"His sense of humor—'these dirty, dirty, rotten politicians'—became the '60s, just flat-out became the '60s," says Prince Richard, who carries on the family's show biz tradition as a songwriter and guitarist, actor, and director.
Lord Buckley's delivery combines 1940s black hipster jive talk and an Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson drawl with the precise diction of the crustiest of the English upper crust.
In his tales, Lord Buckley would impersonate Jesus ('The Nazz,' as in Nazareth), the Marquis de Sade, God, Gandhi ('The Hip Gan'), both Jonah and the Whale, Abe Lincoln (doing a hipsemantic version of the 'Gettysburg Address'), a train conductor, a prostitute, and Edgar Allen Poe's 'Raven.'
"Four big hits and seven licks ago, our before daddies swung forth upon this sweet groovy land a swingin', stompin', jumpin', blowin', wailin' new nation," his 'Gettysburg Address' commenced, accompanied by jazz sax and organ.
As for the Gandhi described as 'The Hip Gan,' "he wailed India, he gassed India, he grooved India."
And how about that tale of a whale? "I dig you, Jonah! I dig you, Jonah! I dig you, Jonah," the Lord intones, "cause Jonah is the Lord's sweet boy!"
Jonah's reaction? "Man, the Lord's sure got a crazy sense of humor!"
Once Buckley started on a routine, nothing could stop him. Writer Albert Goldman called Buckley "a verbal jazz man whose larynx was his axe."
What made Buckley special, the actor Weston 'Jimmy' Gavin recalls, was "his vivid creative use of language, a mixture of jazz vocabulary and sort of a demented colonel from the Raj. It was that dignity of his. It was a hybrid of hipster and an English lord with the rhythm of a black Baptist preacher. Nobody ever did it before."
Listening to Buckley's recordings can be both a hilarious and frustrating experience, because it's clear his performances were as much visual as aural—even more so perhaps.
"You couldn't take your eyes off the man," recalled Grover Sales, the jazz critic who worked briefly as Buckley's press agent. "He was handsome. He had a barrel chest, broad shoulders, he was well built, muscular—and [had] this marvelously expressive face."
Richard Buckley, who'd grown up poor in the tiny California town of Tuolumne in the Sierra Nevada, worked as a tree topper in lumber camps, then served in the 1930s as master of ceremonies for dance-a-thons and walk-a-thons, endurance contests that saw participants dancing or walking for 30 hours at a clip.
'Dick Buckley,' as he was billed, improvised jokes, took pratfalls, crawled beneath seats, did what it took to keep the energy up during ten- and 12-hour stints in places like Cleveland, Secaucus, Kansas City, and Atlantic City.
By 1936, when Buckley was playing New York, Billboard magazine called him "California's Chatterbox." "The 'spontaneous' comedian," the Chicago American called him.
Onstage, according to Buckley's friends, who told their tales to Oliver Trager for his book Dig Infinity: The Life and Art of Lord Buckley, he would sip gin, smoke pot, pop pills, sprint to the edge of the stage, let out a war whoop and leap, sailing beyond the tables.