~ Little Buster ~
September 28, 1942 ~ May 11, 2006
Little Buster was so much fun to watch and listen to. I have been "Busterized" many times. It was a pleasure to know him. For much of the 1980's at the OBI in Oak Beach, Sunday afternoons featured the Jim Small Band one week, Little Buster and the Soul Brothers the next. He played Wednesday nights at Dakota Rose in Amityville, we played Thursdays. It was a blast to sit in with the Soul Brothers. You had better know what's happening though. He would be dripping sweat and call out "Mustang - hit it!" and fly into the next song. You had to know that meant Mustang Sally (and that it was in the key of C). To this day, whenever someone in the Jim Small Band refers to Elaine, former proprietor of Dakota Rose, we say her name "EE-laine!" in our best raspy Buster voice. Upon pulling into the Dakota Rose parking lot one winter day we saw Jerry, Buster's sax player, sitting alongside the Soul Brother truck looking cold. There were two feet sticking out from under the van. Suddenly we hear Buster's voice call out "Jerry! gimmie a five-eighths crescent wrench." There, under the van with his knitted winter hat pulled down over his face was Buster, changing the starter. True story.
Buster was a great musician, performer and a really happy guy. We'll miss him.
You can listen to Buster's music by clicking here
|Copyright 1995 Newsday, Inc.
Newsday (New York)
July 16, 1995, Sunday, NASSAU AND SUFFOLK EDITION
SECTION: FANFARE; Pg. 10
LENGTH: 2887 words
HEADLINE: A soul-singing legend in our own backyard? Yes, Little Buster whose first album comes out this week, is THE REAL THING
BYLINE: DAVID HERNDON. STAFF WRITER
IF LITTLE BUSTER had an ironic bone in his body, the title of his new album, "Right on Time!," would be a neat wink of an inside joke. Anybody who knows anything about Little Buster knows this baby is way overdue. At age 52, after 30-some-odd years of building a local legend atop the Long Island bar band circuit, Little Buster finally has his first album coming out. This week, Rounder Records will release "Right on Time!" on its Bullseye Blues imprint, and the world will have a chance to find out what this corner of it already knows: Little Buster is the real deal, a hardworking, blues-playing, crowd-pleasing, old-school soul man.
B.B. King has been quoted as saying "Little Buster is the only musician who could fill my shoes." Dan Penn, author of such chestnuts as "Do Right Man" and "Dark End of the Street," contributed a new song to the album that's so pretty and right one can only wonder what would have happened if they had hooked up in the prime southern soul era, if Buster had wound up in Memphis or Muscle Shoals instead of Westbury, when he left Hereford, N.C., in 1958.
Even Buster's fans are in for a surprise when they hear the album. Not because Buster sings with a gritty authority and ecstatic abandon that hint at what Otis Redding might have sounded like had he lived long enough to put some mileage on his voice; not by his chunky but funky rhythm guitar and stinging, inventive leads, either; nor will it come as a big shock to hear his quintet, the Soul Brothers, swing with first-rate fluency. The news of "Right on Time!" is that Buster - who has long made his living playing "Busterized" versions of standards like "Mustang Sally," "Dock of the Bay" and "Georgia" - has been sitting on a passel of fully formed originals cut from that same classic cloth. Andy Breslau, the independent producer who brokered the record deal, calls a couple of the tunes "the kind of soul-ballad love songs people get married to."
"He seemed surprised at first that we liked his songs," says co-producer Scott Billington of Rounder. "Making the record with Buster was like working with somebody twenty years old who was finding out how good he was for the first time."
The producers felt like they had to pry the songs out of Buster's private catalog. "I can't say it was shyness," says Buster, sitting in the living room of his Hempstead apartment. "I have been asked by many people, 'Why don't you do more of your own stuff?' and I don't have an answer for that. I just never did my material in the clubs. I guess in the back of my mind I thought, if I get a record deal, then you can do your stuff."
This small revelation goes a long way to answering the question that has shadowed Buster's career for years: Why isn't Little Buster Big Buster?
Though he's supremely confident of his ability, he's also painfully humble. "I feel like my performance - I hope this isn't too much to say - is one of a kind."
And though he's long known he has what it takes to make good records - he made some money off a couple of singles in the '60s - Buster has been tripped up by deals that fell through, promises never kept. His fortunes have suffered. "He's a hard-luck guy," says one associate.
"I've had bad management experiences," Buster acknowledges, pinpointing an issue that has dogged him for years. He currently has no manager; his wife Mary Forehand, who works as a clerk in a medical lab, handles his booking.
"You got faith in somebody," he says, "and you think they're gonna do the right thing, and it don't happen. It brings you to a point you don't know who to trust."
BUT IT'S NOT like Buster is sitting around moping about "what if" and "if only." That is just not his temperament. The man exudes a youthful warmth and enthusiasm. When he hits the stage, he's infectiously upbeat, energetic, dedicated to the task at hand: "If I'm not making you happy while I'm performing, I feel I'm doing something wrong."
When he and Mary go to the store, people come up and say, "Oh Little Buster, I saw you last night, and you sure are wonderful." He pleads perplexity - "I question why people love me so much" - but the local hero treatment plainly tickles him.
So while "Right on Time!" may be overdue, it's also better late than never. Buster is more than ready to stomp the stage and scream his head off at his own belated coming-out party. How many 52-year-old men will wake up this Tuesday feeling that the best is just about to come?
"I'm not going to get too many more of these chances," says Buster. "I feel it's the right time."
Two weekends ago, after playing their usual 6-to-9 Saturday night gig at the Steer Inn in Freeport, Little Buster and the Soul Brothers raced out to Southampton for three sets at the Hansom House. Wasting no time in stoking the beach crowd, Buster called off a set full of favorites - "I Got You," "Knock on Wood," "The Thrill Is Gone," "Stand by Me" - that raised the temperature and crowded the dance floor. He had to ask people to keep from bumping into his red guitar. Thoughtful instrumental versions of "Hot Fun in the Summertime" and "Breezin' " cooled things down a bit.
When Buster interrupted a perfectly pitched version of "I've Got Dreams to Remember" with a bit of "Happy Birthday" horseplay, he raised the question mark that looms over his shows: Is he going to be like the greats he so resembles, or is he going to be a Blues Brother?
THE ANSWER CAME with a gripping overhaul of "Just My Imagination" that stripped the sweet veneer off the Temptations' original version to find a rawer testimonial underneath. He delivered Memphis standards - "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby" and "Love and Happiness" - with similar intensity, if less originality, but it wasn't until after 3 a.m., when most of the dancers had gone home, that Buster finally played an original - a slow number called "That's What I Want to Do." Halting a plaintive dedication of undying love, he quieted the Soul Brothers and worked over and over a guitar riff, exploring nuances of phrasing to extract deep shades of meaning that landed like heavyweight punches. Several times he shrieked like Wilson Pickett, but he hit a higher pitch and sustained it interminably, moving the sound around in a stratosphere where male voices simply do not go. Seeing him wring such beauty out of intense strength and passion, one had the sense that Buster's spirit was possessed, that he had somehow become that pure state of emotional communication. Rarely has this observer witnessed such a pure expression of that thing called soul. The performance amply backed up Breslau's characterization of Buster as a "world-class R&B singer, guitar player and songwriter."
And it's not just nightclub audiences who are blessed by Buster's talents; he plays guitar at three services a week at the Massapequa Tabernacle Church. Yes, that's a large time commitment, he says, "But it's worth it. It's a charge for your soul."
Singing the gospel has always provided sustenance for Edward (Little Buster) Forehand (his original nickname was Buster Brown, but another singer beat him to it, so he took on the diminutive). After his parents moved away from Hereford, a little farming town 60 miles from Norfolk, Va., he and his sister stayed behind with various relatives. "I was poor," he says, "but I made my childhood kind of happy."
He sang in the elementary school recitals and plays and started going around with a Baptist church lady to tent meetings, funerals and churches, where he made a little money. "Instantly crowds came around me just to see the little boy sing," Buster recalls. "It made me feel good to know I made somebody else feel good."
When he was about 10, Buster joined his father in Philadelphia where the boy could get medical attention for the cataracts he was suffering. He was operated on six times before he grew homesick and returned to Hereford. "When I went back to Aunt Queen, I couldn't see well enough to read the print on the blackboard in school."
