A well-traveled sax player and vocalist whose career mostly pre-dated rock with only limited success and so when rock ‘n’ roll sprang up in 1947 he gave that a try as well, but his recording days were numbered and so he was unable to capitalize on the style for which he may have been most at home in artistically.

James “Buster” Bennett was born in 1914 in Florida and was playing professionally down south while in his teens he moved to Chicago sometime in the mid-1930’s and got his first recording opportunity in 1938 at the age of 24, primarily as a sideman whose alto and even soprano sax was featured on records by such artists as Big Bill Broonzy and Washboard Sam, both consistent draws in the blues field.

Bennett was reputedly both a fairly sharp businessman and had a short temper. The former ensured he would have plenty of opportunities to record and perform live, as he continually received advances in pay just to guarantee he’d be called back, while the latter trait often complicated the former, as he’d fight with other musicians, get fined by the musician’s union for violating rules and burn bridges in the process.

After a respiratory illness (apparently tuberculosis) hospitalized him Bennett temporarily switched instruments to either piano or bass depending on the engagement until his health was sufficient to resume playing sax.

In spite of his constant troubles with the union and his somewhat sporadic output behind others Bennett was somehow able to secure a contract with Columbia Records, the most venerated of the major labels who were apparently hoping he could serve as their answer to the massively popular Louis Jordan on Decca whose records were the biggest selling discs in black America. It was a questionable decision on the label’s part because while both played saxophone and sang, they were not very similar and whereas Jordan was a terrific songwriter and master showman, Bennett was neither.

Yet he wasn’t without some modest success with a decent seller called “Leap Frog” that he’d taken from Les Brown And His Band Of Renown, who were playing it well before committing it to wax, meaning Bennett’s actually was released first.

Some of his material cut for Columbia was rather risqué such as “Mellow Pot Blues” or his original – and unreleased – “Let’s Go Fishin”, about sex not seafood, which couldn’t have helped him stay on their good side, nor could the fact he cut sessions under the name Charles Grey for another label while still under contract to Columbia on which he first played tenor sax and he contributed uncredited vocals for a Red Saunders record in 1946 as well.

He soon found himself drafted to play tenor sax and sing on one cut for Aristocrat, in violation of his Columbia deal. This would be the closest Bennett came to giving himself over to rock ‘n’ roll, albeit in its formative stage, and his tenor playing helps to solidify that impression.

But his days as a recording artist were now coming to an end once Columbia dropped him at the end of 1947 – though his records for them would come out for another year – and he was resigned to the club circuit where his propensity for failure to pay union fees and constant agitation with club owners, band members and anyone else in the vicinity cut down on his opportunities. He played in Cleveland for awhile, then back in Chicago with a band that included Spike Lee’s bassist father, Bill Lee, but with no new records to promote and contending with increasingly poor health Bennett retired sometime in the mid-1950’s and moved to Texas where he lived out his days away from music, dying in 1980 at the age of 66.

Though never a star and often appearing to be more trouble than he was worth for nightclubs and record labels he was a skilled musician and a fairly effective vocalist who bridged multiple eras and styles but whose approach – not to mention his temperament – were suited for rock, the one he largely missed out on.
BUSTER BENNETT DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

(Aristocrat 601; November, 1947)
As credited vocalist and sideman… for Tom Archia. Somewhat X-rated crowd pleaser with Bennett deploying euphemisms galore while Archia’s sax adds slinky, suggestive lines in reply. (5)

(Aristocrat 601; November, 1947)
As sideman… for Tom Archia.

(Aristocrat 602; February, 1948)
As sideman… for Tom Archia.

(Aristocrat 602; February, 1948)
As sideman… for Tom Archia.

(Columbia 30148; December, 1948)
For a record that was already 18 months old when it came out this has a gritty engaging vocal and some nice sax solos both of which provides evidence that Bennett might’ve had what it took to get by in rock had he been given more chances to record after this. (4)