Joe Fingers Carr was the professional pseudonym used by pianist Louis Ferdinand Busch (July 18, 1910 - September 19, 1979).
Lou Busch was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky in the midst of the ragtime era and the jazz age. The family name was Bush, but he later added the c largely for the uniqueness. Truly blessed with an inherent music talent, he was already leading a ragtime and jazz band "Lou Bush and His Tickle Toe Four," by the time he was 12 years old. At 16 he left school and home for a career as a professional musician, playing with the likes of "Hot Lips" Henry Busse, Clyde McCoy and George Olson. After a few years on the road, his desire to learn more about music theory led him to study at the Cincinnati Music Conservatory in Ohio in the early 1930s.
Following his music education break, Busch became the pianist for Hal Kemp's "sweet music" band for the remainder of the 1930s. It was there he met and married his first wife, the band's singer, Janet Blair. Lou also honed his arranging skills, being offered an arranging position when arranger John Scott Trotter left the band in 1936. This position was shared with another key arranger, Hal Mooney, and was invaluable experience for both of them. After Kemp died in a car crash in 1940 and the group disbanded, Busch and Mooney made their way to California to work as studio musicians and whatever gigs they could find. This was interrupted by World War II, where Lou spent three years in the Army, utilizing his musical talents from time to time during the war as part of the Army's Radio Production Group.
After his tour of duty, Busch decided to dive back into the music business, but desired a more stable position than just a musician. It was around this time that singer Johnny Mercer was recruiting artists and employees for his recently formed label, Capitol Records, so Busch was hired for the radio transcription service in 1946. He was in charge of production of promotional radio shows featuring Capitol artists for distribution to stations around the country. By 1949 he had been promoted to A&R (Artist and repertoire) man given his considerable talent and contacts. During this time he also served as a pianist for studio groups backing singers such as Peggy Lee, "Tennessee" Ernie Ford and Jo Stafford. During this period he married a second time to Capitol singer Margaret Whiting, both of them the parents of his only child, Debbi Whiting.
Three events from this time, all having to do with Capitol Records, helped spur the ragtime revival of the 1950s. Interest in the music of the late 1910s through the 1920s had been growing out of San Francisco for nearly a decade, particularly through Lu Watters, Wally Rose and the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, so the seed had been planted. The first event was bandleader Pee Wee Hunt's surprise hit with Twelfth Street Rag, something recorded simply to use up time at the end of a broadcast transcription in 1948 as a bit of a joke. Since Busch was involved with radio transcriptions as part of his job at the time, he may have been responsible for editing or distributing this particular session. The cut was requested by listeners so often upon broadcast that the demand warranted a single release, and it soon became a runaway hit. The following summer, Busch backed singer Jo Stafford and conductor Paul Weston on the hit record, Ragtime Cowboy Joe. The success encouraged both him and the label to release his own original single, Ivory Rag, early in 1950. Over the summer it became a bigger hit than the previous two in both the U.S. and overseas. It was also the first piece incorporated into the Crazy Otto Medley by German pianist Fritz Schulz-Reichel, which was later associated with Johnny Maddox in the U.S.
These events coupled with the 1950 release of the book They All Played Ragtime by Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis, gave indications that ragtime might yet live again. Busch decided to do produce one of the new Capitol 10" long play (LP) records of the music, and recorded pieces by himself, Ray Turner and Marvin Ash for Honky Tonk Piano, released in late 1950. The Honky-Tonk reference, more often identified as a Country Music term, is likely in conjunction with the type of "joint" the music was played, but the sound of the piano might also apply, as they sometimes used hardened hammers or detuning to alter the tone. However, instead of just piano, Busch and company followed the lead of the traditional jazz revivalists of the late 1940s and added percussion and bass. The whimsical style coupled with clever arrangements made the records accessible to a public craving nostalgia, and Capitol's distribution helped make Honky Tonk Piano a big hit for many years.
Taking on the personna of Joe "Fingers" Carr, Busch released a succession of ragtime albums and singles throughout the 1950s that remained popular well into the mid 1960s. He later admitted that the early recordings were filled with some gimmicks (particularly the Ragtime Band releases), but eventually settled down to record the music more authentically, albeit with his easily recognizable licks and playing style. It was Capitol that pushed the nostalgic Carr image with the derby and the cigar more so than Busch, so he worked hard to keep his records from becoming mere whimsical fluff, choosing the best music and sidemen for each session. His biggest hits from the 1950s include Portuguese Washerwomen, Sam's Song, a cover of Del Wood's version of Down Yonder (a hit for many other pianists as well), and the international hit Zambezi, later covered in 1982 by the British group, The Piranhas. Some of the singles include his vocal backup group, the cleverly-named Carr Hopps. Often overlooked are several mainstream and jazz sides he recorded as Lou Busch, featuring exciting band or orchestral arrangements.
Busch eventually left Capitol for Warner Bros. Records where he took on the same general responsibilities. When the ragtime revival died down he focused more on arranging and conducting responsibilities again, one of the most notable being the musical force behind comic singer Allan Sherman. It was Lou's talents that helped bring out the best comical aspects of Sherman, and gave his tunes, and lyrics, the great comic punch that fit so well with Sherman's delivery. A few later albums were released on the ragtime-centric DOT label, and in the late 1970s he produced one more effort with friend and jazz pianist Lincoln Mayorga, complete with a couple of new tunes, The Brinkerhoff Piano Company. His influence in ragtime remained, affecting notable performer/composers such as Dave Jasen, Trebor Tichenor and Dick Zimmerman, and even future artists who knew of Carr from their childhood, like "Perfessor" Bill Edwards. Busch never fully retired from music, and married a third time to Nita Archambeau, a music clearance specialist. They were both good friends of Capitol artist Stan Kenton and his wife Audrey. This last marriage could have driven his desire to work since he once noted to a friend that he was "trying to keep up with alimony for three wives," (which may have been a misheard since he and Nita remained married for over 14 years until his death).
Although it has been reported that Lou rarely performed ragtime publicly, his daughter Debbi notes that he did some tours for Capitol in the 1950s, including a substantial one to Australia, and that he was generally a "big ham" when it came to being on stage. The Allan Sherman albums, although live, were generally recorded for invited guests in a Warner Bros. Records studio. He was persuaded by Dave Jasen to participate in a ragtime concert on Long Island in 1975 in his guise as Joe "Fingers" Carr. In the late 1970s he did some live performances with Mayorga and others in Southern California. Lou Busch met a tragic end in an automobile accident in October 1979. He was interred in the Westwood Village Mortuary near UCLA. Fortunately for all of us he left behind an exciting and well documented musical legacy and a lot of smiling faces and tapping toes.
The author would like to add a personal note of thanks to Debbi Whiting, daughter of Lou and Margaret, who along with me has been championing the legacy of her father and collecting information for his biography and perhaps more exciting future developments to honor Lou. Note also that he has been officially well-regarded by his home town of Louisville, KY, and was the finest left-handed (piano) slugger to ever emerge from there.
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