From the Sunday, July 28, 2002 LATimes Sunday Book Review:

DIG INFINITY!: The Life and Art of Lord Buckley
By Oliver Trager
Welcome Rain
406 pp.
$30 (including CD)


The welcome full-scale biography of Lord Buckley may signal the long-overdue
revival of this avant-garde stand-up, nonstop jazz-talking ecstatic visionary
preacher with a three-octave range and febrile surrealist imagination who
loomed decades ahead of his time. His death in 1960 was largely overlooked
by the standard obits, except as an opportunity to dismiss him as a “cult

Those obits neglected to add that the ever-growing “cult” quoted at length
in Oliver Trager’s exhaustive tribute, “Dig Infinity!,” included Steve
Allen, Ed Sullivan, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Robin Williams, Ken
Kesey, Henry Miller, the Grateful Dead, the Beatles, Studs Terkel, Jonathan
Winters, Frank Sinatra, Laurence Olivier, Frank Zappa, Dick Gregory and
the Nicholas Brothers. Not to forget an early employer, Al Capone, reputed
to have called Buckley “the only man that ever made me laugh.”

Those familiar with Lord Richard Buckley only on recordings tended to assume
he was black and were aghast to discover that, in the flesh, he embodied
the Hollywood stereotype of a crusty British Lord, what Eric Hobsbawm,
who writes as a jazz critic under the name of Francis Newton, described
as “a Colonel cashiered from the Indian army in 1930.” His Lordship, a
title self-conferred and lived to the hilt, offstage as much as on, was
noted for recasting Shakespeare, the Bible and the lives of Jesus and Gandhi
into the jazz argot of a black hipster. At 6 feet, 3 inches tall and weighing
185 pounds, his barrel-chested gymnastic physique reflected an early stint
as lumberjack in the environs of Tuolumne, Calif., in the High Sierra,
where he was born in 1906.

Teaming up with Red Skelton as emcee in the walkathons, those grueling
marathons of the Great Depression, Buckley reinvented his persona even
more radically than Jay Gatsby did. A charismatic con man and bunco artist,
he lived the flamboyant epicurean lifestyle of an oil-rich potentate, conferring
honorific titles on his “royal court” of idolaters (“Lady Doris, Prince
Valentine”) eager to lavish him with free rent, motorcars and unlimited
credit. Tubby Boots, who joined the Buckley Royal Court at the age of 12,
said, “Buckley should have been born with money because he thought he had
money. He’d go out and tell the butcher, ‘My God, I’m having a party in
your honor. Every Hollywood star is going to be there. I know you’re going
to want to put the meat in the party.’ And before you knew it, Buckley
had all the trimmings for a party. He was always in debt, but people loved
him because he only took advantage of his friends. If he liked you, he’d
con you. If he didn’t like you, he avoided you.”

His road manager, Charles Tacot, recalled: “Buckley led sixteen nude people
through the lobby of the Royal Hawaiian where [Frank] Sinatra was performing.
Sinatra had got him the job. When he learned of this caper he phoned Buckley.
‘It’s the funniest thing I ever heard. Just don’t ask me for any more favors.’

Trager also quotes the late comic Adam Keefe: “Buckley was working in a
Chicago club, the Suzy Q. He hired an open-backed hearse and was lying
in an open coffin in the back of the hearse. There was a big sign that
said, ‘The Body Comes Alive at the Suzy Q’ and he’s lying there in the
coffin smoking a joint riding around Chicago.”

Buckley carefully tailored his act to fit the audience. His frequent gigs
on “The Ed Sullivan Show” stuck to safer material, including his audience
participation Amos ‘n Andy ventriloquist routine and the phantasmagoric
sounds of a Fourth of July picnic replete with brass band and double-talk
political speechifying. Working a hipper crowd, like the one at the Coffee
Gallery in San Francisco’s North Beach during the heyday of the beatnik
invasion of the 1950s, Buckley openly smoked pot on stage while he regaled
the societal dropouts with “The Nazz,” shorthand for “The Nazarene”: “So
The Nazz and his buddies was goofin’ off down the boulevard one day and
they run into a little cat with a bent frame. So The Nazz say, ‘What’s
de mattawid you baby?’ And the little cat say, ‘My frame is bent, Nazz–it’s
been bent from in front.’

    “So The Nazz put the golden eyes of love on this little kitty and he looked
right down into the window of the little cat’s soul! And he say, STRAIGHT-EN!!!
Ka-zoom! Up went the cat like an arrow and ever-body jumpin’ up and down
say, ‘Would you look what The Nazz put on that boy! You dug Him before–re-dig
Him now!’ “

Half a century ago, you might have had only a hazy notion of what he was
talking about, unless you were a new wave comic, actor, writer or a jazz
musician like his protege, Anita O’ Day, who considered him “the forefather
of Professor Irwin Corey, Lenny Bruce, Mike Nichols and Elaine May.”

Actor-comic Larry Storch “never saw him write anything down. He was able
to pick four people out of an audience and do a routine with them, but
it would take him fifteen minutes–it was absolutely hypnotic: ‘You! Up
on stage immediately! You don’t want to make me angry!’ And by God, they
would go right up on stage. I saw old people with canes hobble up on stage.
And he’d sit them on stools in front of him, and tap each one on the back
and tell them to move their lips and suddenly here ‘vas un olt Chewish
man’ and Buckley would tap someone else and they’d move their lips and
out would come Louis Armstrong’s voice, and it was absolutely hysterical.”

The public notoriety that evaded Buckley in life surfaced immediately after
his death in 1960 at 54, when the Manhattan media led by the Village Voice
discovered that he was another victim of the New York Police’s notorious
“cabaret card” law, which prevented anyone convicted of a felony, no matter
how remote or trivial, from being employed in a venue that served alcohol.
(Buckley had been charged with a minor misdemeanor 15 years earlier.) His
death set loose a firestorm of organized protest among theatrical unions,
show people and journalists, including Nat Hentoff, that resulted in the
abolition of the “cabaret card” insanity.

Comic and political activist Dick Gregory provides a clue to the possible
reasons behind a revival of interest today in Buckley’s recordings and
appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and Groucho Marx’s “You Bet Your
Life”: “His use of the African American idiom was brilliant. It wouldn’t
take nothing to do that now, but imagine the guts and integrity it took
for him to do that in his time. Political Correctness notwithstanding,
I think his material would go over big now because America, despite its
many problems, is more mature than it was then.”

Trager’s obvious labor of obsessive passion covers Buckley’s obscure origins,
with expansive interviews with nearly everyone who had contact with His
Lordship, including his beauteous, supportive and infinitely patient wife,
“Lady” Elizabeth Buckley. The CD included with Trager’s book contains some
of his most memorable live routines to suggest why Buckley was embraced
with messianic fervor by leading writers, comics, actors and opinion makers
of our time, many of whom can still recite “The Nazz,” “The Bad-Rapping
of the Marquis De Sade” and “Willie the Shake” from memory. Perhaps His
Lordship’s time has finally come.

Grover Sales Is the Author of “Jazz: America’s Classical Music” and Teaches Jazz Studies at Stanford
University. In the early 1960s he handled Publicity for Lord Buckley in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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About Jay Babcock

I am an independent writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona. In 2023: I publish an email newsletter called LANDLINE = Previously: I co-founded and edited Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curated the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was somehow listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. From 2010 to 2021, I lived in rural wilderness in Joshua Tree, Ca.