Bulee “Slim” Gaillard and Richard “Lord” Buckley not only helped Jack Kerouac locate his inner hipster, they influenced the work of other writers and musicians, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Lenny Bruce, George Harrison and John Lennon. The stage antics and poetic pranks of this pair are almost too manic to capture in words, though Kerouac tried in On the Road. Gaillard and Buckley defied category and turned language on its head, but their impact has been downplayed by historians. On the 60th anniversary of Buckley’s death (11/12/60), PKM gives thanks to two giants.
Much of the lingo of Jack Kerouac and the other Beats derived from the patois of the American jazz scene, with a few added twists peculiar to the 1950s. Among the people who helped shape and disseminate that lingo were standup comics, like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, and hip deejays, like Ken Nordine in Chicago and Jean Shepard in New York. But then there were older jazz musicians like Cab Calloway, Louis Jordan, and Babs Gonzales, whose combination of elastic-lipped lingo, flashy movement and style also had their impact.
“Jumpin’ Jive” – Cab Calloway and Nicholas Brothers:
Babs Gonzales (born Lee Brown) developed a “vocalese” singing style that brought him to the attention of Jack Kerouac. He was enlisted as a musician in the seminal Beat movie, Pull My Daisy, filmed by Robert Frank and featuring Kerouac’s extemporaneous narration. Gonzales also published some his writings in Beat literary journals. His band, Three Bips and a Bop, were best known for their song “Oop-Pop-A-Da,” which later became Dizzy Gillespie’s signature song.
But the two biggest influences from the jazz and entertainment world on Kerouac and the Beats were Slim Gaillard and Richard “Lord” Buckley. Before the Beats jumped into the deep end of literary and musical improvisations, these two stand-up artists greased the skids for them. It’s hard to describe just what Slim Gaillard and Lord Buckley did on a stage, exactly. Part stand-up comics, part-improvisational musicians, part-free-associative poets, partly jazz, partly blues, and partly rock ‘n’ roll before the latter even had a name, they wowed and baffled audiences in equal measure.
Bulee “Slim” Gaillard (1916-1991) was a singer, pianist, guitarist and percussionist best known for his manic stage presence and unpredictable wordplay. His early recordings, as part of the team Slim and Slam, influenced the young Kerouac when he was growing up in Lowell, Mass., especially songs like “Flat Foot Floogie (with a Floy Floy)”, “Cement Mixer (Puti, Puti)”, and “The Groove Juice Special (Opera in Vout)”. Though other jazz singers, such as Cab Calloway, Louis Jordan and Babs Gonzalez, affected a hipster-vocal style, they couldn’t improvise like Slim Gaillard.
“Dunkin’ Bagel” – Slim Gaillard & His Trio (yes, that is Benjamin “Scatman” Crothers on drums):
Kerouac and his fellow Beats saw Gaillard perform often at Birdland, with Charlie Parker’s and Coleman Hawkins’ bands. Gaillard would later be immortalized by Kerouac in On the Road, when the narrator Sal Paradise and his friend Dean Moriarty wandered into a performance. The pair were so smitten with Gaillard that they made a point of trying to meet him. This description is from On the Road:
“Dean stands in the back, saying ‘God! Yes!—and clasping his hands in prayer and sweating. ‘Sal, Slim knows time, he knows time’…Now Dean approaches him, he approached his God; he thought Slim was God; he shuffled and bowed in front of him and asked him to join us. ‘Right-orooni’, says Slim; he’ll join anybody but he won’t guarantee to be there with you in spirit. Dean got a table, bought drinks, and sat stiffly in front of Slim. Slim dreamed over his head. Every time Slim said, ‘Orooni,’ Dean said, ‘Yes!’ I sat there with these two madmen. Nothing happened. To Slim Gaillard the whole world was just one big orooni.”
