Razaf, Andy 1895–1973
Andy Razaf 1895–1973
Popular song lyricist Andy Razaf is best remembered today as the collaborator of pianist and composer Fats Waller. These two men produced numerous hit songs during the 1920s and 1930s, including the classics “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” and “Black and Blue.” Razaf, who lived in obscurity for much of his later life, was much more than just Waller’s collaborator. Recent research on Razaf’s life has shown that he was an integral part of Harlem’s entertainment scene during the late 1920s—a zone of African American creativity that provided crucial underpinnings for the wider American music industry.
As a lyricist, Razaf was something of an anomaly: within the popular-music field, African Americans have been celebrated largely for their musical rather than their poetic contributions. His early life might have given any observer a clue, though, that he was destined for unusual things. Andy Razaf was born Andreamentania Paul Razafkeriefo in Washington, D.C., on December 15, 1895. He had been conceived on Madagascar, an island off the coast of eastern Africa, and was a descendant of Madagascar’s Queen Ranavalona.
Razaf’s paternal grandfather, John Waller (no relation to Fats Waller), was a Kansas politician and one of several blacks who gained prominence during the Reconstruction Era. As a reward for his work during Benjamin Harrison’s presidential campaign in 1888, Waller was appointed U.S. Consul to Madagascar in 1891. He quickly became a close friend of Madagascar’s royal family and arranged the marriage of his teenaged daughter to the nephew of Queen Ranavalona. Waller’s daughter became pregnant and eventually moved to Washington, where she gave birth to Razaf.
As a teenager, Razaf settled in New York with his mother. While working as an elevator operator in an office building, he was able to sell a song he wrote, “Baltimo”, to the James Kendis music-publishing firm. The successful sale of “Baltimo” inspired Razaf to consider a career as a songwriter.
At a Glance…
Born Andreamentania Paul Razafkeriefo in Washington, DC, on December 15, 1895; died February 3, 1973, in Los Angeles, CA.
Career: Popular song lyricist, creator or co-creator of over 800 songs; published song, “Baltimo’,” at age 17; semiprofessional baseball player in Cleveland; 1920; collaborated with composers Eubie Blake, James P. Johnson, Paul Denniker, and Thomas “Fats” Waller, early 1920s; with Waller created Broadway revue Keep Shufflin ’, 1928; hired with Waller to furnish music for Connie’s Inn, premier Harlem nightclub, 1928; revue Hot Feet moved to Broadway as Hot Chocolates, 1929; set lyrics to jazz instrumentals, 1930s; paralyzed by a seizure, 1951.
songwriter. He sought out musical collaborators and found several who were interested in working with him. Razaf worked closely with pianists James P. Johnson and Eubie Blake, the white English composer Paul Denniker and Thomas “Fats” Waller, whom he met in 1921 after Waller won a piano contest at Harlem’s Roosevelt Theatre. Many of these collaborative relationships flourished for years.
Razaf’s reputation as a songwriter blossomed throughout the 1920s. He was able to sell several songs each year to established publishing houses and also composed hundreds of blues lyrics, many of which were mildly risque, for tavern floor shows and theatrical presentations. These blues songs, of which the Razaf-Waller title “Ice Cold Papa, Mama’s Gonna Melt You Down” is a noteworthy example, were less prestigious for Razaf than more popular mainstream songs. However, they did provide him with a recognizable presence within New York musical circles both in Harlem and on Broadway. Razaf often worried that his blues songs promoted negative stereotypes of African Americans, but they were often performed by legendary blues vocalist Bessie Smith and blues revivalist Alberta Hunter.
In the late 1920s, at the peak of his collaborative relationship with Waller, Razaf reached the high point of his career. The pair’s 1928 revue Keep Shufflin ’, a sequel to the classic Noble Sissle-Eubie Blake stage show Shuffle Along, opened on Broadway. Razaf and Waller were also hired to write musical revues for Connie’s Inn in Harlem. Connie’s Inn was the chief competitor of the famous Cotton Club, which nurtured many black musical careers but employed only white songwriters. Razaf and Waller’s revue Hot Feet became a smashing success and made an appearance on Broadway. The Broadway show, renamed Hot Chocolates, featured the song “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which became a huge hit for renowned trumpeter Louis Armstrong. The song, with its relaxed avowal of romantic fidelity, provided a refreshing change from the racy blues lyrics that white audiences had earlier demanded.
Hot Chocolates also included the song “Black and Blue,” which was written at the request of gangster Dutch Schultz. Schultz had provided financial backing for the show and wanted a new song added for the show’s Broadway premiere. To emphasize the seriousness of his request, Schultz put a gun to Razaf’s head. The poignant lyrics of “Black and Blue” were hardly to Schultz’s liking. However, when the song became a commercial success, his anger cooled quickly.
Razaf continued to experience success during the early 1930s. He collaborated with Eubie Blake on the Blackbirds of 1930 revue, which included the pop standard “Memories of You.” In 1936, Variety magazine reported that Razaf’s songs had been played 20,836 times on the radio during the previous year, an impressive showing. As a new form of instrumental music called swing swept the nation, Razaf left his mark by providing lyrics to some well-known band standards, including “Stompin’ at the Savoy” and “In the Mood.”
As the 1940s dawned, Razaf’s career began to steadily decline. His lucrative collaboration with Fats Waller waned after Waller’s white managers encouraged him to work with other songwriters. Waller also embarked upon a grueling touring schedule, a schedule that may have contributed to his untimely death in 1943.
Shortly after moving to Los Angeles in 1951, Razaf suffered a syphilitic seizure and was paralyzed. For the next two decades, he was confined to a wheelchair. He continued to write songs and prose and often lamented that he had never been able to realize his full potential. On February 3, 1973, Andy Razaf died of kidney failure. Since his death, revivals of musical revues such as Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Souvenirs of Hot Chocolates have rekindled interest in Razaf and his career. Ironically, Razaf’s contributions to the world of music have received more attention since his death than when he was alive. Razaf’s nearly 800 song lyrics represent a priceless legacy of African American poetic art.
“Black and Blue”.
“I’d Give a Dollar for a Dime”.
“In the Mood”.
“Stompin’ at the Savoy”.
Larkin, Colin, ed., Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Guinness, 1992.
Singer, Barry, Black and Blue: The Life and Lyrics of Andy Razaf, Schirmer, 1992.
Billboard, February 6, 1993.
New York Times, February 5, 1973; February 8, 1989, p. C19.
New York Times Book Review, January 3, 1993, p. 8.
—James M. Manheim
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