The state sent him to a school for the blind and deaf in Raleigh, 163 miles away. "I was depressed being so far from home and not knowing anybody," he says. "The only thing that comforted me was that they were a bunch of musicians and singers. Everybody there could perform. There were keyboard players equal to Ray Charles! Guys that could sing their tails off!"
They played gospel, blues and rock and roll. Though he was a pianist at school, in the summer he was captivated by watching street-corner guitarists; he could see all right in the daylight. "Those guys could play like nobody's business!"
Playing a three-string guitar, "I began by stealing what they could do. It just didn't come natural to me. I spent countless hours, day in and day out, trying to figure it out."
The next summer, when he was 13, he took his aunt's guitar to Norfolk and sang gospel on the street, making enough money to buy clothes and a plastic electric guitar that made him so popular when school resumed that he got free candy bars and orange soda at the school store. He later formed a duo with his friend Melvin on washtub drum, and together they played house parties where they'd earn $ 10 a night doing Chuck Berry songs and singing doo-wop.
"At fourteen I went blind," says Buster. "I don't know what happened. I assume I had glaucoma and didn't know it. Every day I could see less, little by little, until it was dark.
"I was fearful. I wondered, 'Did somebody put me to sleep and put my eyes out?' I had my tonsils out and not much longer after I was blind. 'Did somebody do a conspiracy?' "
Not in the literal sense; it was the conspiracy of capital that withheld from Buster the medical care that could probably have saved his vision. "Down there in North Carolina, if you don't have no money, you don't get nothin'. You're in trouble. That's it." Buster says this without a trace of bitterness or anger, but he does, of course, have regret. "I was a track runner and a football player. I was one of the fastest guys on the school grounds. I was very athletic. I liked to fly kites and throw airplanes and ride bikes. I miss that kind of thing."
Otherwise, he says, "I don't worry about it. Once you're born with a talent like singing, and been through a lot of churches, it doesn't bother your feelings."
He works on cars, cooks, repairs his guitar. His memories of sight remain vivid. "I remember just about everything. I visualize things, what people look like. I'm a country boy. I get up in the morning and look at the blue sky."
A disc jockey brought Melvin and Buster to Philadelphia. "We gave him the money we had raised, and he was supposed to get something working and nothing happened." Broke, the partners came to join Buster's sister in Westbury in early '59, when Buster was 16. Playing at a bar called the New Castle Inn, they made enough money to buy Melvin real drums and add a bass player. Over the next several years, gig money grew from $ 10-$ 15 to over a hundred a night, playing at black clubs like the Celebrity and the Showplace, where Buster met Mary; they have four grown children.
In the 1960s, Buster recorded for Jubilee Records; most of the tracks went unreleased, but he did put out a couple of 45s that did well. "Young Boy Blues" was written for him by the late Doc Pomus, a supporter and friend. Buster's most successful song, "Lookin' for a Home," was a moderate hit in 1965, and was covered five years later by Al Kooper. "That was a big hit for me," says Buster. "I made a lot of money on that song. Thousands of dollars."
In the late '60s, Buster had a friend named Roast Beef Joe who pushed him into playing the blues and took Buster around to white clubs. When it opened in 1968, the South Shore's Oak Beach Inn was considered out of the way, but Buster and the club grew together in a relationship that has lasted 26 years. "He's been a tremendous asset to the place," says owner Bob Matheson. "He's always had a huge following."
Buster ticks off names of the bread-and-butter gigs that have sustained him over the years: the Right Track Inn in Freeport, Dakota Rose in Amityville, Sonny's Place in Seaford, the Steer Inn in Freeport, the C-Note in Island Park. He's no stranger to Manhattan, either, having played Tramps, Manny's Car Wash and other clubs. "I was booking the band at one time," says saxophonist Jerry Harlow who's been with Buster since '76. "I didn't have to solicit work. Just sat by the phone."
It was probably a combination of Buster's instincts and the demand for familiar hits that turned him into an interpretive, rather than original, artist. "On Long Island, if you want to get people into shows, you have to entertain, and Buster's an entertainer," says Gary Smith, owner of the Brokerage in Bellmore. "The minute he goes onstage, people yell out 'Dock of the Bay.' I'm not a great believer in cover bands, but he puts his stamp on songs."
