarist to form a musical comedy act. By the 1930s he was in Chicago, appearing as an MC in mob-owned speakeasies; there he became a protégé of Al Capone, who set up the comedian with his own club, the Chez Buckley, where he performed backed by a cadre of jazz musicians. Constant vice-squad pressure soon forced Buckley out of town, however, and throughout the early '40s he worked the vaudeville circuit, gaining a notorious reputation for ridiculing unhip audiences and smoking dope on-stage.
After touring with the U.S.O. during World War II, Buckley relocated to New York City, where he acted in a Broadway production titled The Passing Show. After he married Elizabeth Hanson, one of the show's dancers, the couple and their children moved to Los Angeles at the dawn of the 1950s; after attempts to break into films proved largely unsuccessful, Buckley began taking on the persona of "His Lordship," an aristocratic hipster madman clad in tuxedo, pith helmet, and Salvador Dali-esque waxed mustache. He quickly emerged as an underground legend, participating in LSD experiments while throwing wild parties at his rented Hollywood Hills mansion (dubbed the Castle) where the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Tony Curtis mingled with jazz musicians, junkies, and poets. At a Topanga Canyon art gallery owned by his friend Bob DeWitt, he also founded the first jazz religion, "the Church of the Living Swing."
In 1951 Buckley made his first recordings for the Vaya label, Euphoria and Euphoria, Vol. 2. The first album contained his most legendary routine, "The Nazz," a "hipsemantic" retelling of the life of Christ ("the sweetest, gonest, wailinest cat that ever stomped on this sweet, swingin' sphere"); the latter featured a number of riffs on Aesop's Fables as well as "Jonah and the Whale," complete with a pothead Jonah. Despite a series of well-received appearances on The Tonight Show, The Milton Berle Show, and You Bet Your Life, Buckley did not reenter the studio until 1955, when he cut Hipsters, Flipsters and Finger-Poppin' Daddies, Knock Me Your Lobes, which spotlighted his adaptations of scenes from the Shakespearean dramas Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and Macbeth.
After issuing a trio of singles in 1956 — "Flight of the Saucer, Pts. 1-2" (an excursion into outer space rapped over the 1946 Lyle Griffin track "Flight of the Vout Bug"), "The Gettysburg Address," and "James Dean's Message to Teenagers" — as well as recording the LP A Most Immaculately Hip Aristocrat (which went unreleased until 1970), Buckley moved to Las Vegas, where he worked the nightclub and casino circuit. In 1959 he returned to play Hollywood; the majority of a February 12 appearance at the Ivar Theatre was soon issued as the album Way Out Humor, while the remainder appeared in 1966 as Blowing His Mind (And Yours, Too). Ever the nomad, Buckley and his family moved to San Francisco in 1960, where he took up residency at clubs like the Hungry i and the Purple Onion; a performance at Oakland's Gold Nugget formed the basis of the 1970 release The Bad Rapping of the Marquis de Sade.
In the summer of 1960, Buckley set out alone in a red VW microbus to tour the country; in August he arrived in Chicago, where he fell ill. Still, he forged on to New York for a series of October performances at the Jazz Gallery; during one of his shows, the city's vice squad confiscated his cabaret card — a document necessary to play area clubs — on the grounds that he lied about having a prior arrest record. On November 12, he called the novelist Harold Humes, complaining of great anxiety triggered by the cabaret bureau's daily refusals to reissue his card; he also said he was hungry and broke. Within hours of hanging up the phone, Lord Buckley was dead of a stroke brought on by "extreme hypertension"; he was 54 years old. A few weeks later, civic pressure forced a repeal of the cabaret card law.
While Buckley was never a mainstream figure, his stature grew to mythic proportions in the months and years following his death. Lenny Bruce was an avowed fan, borrowing much of his attitude and rhythms from Buckley's lead, and everyone from Jonathan Winters to Robin Williams acknowledged His Lordship's influence. Bob Dylan was also enamored of his work, and at the outset of his career frequently covered Buckley's rendition of the poet Joseph Newman's "Black Cross." Jimmy Buffett performed the Buckley original "God's Own Drunk," and George Harrison's hit "Crackerbox Palace" drew inspiration from the comedian's life and its title from the name given his tiny Hollywood home. Still the subject of a fanatical cult following and a true underground hero, even decades after exiting "this sweet, swingin' sphere," the self-styled Messiah of Hip lives on.