When one hears the name Lord Buckley who among us does not entertain visions of pith helmets dancing through their wig? This, you noble cats and kitties, must surely dig is the work of a very hip and visionary cat named William Claxton. LBC is sad to report this day that William Claxon, Bill to his friends, renown jazz, fashion and celebrity photographer, rewound his last film roll Saturday, October 11, 2008 in Los Angeles a day short of his 81st birthday. The cause of death was complications from congestive heart failure.
The brilliant and iconic image of Lord Buckley on a throne, his television face framed by a British pith helmet and cinnamon bark tie and his mock Svengali eyes staring directly at the viewer is the image most often used in the media to reference His Lordship. On assignment to shoot album photos for “Way Out Humor” on World Pacific Records, Claxton put his talent to work to make a series of photographs that capture so much of the mad magnificence of Lord Richard Buckley. Below you will find a story from an interview with record producer Nik Vent about how the pith helmet shoot came about.
The L.A. based Claxton is known in much wider art and commercial circles as a photographer of great creativity and memorable images. Those of you old enough to remember the 1964 scandal that accompanied Rudi Gernreich’s first topless bathing suit surely can recall the photograph of the beautiful, young model with nothing across her chest except two exceptionally thin bands of cloth crossing at her sternum. The photographer was William Claxton and the model was his wife Peggy Moffit.
In the world of jazz Claxton not only excelled at the fine art of the album cover shooting the likes of Chet Baker, Billie Holiday, Sonny Rollins, Ray Charles, Charley Parker, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington and many more but he captured musicians at high moments, in off moments and at revelatory and definitive instances. He is one of pioneers of photographing west coast jazz musicians, pulling them away from their dim lit clubs into the bright and cheery California sunshine. Calling photography “jazz for the eyes” he created beautiful moments that no only helped define the scene but live on as markers of an era, testimony to a group of artists that put their own very distinctive stamp on the ever evolving art of jazz.
Claxton was also known as a celebrity photographer who won the confidence of his famous subjects by his easy going manner and collaborative style but never ever betrayed that trust by providing a gossip hungry public with disparaging images.
Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, was quoted as saying that William Claxton “has a niche among the great jazz photographers.”
So, LBC and the whole Buckley community take time to salute Bill Claxton and his swingin’, jumpin’ jazz peepers. Swing in peace.
The Pith Helmet Shoot
At some point, we decided to plan an album cover for Lord Buckley's newest World Pacific record. We talked to Bill Claxton about shooting it. And Bill Claxton had found the perfect house over on Franklin Avenue. It was an old Normandy type castle thing in disrepair, for sale. His Lordship, at some point before the cover was shot, decided he'd like to wear safari togs, including a pith helmet. I had not idea what a pith helmet was - I was twenty years old! It doesn't come with education in school. So, I checked around and found out the pith helmets at Western Costume, had been rented out by MGM. MGM had every pith helmet in town rented for some big picture they were doing in Africa. So, I called MGM, I had a good friend, there, Jesse Kay, who was head of the music department. And he told me MGM does not rent their props and that was that. So I told Lord Buckley and he said get us on the lot. He said, "Prince Nik, get me to the church." I said okay and I called Jesse Kay to make arrangements to have lunch on the MGM lot, for two. So, we drove on the lot, past the guards. His Lordship gave them a nod. We parked, having driven around until we located the costume and prop department. Parked the car where we could make a fast getaway. I still didn't know what was going on. His Lordship says, "Follow me. Whatever I say, nod." That scared me right there. So he walked in, he said, "My good man! We are on stage [inaudible] and we're doing "The Nazz Comes Back" and we have this enormous thing that we shoot and we lost two pages of work. We need a pith helmet, a safari jacket, choppers and boots immediately! And there's a bonus if you come up with it. The sizes are -" And everybody, of course, starts running. One man said, "Here's the list, sir Fill it out here, give us all the sets, director, script, budget, etc." [Lord Buckley said] "Yes, yes, yes, quickly, they're holding the set. The cameras are rolling, they've momentarily stopped. Oh, please, this is Mr. DeMille's finest!" Demille had been dead fifteen years and they're still jumping. And they came down with the sizes and with a flourish, he took the pink paper and he signed it and he folded it and put it in the man's pocket. The man took out the paper as if he was going to open it, when Lord Buckley turned around, as if he felt the man opening the piece of paper, which had nothing on it, but Lord Buckley's signature. He turned around and said, "Sir! My prince, there'll be bonuses this week for those of you who have jumped to the cause." Turned around and left. And I followed him and I waved to the people also, and we walked out and got into the car, drove very fast. He said, "Slow down." "Slow down? I want to get out of here." He said, "Slow down, Prince Nik, His Lordship can cut it." "We have robbed the bank. There's no need to run, slow down." So as we slowed down going to the gate, His Lordship stood up and saluted the guards who saluted him back, allowing us to go out of the lot, off the lot, in his pith helmet and his safari jacket. We hit the street and I realized we just robbed MGM of $300 or $400 worth of merchandise. That's where the pith helmet come from on the cover. In the jacket, still had a name in it, it was "Gary Cooper" So, that's' the story of the pith helmet.
from an interview with Buckley record producer Nik Venet by Michael Monteleone, August 31, 1998