Shuffle Rhythm.com (Henry Busse Jr.)By Daniel Vance • Nov 2001 • Category: Feature Story
Henry Busse Jr., bottom, mimics a photo of his father from the 1930’s, using the same trumpet that entertained millions.
Photo Illustration by Kris Kathmann
The life of Henry Busse Jr. has been a rollercoaster ride, with more twists and turns and thrills than most people experience in ten lifetimes. He began his wild ride at 3, when his famous father divorced his mom. Reconstructing a relationship with his absent father has been a lifelong avocation — and now it’s also his business.
His dad is a mostly forgotten man, dead 46 years, remembered only by the scattered enthusiasts who cherish big band 78s, black & white ’30s show posters and yellowing sheet music. But hot trumpeter Henry Busse Sr. truly is a legend. Al Hirt and Herb Alpert say they were inspired by Busse Sr.’s trumpet solos, particularly his rendition of “Rhapsody in Blue.” He and singer Bing Crosby invented the mute for trumpet.
Senior Busse first made it big in the ’20s with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, which he founded and would have managed if it weren’t for a German accent that played poorly in post-WW1 America. At one point, eight of the top ten sheet music sales spots belonged to the band. And during his peak with them, Busse was earning $350 weekly while fellow band member Bing Crosby was earning just $150. He was concertmaster for the Whiteman Band when it toured Europe in the ’20s and there discovered a song written by a German doctor. Back in the States, Johnny DeSilvia penned new words and the song’s name was changed to “When Day is Done.” It was a hit and made Busse Sr. famous.
His personal life wound up in gossip columns when he partied one night with a woman at the Hotsy Totsy Club and woke up married. After sobering up, he sought an annulment, but it took 18 months to unwind the legal tangle and a tour in Europe to stave off arrest for nonpayment of alimony.
In 1928, after mastering English much better, Busse Sr. began Henry Busse and the Shuffle Rhythm Band, which enjoyed great success in the ’30s and ’40s. A year later Busse Sr. married Dorothy Drake, a former model and stage actress. Their only son, Henry Busse Jr., was born in 1931, and was 3 when his parents divorced. Junior grew up in Milwaukee, then moved along with his mother to Anoka, Minn., where he graduated from high school in 1949. After a quarter at St. Cloud State, he enrolled in Beck School of Broadcasting, graduated in six months, and later was fired from two stations in Wisconsin “because he mumbled too much then.”
He backtracked home to Anoka, and upped with the National Guard to avoid the Korean War draft. “Two weeks later the Guard was called out,” he says. “So in 1951, I ended up in Alabama with a bugle on my knee. There, some guys built and started a radio station, WVIK.” Al Heacock, a WNEW writer, hired him at the station.
Out of the National Guard the next year, he studied broadcasting at Brown Institute in Minneapolis, and upon graduation was placed at a radio station in Aberdeen, S. Dak. He was fired again. With his tail between his legs he headed back to Brown Institute, which found another spot for him, this time in Mankato at KYSM. Busse Jr. says: “I changed my attitude in Mankato. I stopped worrying about the little mistakes. Everybody is going to make mistakes.”
Mankato seemed to agree with him, and in December 1953-May 1957 he did the KYSM night show spinning jazz and big band. In that period Louie Armstrong played the Kato Ballroom, and growled one night there at Busse Jr. as only Armstrong could growl: “You’re gettin’ fat like your daddy!” As a backroom parting gift, Armstrong told Busse Jr. of a special diet to lose weight. “It was Bizmorex, a diuretic,” Busse Jr. laughs, “and in a note to me about Bizmorex Armstrong wrote, ‘the more you goes, the thinner you grows!'”
Wayne King, another famous musician, invited Busse Jr. for a visit at his room in the old Saulpaugh Hotel in Mankato to clue him in on information about his dad. “Do you know that your father started the Paul Whiteman Orchestra?” revealed King. Busse Jr. replied that he’d heard it only from his mother, but never out of house.
In ’57, he won the first Playboy national jazz contest for on-air personalities. His prize was a weekend to entertain and host Playboy cover girl, Janet Pilgrim. Sparks of excitement were generated in Mankato as she hosted a charity event at the Kato Ballroom for the March of Dimes, with New Ulm’s Guy DeLeo providing music, and where dances with her were raffled off.
