Keyboards player, songwriter,bandleader, singer
While best remembered for his comic songwriting and musical performances, show business legend Fats Waller was a gifted jazz musician whose greatest contribution to music lay in his brilliant stride piano compositions. Introduced to this particular piano idiom by Harlem stride master James P. Johnson, Waller was a wizard at this successor to ragtime, in which the left hand carries the beat and the right delivers the melody. His dynamic, creative keyboard style extended to the organ and the celesta; he was, in fact, the first significant jazz organist, his swing on the pipe organ unsurpassed. But because “white America preferred its jazzmen to be Falstaffs rather than… Hamlets,” suggested Jack Kroll in Newsweek, “Waller … was granted a certain measure of success because he agreed to emphasize his real gift for comedy and buffoonery, letting the jazz fall where it might.”
Becoming an international star performing popular songs and satiric tunes like “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” and “Your Feet’s Too Big,” the 300-pound Waller cultivated an exuberant stage persona that audiences heartily embraced. With wagging head and joking asides, he slyly poked fun at the feeble songs he was frequently asked to perform; “He would disembowel Tin Pan Alley’s more inane creations vocally and on the keyboard,” observed National Review contributor Ralph De Toledano, “but even in his lightest moments, he was always the virtuoso, always the master of ragtime cum jazz.” Said Kevin Whitehead in Down Beat, “He always found something of value in the rubbish. Fats had the double curse of being able to sing anything, and always being asked to prove it. But Waller’s verbal comedy was too lively for someone just going through the motions, and he enjoyed subverting weak material… making it sublimely ridiculous.”
The son of an Abyssinian Baptist minister, Thomas Wright Waller was raised in New York City’s Harlem. At the age of six he began to play the reed organ; by ten he was performing in school concerts and before his father’s congregation. The senior Waller considered jazz “the devil’s music” and encouraged his son to become a classical pianist; but by the time young Thomas had reached his teens he had met James P. Johnson, and his father’s battle was lost. Abandoning high school to become a movie theater organist, Waller studied jazz piano with Johnson. Soon word of the young man’s artistry began to spread. By the early 1920s Waller—his girth quickly earning him the nickname “Fats”—was one of Harlem’s most prominent keyboards players, delighting patrons in cabarets and nightclubs accompanying blues singers like Bessie Smith and Alberta Hunter, or performing piano and organ solos. In 1922 Waller cut his first player-piano roll, “Got to Cool My Doggies Now.” That year he also
Born Thomas Wright Waller, May 21, 1904, in New York, NY; died of pneumonia near Kansas City, MO, December 15, 1943; son of Edward Martin (a Baptist minister) and Adeline (Lockett) Waller; married second wife, Anita Priscilla Rutherford, 1926; children: (first marriage) Thomas Wright, Jr., (second marriage) Maurice, Ronald. Education: Studied with stride pianists Willie Smith and James P. Johnson; studied classical piano with Leopold Godowsky and composition with Carl Bohm at the Juilliard School.
Began playing the harmonium at age six, was playing the organ at father’s Harlem church by ten; began professional career at 15 as organist at Lincoln Theater, New York City; played in New York city cabarets and nightclubs as accompanist and solo performer, early 1920s; cut first player-piano rolls and records, 1922; radio debut, 1923, headlined radio show Fats Waller’s Rhythm Club; composer and performer of popular and show tunes; worked as sideman and frontman for various jazz combos; formed ensemble Fats Waller and His Rhythm, 1934; toured and recorded with own big band. Appeared in motion pictures Hooray for Love!, 1935, King of Burlesque, 1935, and Stormy Weather, 1943.
made his solo recording debut, “Muscle Shoals Blues/Birmingham Blues,” for Okeh Records.
A prolific songwriter, Waller sold his first tune, “Squeeze Me,” in 1923; by the late twenties his compositions were being performed and recorded by the most popular entertainers of the day, most notably Fletcher Henderson and Cab Calloway. In 1928 Waller and lyricist Andy Razaf wrote much of the music for the all-black Broadway musical Keep Shufflin’. Later Waller-Razaf collaborations included the stage show Connie’s Hot Chocolates, which featured the enduring hit song “Ain’t Misbehavin.’” Frequently pressed for money, the free-living Waller sometimes sold the rights to a song for taxi fare or the price of a meal, though he would later regret it; playing fast and loose with traditional business practices, he sometimes obtained cash advances for songs he never finished or sold the same piece to more than one publisher. He took his keyboards compositions more seriously, however, recording an important series of stride piano pieces—“Handful of Keys,” “Smashing Thirds,” “Numb Fumblin’,” “Valentine Stomp,” “Viper’s Drag,” “Alligator Crawl,” and “Clothes Line Ballet”—between 1929 and 1934. Waller also recorded on occasion as a sideman in jazz combos like Morris’s Hot Babes and McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, as well as heading his own small ensembles. His Fats Waller’s Buddies was one of the earliest recorded interracial groups.
