Fats Waller was big in every way—big in girth, big in talent, big in personality, big in Jazz. Unlike other pioneers of the new American music on piano like classically trained Scott Joplin of Memphis or the master of the New Orleans whore house bluesman Jellyroll Morton, Thomas Waller who was born in Harlem on this date in 1904 cut his musical teeth playing organ for street crusades and revivals led by his father, a lay Baptist preacher with a following in the growing Black community.
He first played a foot pumped portable reed organ but learned piano, mostly on his own, while attending local public high school. By the age of 15 he was playing organ at the Lincoln Theater, a vaudeville and silent movie house on 135th Street. He was so successful that he abandoned his father’s hope that he would become an evangelist to dedicate himself to music. Not just any music, but jazz which was sweeping New York and the nation as World War I raged in far off Europe.
Quickly picking up the nickname Fats, for obvious reasons, young Waller continued to earn money playing in movie houses through the mid-1920’s well after he was established as a piano recording artist. But he did things on those big old movie palace and church pipe organs that no one had ever heard before. In 1927 and ’28 he recorded several sides of jazz on the pipe organ. He also continued to play organ on one of his two regular New York radio programs late in that decade, Moon River. He also performed organ pieces by Bach for select audiences in which he showed mastery of classical technique.
Waller recorded several sides on the Hammond electric organ helping to popularize the instrument in American homes. Earlier he had also recorded on pipe organs.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Despite his talent as an organist, it was as a piano player and singer that Waller made his mark. About the time he began his work at the Lincoln Theater, Waller won an amateur contest playing and singing stride pianist James P. Johnson’s Carolina Shout. Incredibly, he had learned to play the number by watching the keys moved from a player piano roll. By 1919 he had written his first piano rags, Muscle Shoals Blues and Birmingham Blues which he would record in his first sessions three years later.
After Waller’s mother died in 1920 and somewhat estranged from his father for his refusal to go into the ministry, he went to live with the family of well-known Harlem piano player, Russell B. T. Brooks, and soon became a student of his hero, James P. Johnson.
Still a teenager Waller was making a decent living from his theater work and from playing piano in Harlem dives and nightclubs. He picked up more money cutting piano rolls, which still rivaled gramophone records in popularity. During these years in addition to tutelage from Brooks and Johnson, he may, according to his own unconfirmed accounts, have taken some formal training with professors from Julliard. At any rate, he learned to read and write musical notation, which other pioneers like Jellyroll Morton could never do.
At the age of 18 the prodigy made his first recordings as a soloist at Okeh Records including his own piano rags. He also began recording as pianist for a number of blues singers including Sara Martin, Alberta Hunter, and Maude Mills. In ’23 he collaborated with Clarence Williams to write and publish Wild Cat Blues which Williams reordered. Soon he was regularly writing songs for other artists.
Waller was an early radio star--one of the few Black performers to headline shows on network radio in the early 1930's.
The same year he began his first radio program, a series on a New Jersey station which proved so popular that he was signed to WHN in New York. In addition to his organ music program, he also launched Fats Waller’s Rhythm Club which had a long run on the station. By 1934 Waller’s house band for the program solidified into a tight six piece combo with which he recorded as Fats Waller and His Rhythm.
But first Waller began regular collaboration with a number of lyricists, the most important of whom was Andy Razof. Together they collaborated on a number of shows, some of which made the jump from Harlem to Broadway including Keep Shufflin’ in 1928, Load of Coal, and Hot Chocolates in 1929. In Harlem the musical was a showcase for Cab Calloway, but Louis Armstrong took over on Broadway. Among the memorable songs from that show was Ain’t Misbehavin’ which became one of Armstrong’s signature songs and Waller’s most famous composition.
Waller copyrighted over 400 songs either alone or in partnership with various lyricists. There may have been hundreds more not copyrighted, bits of ephemera perhaps used in a single performance or broadcast.
Despite being prolific and busy as a composer and as a performer, in the late ‘20’s Waller was often hard up for cash due to his appetite for plenty of food, drink, and good times and would sometimes sell songs for a flat fee which other usually white artists published and used as their own. Many of these were novelty songs for vaudeville and nightclubs with a short expected shelf life. But others were more substantial. There is almost irrefutable evidence that Waller sold I Can’t Give You Anything but Love with lyrics by Razof to white composer Jimmy McHugh and lyricist Dorothy Fields for $500. The two included it in their show Blackbirds of 1928. The song became a jazz standard. Waller would later have radios shut off if the song came on the air. A similar claim has been made for The Sunny Side of the Street, also attributed to McHugh and Fields.
If those classics slipped through his fingers, however, there were plenty more to which Waller can lay undisputed claim.
In 1927 Waller signed with Victor, the principal label for the rest of his life. His first issues were on the pipe organ—W. C. Handy’s St. Louis Blues and his own Lenox Ave. Blues. With Victor he recorded in various combinations including Morris’s Hot Babes, Fats Waller’s Buddies—one of the earliest interracial groups to record—and McKinney’s Cotton Pickers.