“She was the only woman to make Playboy’s cover three times,” laughs Busse Jr.
He was engaged the same time to Kim Krueger, a junior at Mankato State, and they soon married. “And every time I wanted more money because of [being married], KYSM gave me more hours to work,” he says. So he sent out audition tapes. Storz Broadcasting hired him to 660 KOWH in Omaha, where he worked Top 40 Radio in May 1957 to late 1959 when Storz sold it.
The owner, Todd Storz, and his program director, Bill Stewart, had sat in a bar in Omaha and watched people plunk coins into a jukebox. Later, while sipping a beer, they noticed waitresses after closing time playing the same hits over and over. This was how the idea for Top 40 radio began, claims Busse Jr.
“[The Top 40] was what we played all week, but we did insert a special ‘pick’ hit once every hour,” he says. “You think the pick hit didn’t have clout? You think there weren’t people sitting in Bill Stewart’s office trying to get them to choose their record as a pick hit? In Miami? Oklahoma City? Omaha?”
When Storz sold his stations, Busse Jr.’s old Army buddy, Al Heacock, invited him to work at WOKY in Milwaukee, where his air name was “Doc Dooley.” He left that station in part because he couldn’t use his own name, which seemed a ridiculous restriction because his father’s name was “still good.” Other reasons were the station’s isolation from downtown — it was out in Hale’s Corner, Wisc. — and the fact it was engineer-operated, which meant a union man could reprimand him for even touching a record. That job lasted six months.
While he was auditioning for a job at WONE in Dayton, Ohio, the Guy Lombardo Orchestra was in town and the station’s general manager took Busse Jr. down to meet Henry Lang, the piano player who co-wrote “Hot Lips” with Busse Sr.
“How do I know if you’re Junior?” rasped Lang. “Tell me something about him that only his son would know.”
Busse Jr. shot back, “What about the time he woke up married at the Hotsy Totsy?”
“Geez, you must be the kid,” acknowledged Lang.
That station manager reneged on a promise by making Busse Jr. pay the expenses for his move to Dayton. Six months later Henry had a job offer from an old KOWH friend, Arch Andrews, at Denver’s KTLN. “I left a paycheck on the table in Dayton,” he says, “just to cover what they said they owed me for the move.”
In Denver, in 1962 he worked for the then infamous Joe Finan. “[Joe] was the first man fired in the huge payola scandal in 1959 and 1960,” he says. “We used to read the grand jury transcript when things got dull in our staff meeting. Finan was one miserable person, and there was nothing we could do on the air that he couldn’t do better.”
At KTLN, Busse Jr. did his shift next to a myna bird that repeated spoken words on-air. “And the bird got more mail than me,” he jokes. “I had to take [the bird] out of the control room when I was off air, because all the other disk jockey’s were trying to teach it to say, “s—.” The bird rode with him each morning to work.
In September 1962 he quit KTLN to work with a new radio station Arch Andrews was building in Boulder, Colorado. That station went under after only one month on the air. So he called KYSM general manager Bob DeHaven in Mankato and said, “I want to come home.”
Busse Jr. returned for his old job on the night shift, until all hell broke loose at the station in 1968 when the general manager was fired. Another general manager, Dick Painter, came on board and he fired Henry a year later. “But I would have fired me, too,” says Busse Jr., “because who wants the old program director from the old regime hanging around?”
Following an established pattern, he sent a resume off to Brown Institute hoping for yet another placement. But instead of the expected referral, this time Mr. Brown asked him to teach, which he did in 1969-1979. The hardest part at Brown was in handling all the Vietnam vets filled with anger about the war. One class he taught had a final exam requiring Brown students to tell a “story in sound” in 60 seconds — and more than a few stories included screaming babies and exploding bombs.
After he invested and lost $10,000 in a Madison East liquor store in 1979, he returned to radio at KTOE Mankato for six months. And then the “best job” of his career happened his way. Steve Wolfe, the general manager of KMSU, a college radio station, hired him for a job that would last until 1994. “I worked there until I was downsized, which is the same as getting fired but in nicer words,” he says.