In 1934 Waller assembled a sextet called Fats Waller and His Rhythm that consisted of Eugene “Honey Bear” Sedric on reeds, Al Casey on guitar, Charles Turner on bass, Yank Porter or Harry Dial on drums, and Herman Autrey (sometimes replaced by Bill Coleman or John “Bugs” Hamilton) on trumpet. Featuring Waller’s humorous vocal interpretations and masterful stride playing, the group recorded scores of songs for the Victor label over the next few years, producing the hits “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” “Lulu’s Back in Town,” and “Your Feet’s Too Big.” Many of the tunes the performer skewered were his own; yet “his comedy wasn’t merely verbal,” wrote Down Beat’s Whitehead. “[Waller] conveyed sly humor with rolling piano triplets, bright rips up the keyboard’s top octaves, and amply buoyant rhythm.” With a popularity that rivaled famed trumpet player Louis Armstrong’s, Waller performed regularly on radio and toured throughout the U.S. and abroad before record crowds. Visiting Europe in 1938, he even played jazz on the organ in Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral.
Waller died of pneumonia at the age of 39, his health ruined by his heavy work schedule and passion for food, drink, and revelry. While a number of pianists kept his stride style alive, most of his nearly 500 songs almost faded into obscurity—until 1978 and the Broadway musical “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” A revue of some thirty-odd songs Waller wrote or made famous—performed by a cast of five headed by the sassy Nell Carter—the show was a smash hit that toured the country, was performed on television, and eventually immortalized on vinyl. Director Richard Maltby, Jr., hoped that the success of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” would spur a revival of Waller’s music, bringing more lost songs and records to light. “Waller was a national resource,” Maltby rhapsodized in Time. “He grabbed an armful of life in an exhilarating way, and I want people everywhere to feel that exalting spirit.”
(With Harry Brooks; lyrics by Andy Razaf) “Ain’t Misbehavin,’” 1929.
(With Razaf; lyrics by Razaf) “Honeysuckle Rose.”
(With Alex Hill) “I’m Crazy ’Bout My Baby (and My Baby’s Crazy ’Bout Me),” 1931.
(With Brooks, lyrics by Razaf) “What Did I Do To Be So Black and Blue,” 1929.
For the stage
Keep Shufflin’, 1928.
(Nightclub revue) Load of Coal.
Connie’s Hot Chocolates, 1929.
Early to Bed, 1943.
Jazz pieces for organ and piano
“Handful of Keys.”
Also composed classical piano suite “London Sketches.”
Waller recorded prolifically from 1922 until his death in 1943, principally for Victor, beginning in 1926. Posthumous compilations of his recordings include:
The Complete Fats Waller, Volume 1: 1934-35 (reissue), Volume 2: 1935 (reissue), Volume 3: 1935-36 (reissue), Volume 4, Bluebird, 1987.
Fine Arabian Stuff, Muse.
Waller in London (recorded 1922-39), Swing.
The Joint Is Jumpin’ (recorded 1929-43), Bluebird, 1987.
The Last Years: Fats Waller and His Rhythm, 1940-43, Bluebird.
The Legendary Fats Waller (recorded 1929-38), RCA.
Fats Waller Live at the Yacht Club (recorded 1938), Giants of Jazz.
Fats Waller Live, Volume 2 (recorded 1938, 1940), Giants of Jazz.
Twenty Golden Pieces of Fats Waller, Bulldog.
Piano Solos: 1929-41, Bluebird.
Parlor Piano Solos, Volume I: Piano Rolls, 1923-24, Volume 2: 1924-31, Volume 3, Biograph.
Classic Jazz From Rare Piano Rolls (recorded 1923-27), Biograph, 1989.
