By Richie Unterberger

When Lord Buckley's A Most Immaculately Hip Aristocrat was issued by Frank Zappa's label, Straight Records, it must have struck some observers as a project that was uncommercial even by Zappa's avowedly maverick standards. Here, after all, was a collection of previously unreleased tapes by a comedian who was not only about 50 years old at the time they were recorded, but had been dead for about a decade by the time the LP hit the marketplace. Yet the connection between Buckley and the hip music community was hardly a fascination peculiar to Zappa, as Buckley had in fact attracted a strong cult following among musicians going all the way back to the swing age and through psychedelia.

    The further one digs through Lord Buckley literature, the more one's amazed by just how many celebrated musicians counted themselves as fans, and in some instances directly referenced him in his work. George Harrison's 1977 Top Twenty hit single "Crackerbox Palace" was inspired by the name of Buckley's residence, and George cited Buckley as "my favorite comedian" in an interview with Timothy White quoted in Harrison's autobiography I, Me, Mine. Bob Dylan performed one of Buckley's routines, "Black Cross" (actually written by Joseph P. Newman), live in the early 1960s, with a couple of versions even surviving on bootlegs. Pete Townshend would listen to Buckley recordings with friends in the early days of the Who. The Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia was another fan, exclaiming "I wish I could have made music with Lord Buckley" in Oliver Trager's biography Dig Infinity! The Life and Art of Lord Buckley. Jim Dickson, a pivotal figure in the birth of folk-rock as a co-manager, producer, and overall mentor to the early Byrds, initially got into the record business as a producer of Buckley's first LPs in the 1950s.

    And the list just goes on and on. Such unlikely suspects as James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, David Bowie, and Jimmy Buffett have used phrases from Buckley's work in their songs. The "make it Jude" bit from perhaps Buckley's most famous monologue, "The Nazz," is sung by Paul McCartney on the elongated fadeout to the Beatles' classic "Hey Jude." "The Nazz" also made it into 1960s rock lore in the title of the Yardbirds' "The Nazz Are Blue," which inspired a young Todd Rundgren to name his early group the Nazz. And the "Nice" in the title of the Small Faces' 1967 psychedelic hit single "Here Comes the Nice" has been reported to be a play on the word Nazz.

    In the jazz world, Charlie Parker and Anita O'Day were Buckley fans; Lionel Hampton backed Buckley on some unreleased January 1959 recordings; Cannonball Adderley played at Buckley's funeral ceremony; and Ornette Coleman and Dizzy Gillespie played at Buckley's memorial service. Going beyond jazz, the comedian's admirers also included Frank Sinatra; folkies Martin Carthy, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, and Dorris Henderson (the last of whom would sing backup on some of Buckley's late-'50s recordings); top L.A. '60s record producer Nik Venet; Wolfman Jack (who admitted to copying Buckley's style); and Henry Miller (who compared Buckley to the poet Rimbaud).

    The influence of Lord Buckley is worth recounting at some length in this preamble as proof that, although he was hardly a household name at the time these 1956 tapes were dug up for A Most Immaculate Aristocrat, his cult was an exceptionally wide and influential one. Indeed, it could be argued that in some senses, he was far more popular than most cult or underground figures. He had, after all, appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show several times between 1949 and 1959; also appeared on the Steve Allen-hosted Tonight Show, and Groucho Marx's TV game show You Bet Your Life; and even been the voice of "Go Man Van Gogh" on the nationally syndicated Beany and Cecil cartoon. He'd also put out records on one of the biggest labels in the world, RCA.

    Something he hadn't done on television, however, was let loose with his truly irreverent and groundbreaking routines. These adapted African-American hipster lingo and jazz phrasing for comic uses; poked irreverent fun at sacred cows (and, in "The Nazz," the most sacred cow of all, Jesus Christ); and,  particular in his later years, been influenced by drugs, including LSD, that few Americans were even aware of before the 1960s. (Another memorable Garcia quote from Dig Infinity: "I didn't know that Lord Buckley did acid but if he did I'm really glad.") These were the sort of routines that had been responsible for Buckley's records accumulating an international underground following, particularly among the '60s youth counterculture, who could appreciate his references and sensibilities far more than 1950s television audiences possibly could have (not to mention that he wouldn't have been allowed to perform such monologues on TV in the first place).

