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Pianist Joe Bushkin Dies

Joe Bushkin, a pianist and composer who performed and recorded with Eddie Condon, Louis Prima, Tommy Dorsey, Fats Waller and Billie Holiday, among many other greats, died at his Santa Barbara, California home on November 3 from pneumonia. He was 87.

Bushkin is perhaps most noted for “Oh! Look at Me Now,” a tune the pianist co-composed with lyricist John DeVries while in Tommy Dorsey’s band. The band recorded the song behind a young Frank Sinatra in 1941, making Bushkin’s composition the singer’s first hit. Bushkin scored another hit in 1955 with the release of “Midnight Rhapsody,” a recording featuring Bushkin with an orchestra. Bushkin also composed “A Hot Time in the Town of Berlin,” a golden-age crooner standard covered by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bobby Darin, and the orchestras of Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman.

Bushkin’s career began prematurely at age 14 when an absent Teddy Wilson caused bandleader Benny Goodman to call on the young pianist to fill in during a recording session. Wilson returned in the nick of time, and while Bushkin received no recording credit that day, he did jumpstart his marathon career. The pianist (and also fine trumpeter) spent his adolescence as a working jazz musician during swing’s heyday.

Bushkin was recruited by trumpeter Benny Berigan while still in his teens. In 1936, he accompanied Billie Holiday alongside Berigan, Artie Shaw, and drummer Cozy Cole for two sessions. The resulting nine tracks stand as some of Holiday’s finest early material and can be heard on the Classics label compilation, Billie Holiday and her Orchestra 1933-1937.

Work with Chicago guitarist Eddie Condon followed, where Bushkin took part in some of the last of Condon’s historic Town Hall Concerts. (Bushkin’s contributions to those sessions can be heard on the Jazzology label’s The Town Hall Concerts, Vol. 11).

The pianist served in the Air Force during World War 2 and returned to music in 1946, replacing Mel Powell in Benny Goodman’s Big Band. However, in the mid-to-late 1940s Goodman’s band was waning and the stint was short-lived. A number of odd jobs ensued, both musical and non-musical, including some acting: Bushkin played a bandleader in a Broadway production of The Rat Race.

The 1950s brought Bushkin steady studio and performance work, including that behind Sinatra and with his highly-praised Embers club quartet featuring Milt Hinton, Jo Jones and Buck Clayton. The group generated much attention for Bushkin, and from 1950-1956, the pianist released several long-players on a variety of major labels including Atlantic, Columbia and Capitol. Bushkin’s pop-heavy early 1950s repertoire can be heard on Collectables’ 2001 single-disc reissue of 1950’s Piano Moods and 1952’s After Hours. The 1960s found the pianist in living and working in Hawaii.

In 1970 Bushkin returned stateside to Santa Barbara, Calif., where he stayed close to home until 1976, when he accompanied Bing Crosby on the singer’s last large tour before his death in 1977. Bushkin’s live dates after that tour were selective, including only sporadic stints at Manhattan venues including Café Carlyle, Michael’s Pub and a group of commemorative concerts held in his honor at the St. Regis hotel.

Bushkin, who last performed in 2001, is survived by his wife, four daughters and six grandchildren.

Originally Published