Feather, Leonard, The New Edition of the Encyclopedia of Jazz, Horizon Press, 1960.
The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, edited by Barry Kernfeld, Macmillan, 1988.
The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Donald Clarke, Viking, 1989.
Down Beat, November 2, 1978; March 1988; April 1990.
National Review, October 1, 1982.
Newsweek, May 22, 1978.
New Yorker, September 5, 1988.
Stereo Review, September 1988.
Time, February 27, 1978; June 5, 1978.
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Fats Waller, 1904–43, American jazz musician, singer, and composer, whose original name was Thomas Wright Waller, b. New York City. Waller began playing the piano as a child, and later studied with Carl Bohm and Leopold Godowsky. He became a protégé of James P. Johnson, who gave him piano lessons and furthered his career. From about 1920, Waller appeared in night-clubs and theaters, and in the 1930s he began recording. Waller's style influenced many jazz pianists. His compositions include Ain't Misbehavin', Black and Blue, Honeysuckle Rose, and London Suite.
See biography by E. Kirkeby (1975); study by P. S. Machlin (1985).
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Waller, Fats 1904–1943
Fats Waller 1904–1943
Musician, composer, singer, entertainer
Fats Waller has been called one of the most entertaining and vivacious singers, composers, and pianists in jazz history. Popular in his own lifetime and still today, he was a prolific songwriter—he wrote more than 450 songs—and also made more than 500 records. TCSN.net said of Waller, “The spirited personality of the man was so powerful that he was able to easily transmit it even through the narrow boundaries of a record groove.”
Born Thomas Wright Waller on May 21, 1904, in New York City, Waller was an early comer to music, singing in his church choir and picking up his first bits of organ playing from his mother. Waller’s parents, Adeline Lockett and Edward Martin Waller, had twelve children—only six of whom made it to adulthood—and were deeply religious. Waller’s father was a preacher at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, and his mother helped out at the church, and played the organ there on Sundays. Because of this, Waller and his siblings were raised with the integrity and values that were necessary for them to survive the rowdy Harlem streets.
Waller attended Public School 89 in Harlem where he quickly became involved in the school’s music program.
There he learned to play bass and violin, and it wasn’t long before he was playing piano in the school’s orchestra. He gained some important performance experience while taking part in marches and concerts, and these became the precursor to a very entertaining career.
Waller’s father may have wished his son would follow in his footsteps, but by the age of 15, Fats Waller was already working as a professional organist at the Lincoln Theater. This was his first paying job, according to Jass.com, “playing organ background music for silent films.” He took over the job from a woman named Mazie Mullins who is said to have helped inspire Waller early on to improve and perfect his organ playing skills.
Waller’s mother died when he was 14 and he went to live with a family friend, Russell Brooks. According to GetMusic.com it was around this time that he met one of his most beneficial teachers, James P. Johnson. Johnson was a well-known pianist famous for his stride tickler style of piano playing. Stride piano, according to ClassicJazz.about.com is a style where the “left hand jumps from a bass note to a chord that is played on the upbeat.” Equally important to this style of playing is “the dazzling improvisational embellishments by the
Born on May 21, 1904, in New York, NY; died of pneumonia on December 15, 1943, in Kansas City, MO; son of Adeline Lockett and Edward Martin Waller; married Edith Hatchet (divorced 1924); children: Thomas; married Anita Rutherford; children: Maurice and Ronald. Education: Attended Julliard.
Career: Lincoln Theater, organist; pianist at various block parties and clubs, including Leroy’s Caberet; toured with vaudeville group, “Liza and Her Shufflin’ Six;” hosted WLW Radio show; film appearances: Hooray for Love, 1935; King of Burlesque, 1935; Ain’t Misbehaving’ 1941; and Stormy Weather, 1943.
Awards: Down Beat Hall of Fame, 1968.
right hand known in the business as “tricks,” or “fast-moving flourishes that break up or ornament the melody line,” according to Atlantic Monthly. Anyone listening to Waller’s piano music can immediately recognize these elements in his playing, and it was when he was but 15 years old that he began practicing them.