Playing several times a week for so many years, Buster might have oversaturated the scene long ago if it weren't for his fervent commitment to the music and his total dominance of the region. "On Long Island, where else can you go to see something of that caliber?" says Smith.
Over the years, Buster has been approached by people who wanted to help him make albums, but the deals always crapped out. One of his investors ran into marital and drug problems; another one said he had a deal when he didn't. He had managers who didn't know how to promote him. At the beginning of this decade, he and Mary briefly moved to California for health reasons (Mary's arthritic knees) and opportunity. "I tried to better my career," Buster says, "but it just didn't happen. I couldn't make no money and had to come back to New York."
Bassist Alan Levy, who has been playing with Buster for 17 years, says that while Buster might have gotten discouraged and cocooned himself in a cover-version comfort zone, his attitude was changed by a trip to Japan in 1993. Booked into the grand opening of a club in Osaka for five weeks, the group was treated with deep professional respect and appreciation.
"He realized how things could be," says Levy. "That might have been the thing that really got us going. It took Buster a long time to get the confidence to open his soul up with what he's able to create. It was catalyzed by his involvement with Rounder. The formal appreciation of his ability gave him an extra boost of confidence."
Last year Breslau heard the buzz on Buster and went to check him out. "In the first three songs, I knew that here was a wholly evolved, dramatically gifted, stunning performer who very few people knew about."
Rounder's Billington was equally impressed. So many roots musicians are capable of sounding authentic, he says, but in a formulaic way, and hardly any have fresh material that can stand alongside the classics. "Buster transcends that," he says. "It's very unusual to hear a singer with a risky attitude like Buster, that conviction and pure energy. He's recognizably original."
Once the producers had gotten him to reveal his stash of songs, they went into the studio on a tight budget that allowed for only four days of no-frills recording. "At every step he would surprise me," says Billington. "He really knew what he wanted to do. He was focused. There's nothing frivolous on the album. He would just plant his feet on the floor and sing and leave you moved every time. What's on the record is what's in Buster's heart."
"I feel good with it," says Buster, doing his best to keep a lid on the obvious pride he takes in the result. Still, he's wary. "I hope nothing goes wrong," he says.
Billington isn't expecting any hits off "Right on Time!" but, he says, if Buster can find his way onto the national college and international festival circuit, "He'll have a long, steadily growing career ahead."
Buster wants the exposure: "I'd like to be able to get out and let the world know what I'm all about." And he certainly could use the money. He's all booked up locally through the summer, but he's keeping the fall open. If he ever needed a good manager and a booking agent, he needs them now.
"I know you need to trust somebody," says Little Buster. "I've been out of touch so many years, I'm new to all this. I'm easy to get along with. I just want to be treated fair."
Where He's Playing
UPCOMING appearances by Little Buster and the Soul Brothers.
July 18: Long Island Brewing Co., 111 Jericho Tpke., Jericho. (516) 334-2739.
July 21: Heads and Tails, 1362 Old Northern Blvd., Roslyn.
July 22: Louie's Lounge, 190 Glen Cove Ave., Glen Cove at Colony Hotel. (516) 671-4364
July 25: Long Island Brewing Co., 111 Jericho Tpke., Jericho. (516) 334-2739.
July 26: Manny's Car Wash, 1558 Third Ave., at 87th Street, Manhattan. (212) 369-2583.
July 27: Shakers, 188-21 Union Tpke., Fresh Meadows.
July 28: C.J. Maples, 242 Maple Ave., Westbury. (516) 334-7922.
July 29: Aiden O'Hora, 118 Plandome Rd., Manhasset.
Aug. 5: Hansom House, 256 Elm St., Southampton.
To hear excerpts from Little Buster's new album 'Right on Time!' call: (516) 843-5454 or (718) 896-6969 and enter category 3422.
GRAPHIC: Chart-Where He's Playing-( ). 1) Newsday Color Cover Photo by Erica Berger-Little Buster. 2) Newsday Photo by Erica Berger- Little Buster at home on Long Island, where he's been a local legend for 30 years. (02). Newsday Color Photos by Erica Berger -3) Little Buster jams at the L.I. Brewing Company in Jericho. 4) His first album, 'Right on Time,' is about to be released this week.