Fats Waller - Biography

By Stuart Kremsky


            With his engaging vocal style, satirical wit and immense instrumental gifts, Thomas “Fats” Waller was one of the best-loved entertainers in jazz history, a star of stage, screen, and radio. A prolific composer who wrote more than 450 songs, Waller was also a hard-working bandleader and recording artist with hundreds of records to his credit. The broad appeal of his unmistakably ebullient persona had important social effects as well. As pianist and record producer Mike Lipskin has noted, “At first, Waller made ‘race records,’ the term for recordings marketed solely to African-Americans. But soon his singing and humor established him as one of the first crossover artists, selling records to white people at a time when no mixed bands, save the Benny Goodman Quartet, could get engagements.”

            Thomas Wright Waller was born on May 21, 1904, in New York City, where his father was a minister at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. His mother played organ in church and exposed her son to classical music early on. He began playing keyboards around the age of six, and by ten was playing harmonium in church. With popular music all around him, young Waller began to be attracted to jazz, even though his father viewed it as "music from the Devil's workshop." At Public School 89, he played piano in the band, and worked after school in a grocery store to raise money for lessons. He attended high school for just a year, dropping out at the age of fifteen to become an organist accompanying silent films at a Harlem theatre.

            When Waller’s mother died in 1920, he moved into the home of pianist Russell B. T. Brooks. Here he met the great stride pianist James P. Johnson, who became his teacher and introduced him to the world of night clubs and rent parties. In the stride piano style, while the left hand plays a four-beat pulse while the right hand plays melodies, riffs and often contrapuntal lines. In his liner notes for Turn On The Heat (1991 - BMG), a collection of Waller’s solo piano performances, Lipskin writes that “Played properly, a unique, untranscribable tension and release occurs between the right and left hand as the right anticipates and subtly retards the tempo.” Legend has it that Waller was such a studious and dedicated pupil that he would practice on Johnson’s piano into the wee hours of the morning, until told to go home.

            When in 1922, Johnson was asked to take over a regular uptown club gig, he demurred, suggesting the eighteen year old Waller in his stead. Under Johnson’s tutelage, Waller quickly developed into an all-around pianist who played for dancers and singers at stage shows and revues, and made the rounds of private parties and after-hours clubs. He made his first recordings in late 1922, backing vocalist Sara Martin. Soon, Johnson introduced Waller to the QRS company, who recorded Waller on piano rolls (The company, by the way, is still in business.). Waller made 19 rolls for QRS over the next five years while he continued to play in theaters and vaudeville houses, and to record with singers like Alberta Hunter, Anna Jones, and Ethel Waters.

            Waller soon discovered he had a knack for songwriting. Two collaborations with Clarence Williams, “Wild Cat Blues” and “Squeeze Me,” were published in 1923. Waller’s tunes soon began to be recorded by other artists, earning him a burgeoning reputation as a source of good material. His broadcasting debut came in 1923, on a station in Newark, New Jersey, which led to regular guest spots on WHN in New York.

            Waller began an alliance with the Victor company in 1926, beginning with a pair of pipe organ solos recorded at the end of the year. His first piano solo for the company was “Blue Black Bottom Stomp” the following February. He went on to wax a number of solo piano classics, including such gems as “Handful Of Keys,” “Numb Fumblin’,” and “Smashing Thirds,” all recorded in 1929. As composer, Waller formed a fruitful alliance with lyricist Andy Razaf that resulted in three hit musicals, Keep Shufflin' (1928), Connie’s Load of Coal (1929), which introduced “Honeysuckle Rose,” and Connie’s Hot Chocolates (1929). The latter revue, which featured Louis Armstrong performing “Ain't Misbehavin',” proved so popular that it moved from Connie’s Inn in Harlem to Broadway, where it ran for over 200 performances. Other well known songs by the Waller-Razaf team include “The Joint Is Jumpin',” “Blue Turning Grey Over You,” and “Keepin' Out of Mischief Now.”

            The pianist made his Carnegie Hall debut in April 1928, where he was the soloist in a performance of his mentor Johnson's ambitious “Yamekraw,” for piano and orchestra. Later in the year, Waller’s failure to pay alimony to his first wife resulted in a jail term of six months. In order to raise funds, Waller was forced to sell a group of his popular songs for less than they were worth. Indeed, according to jazz writer Robert Doerschuk, “songs that endure to this day, including ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’ and ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street,’ are rumored to have begun life as Waller compositions...” It wasn’t the last time that the notoriously profligate Waller was in money trouble.

