RIFFS 2016
Joe Alaskey's "1958: A Retrospeculation"
Joe Alaskey on Wiki
"1958: A Retrospeculation" on YouTube
Published February 21, 2016
Joe Alaskeyr [1952 - 2016]

There are cats and kitties on this sphere that seem anointed with a particularly vivid talent and charm. They might be slinging pigment at canvas, or slicing subatomic rip-a-dees into even tinier zap-a-doos, or leading the populance to some better grazing grounds and wig set. Whatever their special riff these little gods pull it off with such panache and to such a degree that the rest of us can't help but cry, “Where do we surrender?”. And when one of these secular bodishattvas finally surrender themselves to the Great Mystery we are all brought up a wee bit short.

Well, brave warriors, another one from Column A has packed it in. Voice Maestro Joe Alaskey, a Brigade General of the Larynx commanding 10,000 voices, a cat with some much Pipeage he was peerless, has taken his leave of us. He checked out on February 3rd, 2016 in Green Lake, New York, his home state.

Alaskey was, arguably, the heir apparent to the First Pope of Cartoon Voices Mel Blanc. His Hollywood career was peppered with with an astonishing variety of voices in the service of gigs from television to movies to live events.

He did nightclub work as an impressionist and the range of his voice and his fantastic ear for the timbres, nuances and peculiarities of any given impression was jaw dropping. He could squeal like the proverbial pig and then handily shake the building's foundation with the dark and spooky growl of a subwoofer. He provided his audiences with his take on a dazzling parade of famous people raging from Jackie Gleason to Woody Allen to William Shatner (and just about everyone in between.) And then he would take the whole gag one step beyond into the realm of the metacomical by doing impressions of one celebrity trapped in another celebrity's brain. His take on Woody Allen doing Star Trek's Captain Kirk is only topped by Alaskey doing a 180 by having William Shatner do Woody' Allen's lines from the end of 'Annie Hall". This flavor of genius has to be seen and heard to be believed.

He was also a scholar of Hollywood personalities which he put to good use in his self written stage play “1958: a Retrospeculation.”. In this performance he played three different personalties: Orson Welles eating lunch at a Parisian restaurant, Vincent Price lecturing on “the Fly” and Lord Buckley performing for some hipsters in a living room. Each of these turns was a polished gem with pitch perfect voices and dialog.

In a 2006 interview with Roger Mexico and Michael Monteleone Alaskey shared his thoughts on The Lord. Here are a few excerpts: with Joe alternating between his own voice and that of Lord Buckley:


About forty years after I bought that album [“Blowing His Mind”] I finally woke up and said, 'You know, I just have to play this man at some point in my life." I put it off for a long time even though I was an impressionist. Because I just felt that nobody would know who he is in the audience, so much of a cult item. So, I avoided doing him for the longest time but then I woke up finally and I said, "This guy's coming around again. It's his season again." And his hundredth birthday was coming up and all that. Hundredth birthday. So, I said, "I have to play this man. I have to replay this man my way." You know, I just don't do imitations but I said, [Buckley voice] "I'm going to try to be this here swingin' cat. His Royal Hipness. The Lord of Flip Manor." [regular voice] And I said, "OK, the vocal techniques are one thing. The performance mechanics." Of course, there's very little of his, his on camera gigs, as we know, exists today. So we only have little bits and pieces to go by. But, just that much gives us a look at some of the constant elements of his physical characteristics. For instance that [Buckley voice] Lordly but friendly bearing. [regular voice] And the [Buckley voice] the preacher's sharp, strong, florid delivery. [regular voice] Stuff like that. And the, the athletic grace of the man. Plus his face along, that, that nose that almost touched his upper lip in that, that [used Lord Buckley voice] defiant, elegant, hilarious little moustache in between. [regular voice] And that voice, oh! Well, that voice. That, that, [Buckley voice] smoky, silky, silly, jazzy, completely convincing and captivating voice, with all the highs and lows and [regular voice] and all the sound effects. The train whistle [attempts Buckley's train whistle]. I can't really do that well. [does the whistle again, a little better] And the vocal trills, you know, [does a few of the vrrrpppt sounds] the little trumpet noises he made. And the [makes swooshing sounds] all that stuff. All that stuff. All this is just the punctuation for his beloved adopted language and his absolute mastery of it. He's an amazing guy to try to perform.

Well, aside from the, the look of the man, that [Buckley voice] comically challenging stare. And that beatific smile. There's that beautiful voice, that, that smoky, silky, silly, jazzy, completely captivating and convincing voice [regular voice] of his with all the musical highs and lows and all the sound effects. The, the, oh, the [makes swoosh sound] and the [makes train whistle] and the little trumpet trills [makes vrrpptt sounds]. All these just punctuate that beautiful adopted language of his, his beloved adopted language. And his absolute mastery of it. And the piece I picked to start with, was "The Gasser." Because this is about a guy going through changes. And just to become Lord Buckley - I'm doing my homework, right? I'm sitting and reading about this guy and how he had to get off the bottle and how he started the Royal Court with Lady Elizabeth. And I started realizing that this cat went through some heavy changes just to become Lord Buckley and start talking about - well, the message was love, right? Through the retelling of all his wonderful stories from history and the bible and so forth and literature. He really went through changes and when you try to get inside the guy like I do, you find yourself maybe getting some of these very positive, very welcome changes, very powerful changes in your life. So, I picked "The Gasser", it's also my favorite story. It's, I think, one of his best rounded stories, beginning, middle and end style. And, well, so the first thing I had to nail was the voice. But, like I said, I almost got that through osmosis. Just listening to him over the years. I wasn't even consciously aware that I was getting to the position where I could imitate him vocally. Alright, so, but that's more or less the easy part is just doing the surface. Now it's getting a little harder because I'm going to be doing him onstage. But, there's so little footage. There's so little of it we can see. I had to glean a lot from listening to the laughs he got and the way he used his voice. How far away the microphone was, all these little element told me a lot. And sometimes, you know, he's almost indecipherable. Not only in what he says but how he's saying it. How does he get this laugh? There's a moment in the Ivar Theater version of "The Nazz", which I'm sure you are familiar with - and it's this moment where the apostles are in the boat and the storm is raging Buckley tells us, "Here come The Nazz." Right? And it gets this tremendous laugh with this element of surprise in the laugh. So, we don't know what it is but whatever is was, you had to be there in the moment, it both got a hilarious laugh. Just regular laughter laugh but also there was some very evocative that moved this audience to surprise when he did it. How do you guess what he did there, when he announced "Here come The Nazz"? I guess the harder part then is just deducing the moves.