He didn't wield a musical instrument or sing, yet Lord Buckley embodied jazz. He did it with his mind and with his mouth. He could riff, improvise, and wail, and his delivery was pure rhythm. Buckley was a monologist with a comic sensibility, but not a comedian. Biographer Michael Monteleone described him as "a strange but intriguing mix of a proper English peer of the realm and a street corner jive hipster."
Born Richard Myrle Buckley on April 5, 1906 in Tuolumne, California, he emceed (as "Dick Buckley") midwest dance marathons in the 1920s. During the following decade, the now Chicago-based iconoclast became the favorite after-hours entertainer of gangster Al Capone, who remarked, "He's the only guy who ever made me laugh."
After World War II, at the urging of Buckley's sixth wife, "Lady Elizabeth," he evolved an elegant and streetwise style of storytelling, drawing from history, literature and the Bible, delivered in a dazzling jazz patois. He called it "hipsemantic," borrowing from Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, beatniks, Redd Foxx, Pearl Bailey, and Sinatra. He became a semi-mystical, charismatic self-creation.
He referred to Jesus as "The Nazz" (later nicked by Todd Rundgren for his first band name). To His Lordship, Gandhi was "The Hip Gahn," Albert Einstein was "The Hip Einie," and the Bard of Avon he rechristened "Willie the Shake." Buckley worked jazz clubs and coffee houses, and landed the occasional television slot with longtime fan Ed Sullivan, on Steve Allen's Tonight Show and on Groucho's You Bet Your Life. He recorded at least 15 LP records for various labels. Buckley attracted a reverential following, but he was never a household name, and his status as an underground icon barely paid the bills. "He did his best work," said Monteleone, "for his worst money." In 1960, New York City revoked Buckley's cabaret license, reportedly because of a 20-years' prior marijuana conviction; despite the intervention of countless high-profile show biz supporters, the city refused reinstatement. That left His Lordship unable to perform, which eventually broke his spirit. He died on November 12, 1960.
A biography by Oliver Trager, Dig Infinity!: The Life and Art of Lord Buckley, was published in 2002, but in a fashion characteristic of its subject, it went out of print too soon and now commands huge bids as a collectible.
In this portrait, Drew Friedman depicts His Lordship relaxing in a reading parlor undergoing divine epiphany for a new routine from
one of his favorite sources.
— Irwin Chusid