    Even though Buckley had passed away in 1960, when Frank Zappa assembled A Most Immaculate Aristocrat, the comedian had actually been undergoing a renaissance of sorts on record. Two compilation LPs of his work had been released in the two preceding years, including the Jim Dickson-produced The Best of Lord Buckley anthology on Elektra, the hippest independent label of the era. Zappa had started the Straight label specifically as an outlet for oddball non-Zappa/Mothers of Invention projects, including the first albums by Alice Cooper (who had, coincidentally, changed their name from the Nazz); Captain Beefheart; avant-folk-jazz-rocker Tim Buckley; psychedelic duo Judy Henske & Jerry Yester; L.A. groupies the GTOs; and a cappella vocal group the Persuasions. In this august company, Lord Buckley fit right in, posthumous a project as it was. Zappa himself edited the tapes; Cal Schenkel, designer of numerous Zappa/Mothers LPs (most famously We're Only in It For the Money), did the cover; and Herb Cohen, Zappa's manager and partner in the Straight label, was credited as executive producer.
    The material on A Most Immaculate Aristocrat was recorded in 1956 in Los Angeles by jazz trombonist Lyle Griffin, who also recorded several Buckley singles that found official release that same year on Griffin's Hip label. By the time of these sessions, Buckley had already been in show business for about 30 years, even if he'd only recently struck upon the style for which he would become most renowned. Far from being a real Lord (although he was of English ancestry), he was born Richard Buckley in California in 1906 to a miner and laundress, and had most likely done the rounds of jazz clubs as a comic and emcee since around the late 1920s.

    Though not issued during Buckley's lifetime, the Griffin tapes exhumed for A Most Immaculate Aristocrat -- recorded without musical backing, although the Lord did sometimes use backing musicians on other records -- nonetheless were not superfluous leftovers, featuring some of the pieces that now rank among the comedian's most beloved. Indeed, only two of the five tracks, "Governor Slugwell" and "Bad-Rapping of the Marquis de Sade," had been released in different versions prior to the LP's appearance; the other three routines appeared on vinyl for the first time. Certainly "Bad-Rapping of the Marquis de Sade" was one of Buckley's most famous works, referencing the Marquis's infamous sensibility a good decade before the Velvet Underground introduced it into rock music with "Venus in Furs." Although a live 1960 recording of the rap was included on the 1969 World Pacific LP Bad-Rapping of the Marquis de Sade, the one on A Most Immaculate Aristocrat predates it by four years; a different version of "Governor Slugwell" (titled "Governor Gulpwell"), recorded in 1952, had previously been issued on the 1963 LP The Parabolic Revelations of the Late Lord Buckley: A Collection of Six Lessons By the 'Hip Messiah'.

    All of the routines that had been previously unavailable on Lord Buckley records were grouped together on side two, kicking off with his adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's' "The Raven" and ending with the ten-minute "The Hip Einie," "Einie" being Albert Einstein. At just two-and-a-half minutes, "The Train" was by far the shortest of the tracks, but was by no means a throwaway, being one of the most accessible comedic pieces that Buckley ever did. Along with "Governor Slugwell," it was included on Zapped sampler/compilations on Zappa's Bizarre label; actor-playwright-monologist Eric Bogosian, in fact, first heard Buckley when he came across "The Train" on one of those anthologies.

    It's known, incidentally, that there are numerous unreleased Buckley recordings from the decade before his death on November 12, 1960. It's been hard enough, however, keeping his official discography available, with A Most Immaculate Aristocrat dodging in and out of print since it was issued several decades ago (different discographies give initial release dates of both 1969 and 1970). Lord Buckley never did get to see this material released; with the hundredth year of his birth having passed recently, no doubt he'd get a mighty chuckle out of finding out just how durable it ultimately proved. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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