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Hipster, Flipster and Finger-Poppin' Daddy

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

July 28, 2002|GROVER SALES | 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.

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 comic."

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."

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