Awesome Men Throughout History: Lord Buckley
So far, Awesome Men Throughout History has looked at men who were drinkers, fighters, lovers, and combinations of all three. And with no regrets, I might add – scoundrels like these are a vital part of the American cultural landscape.
But as we all know, there’s more to masculinity than being a drunken violent sociopath. What really makes a man is his capacity for risk; how much is he willing to put on the line to get what he wants? And while this trait can assert itself in self-destructive ways (gambling, professional stuntwork, politics), a lot of great artists demonstrated it by just being too weird and/or cool for their time. One guy who fits that description like a glove is today’s subject, Lord Buckley.
Born Richard Buckley in 1906, the man who became Lord reportedly worked as a lumberjack before moving to Chicago to try his hand at show business. By the mid-1930s, he was a regular emcee at the Chicago Coliseum and at his own club, Chez Buckley, where he was rumored to be a favorite of Chicago gangsters who loved watching him tear hecklers apart. When World War II broke out, Buckley performed for the USO, entertaining troops and making friends with Ed Sullivan, among others.
But it was during the 1950s that Buckley’s weirdness took hold. Calling himself Lord Buckley and dressing as a psychotic impersonation of European nobility (complete with waxed mustache, full tuxedo, and pith helmet), he turned his act into a series of classic stories retold in Jazz-age hipster patois. The most famous of these is “The Nazz,” his jive-talk version of Jesus in Nazareth, but he had some equally strange and hilarious bits about the Marquis de Sade (who he called “the Bad-Rapping of the Marquis de Sade, the King of Bad Cats”) and the Gettysburg Address.
In keeping with his new persona, Buckley’s behavior took a turn for the erratic as well. He marched sixteen nude people through the lobby of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, and his jazz church performance was raided by the vice squad, possibly due to the belly dancers sharing the bill with him. His friends included jazz legends Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, and Count Basie, which goes a long way towards explaining why he smoked as much marijuana as he did, and he was a participant in Dr. Oscar Janiger’s groundbreaking LSD research.
And as if all that wasn’t enough to absolutely terrify that generation of white people, Buckley was an early proponent of civil rights. Here you had an openly dope-smoking white comedian who looked like a spore growth from Salvador Dali, lecturing audiences about racial integration in the late-1940s. His audiences probably thought he’d fallen from outer space. He basically had. Putting Buckley into any sort of context is difficult, but basically he was a very cool, weird guy at a time when being cool and weird was considered a threat to American democracy.
His far-out reputation brought consequences, too. He was constantly broke, according to most of his friends, and his cabaret card—which performers needed to play in nightclubs back then—was revoked due to a marijuana arrest. He was fighting to get it reinstated when he died from a sudden stroke in 1960, but his legacy carried on in the artists he inspired – Jack Kerouac, Frank Zappa, the Grateful Dead, and others who took his freak flag and flew it high. So the next time you grow out a creepy mustache and hop on your fixie, stop a minute and thank Lord Buckley, who paved the way for degenerate hipsters everywhere.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.