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The Lord Who Became a Performer's Performer
by Klas Gustafson

Copyright 1987 Klas Gustafson. Used by Permission.

 

 

Bob Dylan did it, as well as Bill Cosby, Frank Sinatra and Lenny Bruce. They all listened to and learned from this man with many faces who came on as a British aristocrat and sounded like Black jazz. Ladies and gentlemen - the legendary Lord Buckley!

Richard Buckley lived a life that fed legends. He created a particular type of American humor that thrived and thrives in the underground culture of the USA. He was a stand-up comedian, before there was such a concept. Lenny Bruce followed his tracks and learned the art of telling a story so that hip bar regulars were capitivated, entertained and touched.

Bill Cosby recited BuckleyÕs monologues in the New York Club scene long before he became "Cosby" to TV- watchers.

Buckley was no longer alive when Bob Dylan came to New York in the beginning of the 60Õs, but Dylan listened intensively to recordings of his appearances; among them "Black Cross". The monologue tells the story of a Black farmer in Arkansas, who is victimized by the hypocritical religiousness of white people, and is ultimately lynched by them, all in GodÕs name.

Dylan used it, word for word, in a talking blues that he titled "Hezekia Jones". One can hear the 21 year old Dylan, a pale copy of Buckley, perform it on several bootleg recordings.

Later on Dylan mastered BuckleyÕs ability to dramatize with the help of understatement, to touch and to agitate without necessarily raising the voice.

A Buckley record sleeve has an honored place on the overloaded cover of DylanÕs "Bringing it all back home" Ð the LP from 1965 that became, DylanÕs farewell to the folk music movement.

Despite the fact that many who learned from the legendary Lord have become famous, he himself is almost forgotten today.

Albert Goldman, author of the notorious biography of Elvis Presley and co-author of a book on Lenny Bruce, is thought to have also cast his greedy eyes on Lord Buckley. BuckleyÕs life, filled with humor, sex, drugs and sudden death offers much to an author looking for a good story.

Buckley is described as a self-consuming ball of energy Ð always turned on. He smoked marijuana before any police officer could spell the word. He drank barrels of liquor, chewed pills as if they were caramels and never had enough gorgeous ladies around his person.

How he managed to reach the age of fifty is a puzzle, but legends need no explanations.

Richard Buckley was born in California in 1907 and in the 20Õs began to perform at marathon dances and traveling tent shows.

During the Depression of the 30Õs he had his own club in Chicago. He held court among young, female balletdancers and bankers, prostitutes and pimps, politicians and Black jazz artists.

It was in Chicago Ð as legend has it Ð that he appointed himself as Lord.

His nightclub, Suzie Q, was where the bizarre ceremonies of his own congregation, Church of the Living Swing, took place Ð with belly dancers replacing choir-boys.

It happened, still according to legend, that he was driven around Chicago in a hearse while lying in a casket. When the hearse stopped at a red light Buckley would get out and, to the horrified pleasure of the bystanders, would step out of the coffin and cry out: "The body comes alive at Suzie Q".

The police finally locked and closed his club.

After World War II the world caught up with him. Buckley became a name.

Frank Sinatra was one of his admirers, at least until the moment that Buckley and his following came to a Sinatra show at the Waikiki Sheraton Ð all naked.

Jazz clubs and bars were homes for Buckley. He greeted his public with, "Good evening, your highnesses. You are not in a bar but in a modern chapel. Welcome to High Mass!"

His appearances were rituals and Buckley transformed tiny jazz joints into shrines. His religiousness was of the sturdy type. People should worship people, was his gospel.

After having listened to all the available recordings I find it difficult to match the picture of a white gentleman in tails with the voice I hear which seems to belong to the coolest, most hip denizen of the Black ghetto.

"Negroes spoke a language of such power, purity and beauty that I found it irresistible." Lord Buckley himself said: "I couldnÕt resist this magical way of speaking".

He learned the street talk of the Black musicians that he shared the stage and public with. But he never demeaned them, the public or himself, by becoming a minstrel or a Black Face Nigger.

One can hear that he picked up jazz in the bargain. Buckley could do ten minute long monologues with jazz-like improvisations, tempo and rhythm. Words could spout out of him in furious, colorful cascades and he could stretch out the words. He spoke the way Charlie Parker played, raw and intimate.

He was a comic, who really made people laugh, but he did not stand on a stage just for the fun of delivering his punch lines. He was more of a story-teller, talking about supermarkets, The Bomb and historic events in a way that no one else could.

Lord Buckley died in 1960 in a hotel room. His jazz-kin, Dizzy Gillespie and Ornette Coleman, played at a Memorial for him.

The Buckley legend never brings up the cause of death. Perhaps his body had taken in too much cognac and drugs. Perhaps he died after a scuffle with some militant Black Muslims.

I wonder if it wasnÕt the authorities that crushed him by suspending his license to appear on stage, because of an old misdemeanor for drunkenness.

He was dependent on his public. In front of them, his voice burned like fire. Sometimes it went up in flames and sometimes it glowed like live coals.

He lowers his voice, suddenly, between two numbers, to a low heat: He says: "Ladies and gentlemen, beloveds", and one can hear the tears in his eyes.

"Would it embarrass you very much if I told you Éthat I love you."

 

Translated from Swedish by Izzy Young, under duress.

To read this article in Swedish click here

The Good Prince Klas can be reached at his email address: klas.g@nostra.pp.se

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