To this day, he believes MSU has no clue of KMSU’s value. At one point the university was actually going to give the station away to Minnesota Public Radio — and even pay MPR to broadcast from the facility — until a group of commercial broadcasters persuaded President Rush otherwise. A radio station license was worth $1,000,000 then, he says.
Rather than give it away, the University cut its support. “Until then we had eight full-time people,” he says. “It was the only full-blown radio station in the entire state university system and this was the only college in the state not to offer any courses in radio broadcasting. That always struck me as strange.”
KYSM came calling again when it switched its AM to a nostalgia format, which suited his tastes just fine. He was back behind the microphone again part-time playing jazz and big band and whatever whetted his appetite, and he continued on three years until being fired two years ago.
The Old Trumpeter Plays Yet
“Shuffle-Rhythm.com is a website hosted by Prairie Lakes Internet that’s dedicated to my father,” says Busse Jr. from his Hilltop Mankato home. The website is the culmination of a lifetime researching his father’s career. “I have most of all the movies he was in, and they are streaming on video,” he says. “One record producer found fourteen quarter-hour radio shows of my father, recorded as “Henry Busse and his Meaumont Orchestra.”
All the shows started with Busse Sr.’s “Hot Lips” and ended with “When Day is Done.””
On his website are three, self-assembled volumes of music “never before heard.” He also offers for sale a three-CD set through Hindsight Records (California) of music not intended for public consumption. And eventually a biography of his father will be ready for sale.
While with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, Henry Busse Sr. played alongside the Dorsey brothers, who also later left to start their own separate bands. He also played with Ray Bolger at the Chez Paree, a night club owned by notorious gangster Al Capone. Henry Busse Sr. ran the house band there and worked for Capone.
He hit his heyday in 1930-45, playing dance music before the war and swing during it. His music was often berated by Downbeat magazine, which called his a “sweet” or “Mickey Mouse” band. But no one made more money than those “sweet” dance band leaders, including Lawrence Welk and Guy Lombardo.
He and his band appeared (now streaming on the website) in an MGM color movie in 1935 at the Lido in San Francisco along with Clark Gable and MGM’s stable of stars. Finding that movie and others was a challenge. Busse Jr. wanted to create a family heirloom for his daughter and two grandchildren, especially finding the movie “Lady Let’s Dance” in which his father had a speaking part. Senior also appeared in public with Edmund G. Robinson and Jackie Cooper.
More On Henry Sr.
In 1912, at 18 the senior Busse “jumped ship” in New York after successfully running away following numerous failed attempts from a farm outside of Magdeburg, Germany. There, he had been forced to play trumpet in his uncle’s band after a finger he broke set crooked. (Piano players need straight fingers after all.) The broken finger was the best thing that could have ever happened to him.
His successful musical career spanned 35 years.
Ironically, Busse Sr. died in 1955 at an undertaker’s convention at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis while he was playing with his Shuffle Rhythm Band. “My father didn’t die on stage, but in his room of a heart attack after finishing the gig. A doctor had just given him a physical that morning and pronounced him fit.”
A singer with Shuffle Rhythm, Buddy Capers, sent Busse Sr.’s personal effects and case of two trumpets and mutes to his wife then, Lorraine Brock, and she shipped them over to Busse Jr. a few years later. In March 2000, Buddy Capers, who is still singing and has a CD out, organized a reunion of five members of the old ’55 band — and also invited Busse Jr. and his wife.
“I was playing catchup finding out about my father,” says Junior.
After his stepmother died two years ago, he began receiving worldwide author royalties for two of his dad’s songs, “Hot Lips” and “Wang Wang Blues.” (Surprisingly, most interest in big band music comes from Europe.) According to ASCAP, the four-figure annual royalties will remain with his family forever.
Today he talks openly about another possible reminder of his father — a more lasting one. “A young woman from northern Pennsylvania claims her father was the bastard son of my father. I told her that if she were doing this for the money, then she had the wrong family. She said, ‘But my father’s mother told him that.’
“Perhaps it’s true,” he says. “But I’m not going to pay for an expensive test to see if she is telling the truth. Who cares at this late date anyway? One-nighters were more than just dance jobs with those musicians.”
© 2001 Connect Business Magazine. All Rights Reserved.