            By 1929, Waller had his own radio show. Although his vocal double entendres sometimes stretched the bounds of network standards, Waller’s broad popularity kept him on the air. Following a few early Thirties recordings with Jack Teagarden and Billy Banks's Rhythmakers, Waller formed his own band, which made its debut session under an exclusive Victor contract in May 1934. Fats Waller and His Rhythm, as they were billed, was usually a sextet with a lineup of trumpet, usually played by Herman Autrey, occasionally replaced by Bill Coleman or John "Bugs" Hamilton; reeds, handled by Gene Sedric or Rudy Powell; guitar, usually Al Casey; and a rotating cast on bass and drums. Among the many popular records made by the band were “Two Sleepy People,” “Your Feet’s Too Big,” “Lulu’s Back In Town,” “Undecided,” and “‘T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do.” Waller also continued to record the occasional piano solo, including a November 1934 date that included the classics “African Ripples,” “Clothes Line Ballet,” “Alligator Crawl,” and “Viper’s Drag,” and a June 1937 session that featured “Keepin’ Out Of Mischief Now.”

            The Waller ensemble worked and recorded consistently. The middle Thirties found them on the West Coast, playing at a club while Waller appeared in the films Hooray for Love! and King of Burlesque. At times, both on the road and on record, Waller led an big band that was essentially an expanded version of his sextet. He toured Europe in the summer of 1938. In London, he recorded with his Continental Rhythm and as an organ soloist for the HMV label, the British affiliate of his American record label. He also made an appearance on one of the earliest BBC television broadcasts. Although his next European jaunt in 1939 was cut short by the impending war, he managed to record his London Suite, a series of six related compositions for solo piano that reflected his growing interest in extended composition.

            Back home in the States, Waller toured, made radio broadcasts and recorded incessantly. At a March 1942 session, Waller laid down his own and only recording of his classic “Jitterbug Waltz,” a favorite of improvisers ever since. Although Waller had some bitter feelings over the financial problems which led him to sell so many songs cheaply, his public image remained that of the jovial entertainer. Waller was further frustrated by the fact that he could seldom persuade record execs to let him record on the pipe organ. A July 1942 Carnegie Hall concert, meant to showcase the full range of Waller’s gifts, backfired when the star, out of nervousness, drank too much and consequently didn’t play very well.

            Back in Hollywood in 1943, Waller appeared in the film Stormy Weather starring Lena Horne and Bill Robinson. He had a heavy touring schedule that year, made more arduous by wartime restrictions. He was also collaborating with lyricist George Marion, Jr. on a new show, Early to Bed, which opened in Boston that May. Non-stop touring, the nervous strain of many years of financial difficulties, and his longstanding habit of eating and drinking to excess finally took their toll on Waller’s health. Taken ill while working as a solo pianist in Hollywood, Waller was on a train back to New York when he died in his sleep near Kansas City on December 15, 1943, officially of pneumonia.

            Despite Waller’s vast repertoire of well-known songs and his prominence among pre-WWII piano players, his name and his place in American culture were fading by 1978, when the Broadway musical, Ain't Misbehavin', opened. A smash success, this award-winning revue featured thirty or so of Waller’s best-known pieces and ran for over 1,600 performances. It was successfully restaged on Broadway in 1988 and has been revived across the United States and Europe, ensuring that his music will continue to be enjoyed by more than just die-hard jazz fans. Waller was induced into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970, into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1989, and was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993. Waller’s hundreds of Victor recordings, mostly on the Bluebird subsidiary, have been compiled on a series of six multiple-disc boxed sets. A dynamic live performer, fortunately Waller filmed a number of “soundies,” an early form of music video. The 2004 Centennial Collection (BMG) coupled a DVD with four soundies and more material with a CD compilation of Waller gems. The colorful Waller has been the subject of a number of books and memoirs, including his manager Ed Kirkeby’s Ain't Misbehavin': The Story of Fats Waller (1966), son Maurice Waller’s Fats Waller (1977), Joel Vance’s Fats Waller, His Life and Times (1977) and Alyn Shipton's Fats Waller (1988). And where would the American language be without such Waller catch-phrases as “Don’t give your right name” and “One never knows, do one?”

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