But he really stood out as a solo performer on piano and singing. A series of his Victor solo sessions are now considered the purest and best examples of the Harlem stride piano. These records included Handful of Keys, Smashing Thirds, Numb Fumblin’, and Valentine Stomp. He also recorded sessions with Ted Lewis in 1930, Jack Teagarden in 1931, and Billy Banks’s Rhythmakers 1932.
Gene Sedric, a clarinetist who played with Waller on some of his 1930s recordings explained why Waller was so sought after as a collaborator in the recording studio, “Fats was the most relaxed man I ever saw in a studio, and so he made everybody else relaxed. After a balance had been taken, we'd just need one take to make a side, unless it was a kind of difficult number.”
Waller took his radio studio band on tour as the nucleolus of Fats Waller and His Rhythm.
In ’34 Waller put together his most important band, mostly from musicians on his radio show. They played together on numerous sides and in public performance through much of the rest of the decade. Musicians included Herman Autrey (sometimes replaced by Bill Coleman or John “Bugs” Hamilton), Gene Sedric or Rudy Powell, and Al Casey.
Also in the 30’s, Waller played frequently in California where his stage presence was a big hit. With an ebullient personality he salted quips and jokes between songs. He had also mastered so many styles from rag to what was becoming known as Dixieland, blues, and of course his signature stride that his performances were always varied and nuanced. He could drive hard and dirty or melodic and soulful as in his and Razof’s lovely Honeysuckle Rose.
That winning style won him parts in two otherwise forgettable B musicals in 1935—Hooray for Love for RKO and King of Burlesque for 20th Century Fox.
Waller also showed himself adaptable to changing tastes, which were leaving small jazz bands behind in favor of big bands and swing. In fact, he had recorded his own composition Whiteman Stomp with Fletcher Henderson’s pioneering big band way back in ’27. He was comfortable in almost any style. He began to take a band originally put together by Charley Turner, his base player on the road. With the addition of most of the Rhythm personnel Waller’s big band was a success both on tour and on wax beginning with their first recording in 1935 of a version of I Got Rhythm with a memorable cutting contest of alternating piano solos by Waller and Hank Duncan.
Waller was always most at home in Harlem. Seen here grabbing a hot dog lunch off of a street peddler's cart.
Other big bands of the era were influenced by Waller and his style, but none more than those of pianists Count Basie and Duke Ellington who acknowledged the influence of his stride style and often performed his songs.
In ’38 Waller took the core of the band on tour to Europe where he experienced great success. Spending considerable time in London Waller recorded with his Continental Rhythm consisting of a few regulars and English session men. He also indulged an old passion and also recorded a number of songs for EMI on their Compton Theatre organ at Abbey Road Studios.
A second European tour the next year was cut short by the outbreak of World War II. Semi-stranded in London, Waller composed and recorded his most ambitious work yet—his London Suite, an extended series of six related pieces for solo piano: Piccadilly, Chelsea, Soho, Bond Street, Limehouse, and White Chapel. It is Waller’s bid to be considered a serious composer like Duke Ellington, rather than just a hit song machine.
Waller on the set with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson on the set of Stormy Weather just weeks before his death.
Back in the States, Waller was never more popular. He toured extensively. And in 1943 he was called to Hollywood to participate in the most prestigious Black musical ever made by a major studio—MGM’s Stormy Weather with Lena Horne and Bill Robinson, in which he led an all-star band including Benny Carter and Zutty Singleton. He also collaborated with the lyricist George Marion, Jr. on the score for the stage show Early to Bed which opened for Boston tryouts in October.
During a solo engagement at the Zanzibar Room in Hollywood, Waller was taken seriously ill. He decided to try to return to New York by train. He died on the way of pneumonia on December 15, 1943, just weeks after wrapping up filming on Stormy Weather.
Waller's 1943 funeral at Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr.'s Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.
Back in Harlem the popular Rev. Adam Clayton Powel, Jr. preached at a funeral attended by more than 4,000 mourners who spilled out onto the street. Surveying the scene Powel noted, “Fat’s always played to a full house.”
The original Broadway cast album cover for Ain't Misbehavin' , the show that made Nell Carter and Andre DeShields stars.
Interest in Waller has never waned. His songs continued to be recorded and interpreted by jazz and pop artists. In 1978 Ain’t Misbehavin’ exploded on Broadway with an ensemble cast including Nell Carter, André DeShields, Armelia McQueen, Ken Page, and Charlayne Woodard performing an uninterrupted parade of Waller’s music. It won the Tony for Best Musical and a Best Actress in a Musical for Carter. The original cast album became a break away hit. The show was remounted in London and restaged with the original cast on Broadway ten years later to equal acclaim. Touring companies with the Pointer Sisters, and more recently American Idol contestants have also met with success.
Your just can’t keep a piano man down.