Kerouac only slightly exaggerated Gaillard’s stage mannerisms, because Slim was one of the most remarkable performers of his era. Here he is performing live in the late 1940s, around the time Kerouac and Cassady would have seen him. As part of this set, Gaillard is performing the song Kerouac documented in On the Road, “Cement Mixer (Put-ti, Put-ti)”. Trust me, you will not believe what Slim Gaillard does with/to this song. Indeed, this might be the real origin of rock ‘n’ roll, especially when he picks up the guitar at the 3:30 mark.
Slim Gaillard – Cement Mixer – Steve Allen Playhouse show August 29, 1962:
Maybe the least known but most influential of all the stand-up comics of the 1940s and 1950s was Richard “Lord” Buckley (1906-1960) part comedian/ part conceptual artist and poet whose stage routines consisted of monologues delivered in a hip lingo influenced by jazz but was partly self-invented. Buckley utilized various vocal styles that segued from a Southern “cracker” voice to that of a black jazz musician to a British lord to nonsense syllables and sound effect; he referred to his style as “hipsemantic.” Purportedly born dirt poor in northern California to parents with some Native American blood, Buckley learned to hustle for work at everything from a truck driver to a lumberjack. He honed his performance skills in the speakeasies of Chicago in the late 1930s, then entertained troops during World War II as part of the same USO tours that featured Bob Hope and Betty Grable. By the heyday of the Beatniks, he had inhabited his alter ego as a British “lord” (he called each of his six wives, of whom he had six, Lady Buckley) and begun to play in jazz clubs in and around Los Angeles where he caught the eyes, ears, and imaginations of budding Beatniks. Musician David Amram, who was friends with both Buckley and Kerouac, said Kerouac could “quote the comic’s routines from memory.” Ferlinghetti has acknowledged Buckley’s influence on his own poetry and even published a book of his stage routines, called Hiperama of the Classics. Two of Buckley’s biggest fans were, surprisingly, John Lennon and George Harrison of the Beatles, the latter writing a song for Buckley (“Crackerjack Palace”), the title referencing the name Buckley gave to his own home. Lenny Bruce also admitted his debt to Buckley.
Buckley’s most famous routines were “The Nazz,” a hip but non blasphemous retelling of the life of Jesus of Nazareth (thus “Nazz”) that ends, “Can you dig eternity?”
Here is an excerpt from a live performance in 1960 at the Gate of Horn in Chicago:
Lord Buckley/”The Nazz”:
“The Hip Gahn” (about Gandhi) and his own version of the Gettysburg Address, which opened with “Four big hits and seven licks ago, our before-daddies swung forth upon this sweet groovy land a jumpin’, wailin’, stompin’, swingin’ new nation, hip to the cool sweet groove of liberty and solid sent upon the Ace lick dat all cats and kiddies red white or blue is created level in front…”
Here is a complete, if composite, version of Buckley offering his interpretation of the Gettysburg Address:
The Gettysburg Address (complete) by Lord Buckley:
And yet, arguably Lord Buckley’s most impressive feat was pulling the wool over the eyes of the greatest trickster of them all, Groucho Marx. Appearing as a contestant in the late 1950s on Groucho’s popular TV show You Bet Your Life, Buckley pretended to be a “normal” American—claiming to work for “Dig” magazine as a “philosopher of digology.” Dressed like a distinguished gentleman, Buckley towered over Groucho and the other contestant, a chatty housewife from Ohio (“Gerry”). During their conversation, Buckley led Groucho on, lapsing here and there into his “hipsemantic” lingo. It was a high-wire act, to be sure (TV back then was broadcast live) but he makes it work. At the end, Groucho begrudgingly tells him, “You look like a very wealthy and successful confidence man.” To which Lord Buckley, taking that as the highest of complements, says, “Thank you.”
Lord Buckley on You Bet Your Life:
Jack Kerouac sings “Ain’t We Got Fun”:
“Crackerjack Palace” George Harrison’s tribute to Lord Buckley: