It’s a shame that so few people are familiar with the name Richard Myrtle Buckley, or his stage name, Lord Buckley (1906-60). He was a one-of-a-kind comic performer who made his mark from the 1930s through the 1950s. Alas, despite a fascinating life and a singular body of work, Buckley has been largely forgotten.
Growing up in California, he caught the entertainment bug and made use of his gift of gab and melodious, commanding voice. He became an emcee at dance marathons, created energetic comedy routines that were partly physical and mostly verbal, and landed gigs in coffeehouses and jazz dives where he became tight with jazz musicians. Many of the stories he spun were reinventions of familiar works: Jonah and the Whale, Marc Antony’s funeral oration for Caesar, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. And he developed a sort of jive delivery called “hipsemantic” to tell those tales. Shakespeare’s “Friends, Romans, and countrymen” became “Hipsters, flipsters, and finger-poppin’ daddies.”
There were albums, TV appearances (including one with Groucho Marx on “You Bet Your Life”), and a circle of friends and acquaintances that included Ed Sullivan, Dizzy Gillespie, and Al Capone. His photo is on the cover of Bob Dylan’s “Bringing It all Back Home,” and George Harrison’s song “Crackerbox Palace” is about him.
Yet he was relegated to near obscurity. There was a chance that more people would discover him when the terrific oral history “Dig Infinity! The Life and Art of Lord Buckley” by Oliver Trager came out in 2001, but the publisher went belly-up. Trager is a Buckley aficionado. He’s also written a screenplay and a theater piece — “DIG INFINITY! The Return of Lord Buckley” — about him. That show, performed by Trager, is set for the Lilypad in Cambridge on Sunday. He spoke to the Globe about Buckley from his home in Watertown.
Q. Who was Lord Buckley, and what did he bring to what we now call pop culture?
A. I could say stand-up comedian or poet or philosopher or cosmic storyteller or mystic. But none of those things really hit it. I lean more toward shaman these days. Or maybe stand-up shaman or stand-up mythologist.
Q. Why should people be interested in him?
A. He, in many ways, was the missing link between scat music and hip-hop. But he did it in a storytelling form, using subjects that we’re familiar with, whether it be Christ or Shakespeare, or Poe or Dickens. He wove elements of their work into a kind of jazz talk. While it’s dated in some ways, it’s also compelling and lively and full of heart.
Q. At one point he was a kind of conventional comic performer. I saw him spinning plates on Ed Sullivan’s show. What transformed Richard Buckley, the entertainer, into Lord Buckley, the hipster storyteller?
A. He was hanging out with jazz musicians in the mid- and late-’30s, and then touring with the likes of Gene Krupa and Woody Herman in the’40s, and consorting with these fellows and picking up on their slang and their storytelling styles. He somehow came upon the idea of applying them to the classics and modern poetry, and found a strain of gold, in a way.
Q. How old are you, and when did you first come across Buckley?
A. I’m a spry and immature 65. I was first exposed to him when I was 17. The cool father of a cool friend, who was a jazz fan and saw that his kid and his friends were getting into jazz, thought that we should hear this. He had the Elektra “Best of Lord Buckley“ album, and he put on “Jonah and the Whale” because he knew we were beginning to blow weed, and there was that great section where Jonah gets high inside the whale’s belly and the whale gets stoned and he goes all haywire. I bought the record and began studying it, and the more I listened, the more intoxicated and intrigued I became, by not only the man himself, but the work.
Q. What led you to start performing his pieces?
A. In 1995, I began to organize these Lord Buckley celebrations, usually around the time of his birthday, in New York. I would gather people of some renown — David Amram, Wavy Gravy, Professor Irwin Corey, and others. They would do a couple of Buckley bits or some spoken word-related stuff. I was producing it and I would always do a bit. I’m not a performer by training, or perhaps even by nature. But I just found one day that I could do it. My first one was “The Gasser,” about the Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. Then I began doing [the anti-racist] “Black Cross” and “Murder.” That’s a scary one, but it’s one of my missions within a mission. People think of Buckley as kind of a one-note hip-talk Johnny. But if you study the totality of the work, he has all of these other concerns that don’t really rely on hip talk, and address racism, pathology, the Cold War. And there are bits like “The Train” which isn’t a hip talk piece; it’s a pyrotechnical, linguistic tongue dance.
Q. The story goes that you wrote your book, wrote a screenplay based on your research, adapted the screenplay into an ensemble stage piece, and then into a one-man show. Is that accurate?
A. Yes. The screenplay was called “Dig Infinity!” I took a lot of the flashback meat and potatoes out, and kept it pared down to its dramatic essence, which is essentially a conversation between Buckley and the Greek god Orpheus. With feedback from a friend and other creatives in my circle, I came up with a stripped-down version of the screenplay that worked theatrically. I decided to take the [Buckley] role myself and put together a little acting ensemble, with music from my colleague John Kruth and a drummer. We did a couple of festivals and I began getting my performing and acting chops together. The one-man-with-a-musician show came about mostly because keeping together an ensemble was a lot of work. So, I re-rendered the ensemble piece as a solo vehicle, putting the dialogue into the first person.
Q. What happens in the current show?
A. He tells his story . . . I tell the story. He tells it because I’m adopting his personality. I think of it as a form of possession. I don’t mean to say it’s weird. This isn’t really about entertaining or teaching, it’s about giving people a credible, legitimate Lord Buckley experience. His story is intertwined with his narrative-specific bits. But the bits don’t just come out of the blue. They’re resonant with the part of the story that’s being told at that time.
Q. And you’ll be accompanied by a local musician, Jerry Gregoire. How did he become a part of it?
A. Every now and then I go on to YouTube to see what other folks are putting out Lord Buckley stuff. I noticed Jerry’s work. He did a chunk of “Jonah,” he told a story, he was playing guitar. Then I noticed he was in Boston. I sent him a message, and it turned out he’d been to one of my events in New York, had read my book, and had been a Buckley fan since he was 5. At this show, he’s going to be playing bass, with some effects, and a cymbal that he uses judiciously.
Q. How do you think the show will work with contemporary audiences?
A. By and large, what I do is most people’s first exposure to Lord Buckley. Whether they get the large charge or not, they’ll get something out of it. If they get intrigued, if they’re moved, if they’re elevated in some small way, then as a performance artist, I’ve done my work. What happens after that is kind of out of my hands.
Interview was edited and condensed. Ed Symkus can be reached at email@example.com.
DIG INFINITY! THE RETURN OF LORD BUCKLEY
At the Lilypad, 1353 Cambridge St., Cambridge, Jan. 9 at 5:30 p.m. $20. www.lilypadinman.com