Henry "Buster" Smith, jazz saxophone player, was born on August 24, 1904, in Alsdorf, Texas. His early musical influences included his father (who played guitar). At age four, Buster was playing the organ with his brother, pianist Boston Smith. Soon thereafter, his grandfather gave away the family organ because he believed it would only direct Buster to a life of sin. By the time Smith was eighteen, however, he had learned how to play organ, guitar, alto saxophone, and clarinet. He bought his first clarinet in 1922 for $3.50, which he raised by picking more than 2,000 pounds of cotton in five days.
Smith played alto saxophone and clarinet with the Voddie White Trio in Dallas. In 1923 he got a professional gig playing alto saxophone with medicine shows; he had to play very loudly because that attracted more customers. His loudness later added to his style. Oran "Hot Lips" Page's Blue Devils asked Buster to play alto saxophone with them in 1925, and fame followed. Smith played with Page, Lester Young, Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing, and Emir (Bucket) Coleman until 1933, when Page was replaced by Bennie Moten. They toured the Kansas City area and the Midwest, playing jazz for a year.
Then the formation of the Buster Smith–Count Basie Band of Rhythm joined two of the jazz greats and originated a new technique of louder jazz. The sound came from Buster, who used a tenor saxophone reed in an alto saxophone to get a louder, fatter sound. Tenor saxophonist Lester Young played in the band with a baritone reed. This big sound was labeled the Texas sax sound. Smith's great influence in jazz and blues perpetuated the Texas sax sound. He taught Charlie Parker saxophone during the 1930s, and they had a relationship like father and son. He also aided an old friend from Dallas, Charlie Christian, who played in Benny Goodman's band. For an African-American in the 1930s, Buster Smith received great respect from all musicians.
But by 1941 fame and touring were no longer his first priority. He returned to Dallas. Remaining active in the music scene, he wrote for jazz and blues bands, played often, and taught many young Texas musicians—T-Bone Walker, for example. By 1959 Atlantic Records had convinced Buster to record his first session in Fort Worth. Some of the songs from the session were "Kansas City Riffs," "Buster's Tune," "E Flat Boogie," and "September Song." It was his first 33 rpm record. His work was already available on 78 rpm records from the Blue Devils, Pete Johnson's Boogie-Woogie Boys, Eddie Durham, Snub Mosely, Bon Bon and His Buddies, and the Don Redman Orchestra.
An auto accident in the 1960s disabled Smith so that he never played saxophone again. He turned to bass guitar to keep current in the music business in Dallas, where his musical influence was strongly felt for years. He led a dance band until 1980. He died of a heart attack in Dallas on August 10, 1991.
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African American Music Collection, "Henry 'Buster' Smith" (http://www.umich.edu/~afroammu/standifer/smith.html), accessed December 20, 2009. John Chilton, Who's Who of Jazz: Storyville to Swing Street (London: Bloomsbury Book Shop, 1970; American ed., New York and Philadelphia: Chilton, 1972; 4th ed., New York: Da Capo Press, 1985). Eileen Southern, Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1982).
Dallas/Fort Worth Region
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Alan Lee Haworth,
“Smith, Henry [Buster],”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed August 14, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
December 1, 1995
Most Recent Revision Date:
October 16, 2015
This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: