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Joe "Fingers" Carr
Although Lou Bush (not Bush, as often spelled) is best known for his honky-tonk piano recordings under his stage name, Joe "Fingers" Carr, his contributions to space age pop go well beyond that. He got his start early, leading his own band by the age of 12 and leaving home at 16 to work as a professional musician. He played with a number of sweet big bands--Clyde McCoy, Henry Busse, and George Olson--then took a short break to study at the Cincinnati Conservatory.
After that, he went back to the sweet bands, this time joining one of the most successful of them, Hal Kemp's. Bush stayed with Kemp for most of the 1930s and married the first of his several wives, the band's girl singer, Janet Blair. After the band's lead arranger, John Scott Trotter, departed in early 1936, Bush and fellow band member Hal Mooney split most of the arranging duties. When Kemp died in from a car crash 1940, they moved to Los Angeles and started working as studio musicians, but World War Two came along and pulled Bush into the Army for a three-year stint.
When he returned to L.A. in 1945, he hooked up with Johnny Mercer's fledgling Capitol Records label and ended up working as an A&R executive. He continued to do occasional session work as a pianist, though, and provided the key ingredient in the 1949 Jo Stafford-Paul Weston hit, "Ragtime Cowboy Joe." In 1950, he sold the label on the idea of recording his ragtime playing, and he made up the name, Joe "Fingers" Carr, during his initial studio session. His first single, featuring his original tune, "Ivory Rag," became an international hit.
Although Capitol played up the nostalgic cariacature of Carr the honky tonk pianist, wearing derby hat, bowtie, vest, and suspenders, Bush tried not to let his recordings slip into mere novelty. "I think the first record I did was gimmicked, but I insisted on not doing that later," he told author Terry Waldo. "I was helped a great deal by [Rudi] Blesh's book They All Played Ragtime that came out about the same time ... I believed in recording the music straight.
Carr's success spurred a revival of ragtime in the form of camped-up honky tonk. A German pianist going by the name of Crazy Otto included Bush's "Ivory Rag" in his "Crazy Otto Medley" and scored another international hit. Dot Records enlisted Johnny Maddox to cover it for U.S. release and the result was one of the biggest instrumental hits of 1955. Johnny went on to become a staple of the Dot catalog, and fellow Dot artist Lawrence Welk decided to add a honky tonk pianist--first "Big Tiny" Little, then Jo Ann Castle--to his roster.
In the midst of his success as Carr, Bush married singer and Capitol artist Margaret Whiting, but the couple divorced after a few years. He must have married and divorced at least one other time during this time, because Bob Thompson recalled that it was easy to recruit Bush for Katie Lee's Songs of Couch and Consultation since "he was trying to keep up with alimony for three wives."
In the late 1950s, Bush left Capitol for Warner Brothers, where again he worked as both performer and executive, although he grew less and less interested in the former. His most noteworthy accomplishment as an A&R man for Warner Brothers were the series of highly successful musical comedy albums he produced with comedian Allan Sherman, including the hit single, "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah."
Bush died in an automobile accident in 1979.
Recordings (Courtesy of John Maher)
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