Studying under Johnson opened a new world to Waller. Not only did Johnson help him get a job at Leroy’s Cabaret on 135th Street in New York, but he also introduced him to many famous musicians, including Luckey Roberts, Willie Grant, Duke Ellington, Stephen Henderson, Eubie Blake, and Willie “the Lion” Smith. At this time Waller also started playing in clubs and at block parties with other up and coming Harlem musicians, and it was at one of these block parties that he met his first wife, Edith Hatchet. They lived quietly and happily for a little while until Waller was offered a position with a vaudeville group called “Liza and Her Shufflin’ Six.” He went on tour with them—very successfully—and it was while he was on tour that he met Bill “Count” Basie. Waller and Basie became good friends and Waller eventually ended up teaching Basie how to play the organ, something that Basie, too, became famous for later on in his career. Fats also studied under Leopold Godowsky in Vienna and Carl Bohn in New York, both famous pianists at the time.
Edith and Fats had a son, Thomas Waller, Jr., but despite this and protestations from his wife, Waller continued to tour and play music at clubs and parties. He loved his music far too much to abandon it, so in 1923 Edith divorced Waller. One of the great tragedies of early Jazz music came later when Waller was jailed for not paying alimony to Edith. To get out of his imprisonment Waller was forced to sell some of his popular songs for a fraction of their real worth, and because of this, experts believe that some songs regarded as the property of other musicians were actually Waller originals. Unfortunately, the world will never know. In the 1930s Waller married his second wife, Anita Rutherford. They had two sons: Maurice and Ronald.
In the meantime, Waller’s career was really beginning to take off. He had recorded his first songs, “Birmingham Blues” and “Muscles Shoals Blues,” in 1922, and in 1926 his first pipe organ recordings were done. And then on December 1, 1927, Waller made his singing debut with the Ted Lewis Band singing “I’m Crazy ’Bout My Baby.” Although not his first intention, it was his singing paired with his fantastic piano playing abilities that made Waller a national celebrity. According to Get Music, he was an “exuberantly funny entertainer,” and people enjoyed hearing his amusing vocal interpretations. Experts have commented that this is why he hasn’t always been taken as a serious musician, but no one hearing his improvisational piano could believe that he did not have great musical ability.
It was during this time period that he wrote the score for the Broadway show Hot Chocolates with lyrics supplied by his friend Andy Razaf. One of Waller’s most famous songs, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” comes from that show. Waller also teamed up with Razaf for two more Broadway shows: Keep Shufflin and Load of Coal.
In 1932 Waller went to Cincinnati and joined the artist staff of the WLW radio station. There he instituted the famous Fats Waller Rhythm Club. The first recordings of the Fats Waller Rhythm Club, on May 16, 1934, marked a new trend in jazz, one that frightened the radio personnel. According to TCSN.com, “Waller had definite strong feelings about allowing room for creativity and inventiveness by his groups and was averse to using written arrangements preferring instead to talk things over with his musicians, with mutually agreed upon routines and solo spots.” This was unheard of. Before this, musicians had practiced heavily before going on the air, but despite qualms from the radio staff, Fats and his Rhythm Club became a national sensation with their looser, although technically accurate, improvisational style.
From here on out, Fats Waller became a household name. He appeared in four films: Hooray for Love, King of Burlesque, Ain’t Misbehavin’, and Stormy Weather. He made several tours of Europe, playing everywhere, even on the cathedral organs of Notre Dame. He accompanied Florence Hills and Bessie Smith, both well-known singers. And he collaborated with many other talented musicians, including Alberta Hunter, Sidney Bechet, Jack Teagarden, and Fletcher Henderson. In 1942 he gave a jazz concert in Carnegie Hall that, although receiving bad reviews because Waller seemed a trifle stiff and uncomfortable, was a monumental occasion in the life of the young preacher’s son from Harlem.
In 1943, in the prime of Waller’s career, he died. He was on a train back from Hollywood that had stopped in Kansas City, Missouri when he was rushed to the hospital with pneumonia. It was a rather unglamorous end to the man who brought the world songs like “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Blue Turning Grey Over You,” and “Jitterbug Waltz.” But his legacy lives on. One of the most popular and technically-gifted musicians of his day, Waller’s talent has stood the test of time.
Fats Waller in London, 1922.
Fats at the Organ, 1923.
Fats Waller and His Buddies, 1927.
You Rascal You, 1929.
Jugglin’ Jive of Fats Waller and His Orchestra, 1938.
Fine Arabian Stuff, 1939.
Last Testament: His Final Recordings, 1943.
Atlantic Monthly, March 2000.
—Catherine Victoria Donaldson
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