A Harmonica Prodigy : Brody Buster, 10, has seen his star soar since B.B. King praised his talent.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Steve Appleford writes regularly about music for The Times

Janet Buster understood things would somehow never be the same for her son after that night last fall at the Universal Amphitheatre.

She and 9-year-old Brody had been given backstage passes to a concert by blues guitar master B. B. King, and the two found a spot at the side of the stage, hoping for a chance to say hello again to King when the show ended.

That's when King saw the boy, raised his hand to stop the concert, and directed the spotlight to suddenly fall on young Brody. "Ladies and gentlemen," King announced, "I'd like to introduce to you one of the greatest harmonica players of our time, despite his age, believe it or not."

A stunning pronouncement, and from a man who should know what he's talking about. Here was the great B. B. King, who has led the charge on more than one blues revival, landing this tow-headed child squarely within some esteemed company. Howlin' Wolf. Sonny Boy Williamson. Shakey Horton. Brody Buster?

This surely has not been some passing fancy, either, since Brody Buster and his band, the Bluesbusters, perform every other weekend at B. B. King's Blues Club on the Universal CityWalk. At the club's grand opening in June, young Brody was even invited on stage to blow his harp alongside King himself.

"You see your 9-year-old stand up there and play with B. B. King and the crowd goes wild, you take notice," his mother says now. "I could never have dreamed of such a thing happening."

This career of Brody's has been an unexpected detour in the life of the Buster family of rural Paola, Kan. What began as a nice hobby for the boy has within two years exploded with unexpected consequences. There was his appearance on ABC-TV's sitcom "Full House." And this week, Brody began filming a guest spot on the syndicated hit television series "Baywatch."

Six months after arriving in Los Angeles, Brody is represented by the same management firm (Morra, Brezner, Steinberg and Tennenbaum) that handles the massive careers of Robin Williams and Billy Crystal.

But Brody, who is now 10, seems the least surprised of anyone. Even before he first picked up a harmonica, Brody would watch the Grammy Awards with his parents and practice his own acceptance speeches, thank ing Mom and Dad.

"He can actually play," says guitarist Vincent Labauve, 37, musical director of the Bluesbusters. The veteran sideman for such artists as Ike Turner, Solomon Burke, Barry White and the Coasters, adds, "We're not lacking musically. I wouldn't care if he was 2. The musical content is what I go for. I go for the talent.

"I don't feel any kind of stigma because we've got a 10-year-old kid in front of us. That doesn't bother me in the least. I'm more relaxed on this gig than I am on the big professional gigs that I've done."

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On one recent Friday night, the self-taught Brody stomped to the stage in a purple double-breasted suit and with a case full of harmonicas, ready to blow through the standard blues repertoire. Among those songs was Willie Dixon's "(I'm Your) Hoochie Coochie Man," where the boy was most convincing as both player and singer, actually finding a grinding edge in his voice, and blowing his harp with real force.

"It's a novelty to a lot of people," says Labauve. "But what's so cool about it is that he delivers. He's not just 'Oh, how cute!' He's actually playing. That puts a whole other slant on things."

After his shows at B. B. King's Blues Club, Brody and his band stroll over to Lucille's, King's sports bar next door, where the young musician plays another three sets that last half an hour or so.

While waiting for his band to set up, he's asked who his favorite musician is. Brody does not hesitate. "B. B. King," says Brody, his blond hair neatly combed. "I also like Eric Clapton."

But it was his mother's collection of old blues, country, and rhythm and blues records that first fascinated Brody. His father, Curtis, one day brought home an acoustic guitar from a garage sale. Then his mother brought out her old harmonicas for Brody to try.

Suddenly, Brody, who was then 7, was playing the thing everywhere: in the car, in the grocery store, on the porch, in the treehouse.

"I quit playing," remembers his mother. "Brody put me to shame. In a couple of months he could do everything I could do.

"He has the music in him. He's always banging on something, in a rhythm or a pattern, making music somehow. And when he's not making music he's drawing designs for stages. He says that relaxes him."

Brody's guitar teacher soon recommended that Brody try out his blues harp chops at the various jam sessions and talent contests in nearby Kansas City.

"He never had any stage fright," says Janet Buster, 40. "I didn't know what would happen the first time he got up. I didn't know if he would start crying and run and sit down. I was really nervous about it. I didn't want him to have a bad experience. But he just really enjoyed it."

The family eventually decided to spend last year's spring vacation in Memphis, where Brody could find audiences amid the euphoric atmosphere of Beale Street. There, he blew his harp on street corners and in the occasional club, while other kids danced.

Spring break ultimately stretched into summer, with Brody's father commuting on weekends--which he continues to do--from his car dealership back in Paola. Fans were throwing money at Brody, who earned a couple hundred dollars a night, enough to buy himself a fine electric guitar at the end of the summer.

The family's extended vacation away from their old life finally led late last year to Los Angeles, where Brody was soon booked at B. B. King's club. He prepares for his late-night schedule by taking afternoon naps. Along with his 9-year-old sister, Brody attends fourth grade at a public elementary school in Burbank and insists, "I get straight A's and Bs," which his parents make clear is a prerequisite for his music career.

His parents say they have also been careful to have Brody perform only in the least rowdy of clubs. (So far, the most unpleasant experience has been Brody's arm growing tired from too many autographs.) Only venues that serve food--as opposed to bars that just serve alcohol--are considered.

"I think it holds no glamour for him," says Janet Brody. "When he's 16 and his peers are cruising and out drinking, I don't think that will hold any attraction for him because he's seen what it really does. We always point out the artists who ended their careers sadly and too soon by overdosing or drinking too much."

To that end, the Busters were determined to form a backing group for their son, free of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. The Bluesbusters--which also includes bassist Jerry Chambers and drummer Cheron Moore--are determined to "shield him from the crap that goes on, the negative part of the show business world," says Labauve, the father of three. "We definitely want to shield him from that, because it's really not necessary to expose the kid to that."

For now, Brody Buster and the Bluesbusters continue to play their mix of blues classics and blues-rock covers from the 1960s. Brody today says he's only interested in the blues, while the more modern rock sounds of MTV have so far failed to impress him.

But Brody is still only 10, and Labauve, for one, is expecting some changes in the coming years. "You know when Brody hits his teens, he's going to want to rock a lot more," he says with a laugh. "That's just something that happens to you."

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WHERE AND WHEN

Who: Brody Buster and the Bluesbusters.

Location: B. B. King's Blues Club, and Lucille's, Universal CityWalk, 100 Universal City Plaza.

Hours: 8 p.m. April 28 and 29 at B.B. King's, then every other weekend. Lucille's sets start about 10 p.m.

Price: $10 cover, B.B. King's; $3 cover, Lucille's.

Call: (818) 662-5478.

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