Fats Waller: Composer, Pianist and Clown Prince of Jazz

Written by Joseph Dugan, originally published on NYSMusic.com

On May 21, 1904, Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller was born to Adeline Locket Waller, a musician and Rev. Edward Martin Waller, a trucker and pastor in New York City. He began playing piano at the age of six and began playing organ at his father’s church at the age of ten.

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Waller left school at 15 to work as an organist at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem. Within a year, he composed his first rag. He was the top student and friend to pianist James P. Johnson. In 1922, he recorded “Muscle Shoals Blues” and “Birmingham Blues.”

Waller soon became one of the most prolific pianists and songwriters of the era, finding success in the United States and Europe. He was called “the black Horowitz” by fellow pianist Oscar Levant.

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He is believed to have composed many novelty tunes in the 1920s and 1930s and sold them for small sums, attributed to another composer and lyricist.

Standards attributed to Waller, sometimes controversially, include “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby”. The song was made famous by Adelaide Hall in the Broadway show Blackbirds of 1928. Biographer Barry Singer argued that this song was written by Waller and lyricist Andy Razaf. He then provided a description of the sale given by Waller to the New York Post in 1929. Apparently, he sold the song for $500 to a white songwriter for use in a financially successful show. He also noted that early handwritten manuscripts in the Dana Library Institute of Jazz Studies are in Waller’s hand. Waller’s son, Maurice Waller, wrote that his father objected to hearing “On the Sunny Side of the Street” on the radio.

The anonymous sleeve notes on Handful of Keys state that Waller copyrighted over 400 songs, usually with Razaf. Razaf described his partner as “the soul of melody…a man who made the piano sing…both big in body and in mind… known for his generosity… a bubbling bundle of joy”

Waller was kidnapped in Chicago while leaving a performance in 1926. Four men bundled him into a car and took him to the Hawthorne Inn, owned by Al Capone. Waller was ordered inside the building and found a party taking place. With a gun to his back he was pushed towards a piano and told to play. A terrified Waller then realized he was the “surprise guest” at Capone’s party and was relieved that the kidnappers had no intention of killing him.

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In 1926, Waller switched to Victor Talking Machine Company/RCA Victor, the primary recording company furtherest of his career. Although he recorded with several groups, including Morris’s Hot Babes (1927), Fats Waller’s Buddies (1929) (one of the earliest multiracial groups to record), and McKinney’s Cotton Pickers (1929), his most important contribution to the Harlem stride piano tradition was a series of solo recordings of his compositions: “Handful of Keys,” “Smashing Thirds,” “Numb Fumblin’,” and “Valentine Stomp” (1929).

Waller wrote “Squeeze Me” (1919), “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (1929), “Blue Turning Grey Over You,” “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling” (1929), “Honeysuckle Rose” (1929) and “Jitterbug Waltz” (1942). He composed stride piano display pieces such as “Handful of Keys,” “Valentine Stomp” and “Viper’s Drag.”

Waller enjoyed success touring the U.K. and Ireland in the 1930s, appearing on one of the first BBC television broadcasts. While in Britain, Waller also recorded a number of songs for EMI on their Compton Theatre organ located in their Abbey Road Studios in St John’s Wood. He appeared in several feature films and short subject films, including Stormy Weather in 1943. For the hit Broadway show Hot Chocolates, he and Razaf wrote “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” (1929), which became a hit for Ethel Waters and Louis Armstrong.

Waller performed Bach organ pieces for small groups on occasion. He influenced many pre-bebop jazz pianists; Count Basie and Erroll Garner have both revived his hit songs. In addition to his playing, Waller was known for his many humorous quips during his performances.

Between 1926 and the end of 1927, Waller recorded a series of pipe organ solo records. These represent the first time syncopated jazz compositions were performed on a full-sized church organ. In April 1927, Waller played organ at the Vendome in Chicago for movies alongside Louis Armstrong, where his organ-playing was praised for “witty cueing” and “eccentric stop coupling.”

On December 15, 1943 while traveling on the Los Angeles-Chicago train near Kansas City, MO, Fats Waller contracted pneumonia and died. His final recording session was with an interracial group in Detroit, that included trumpeter Don Hirleman. Waller was returning to New York City from Los Angeles after a successful engagement at the Zanzibar Room in Santa Monica during which he had fallen ill.

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Afterwards, he was cremated and his ashes were scattered over Harlem from an airplane. This was piloted by an unidentified African American World War I aviator. Darren Waller, a professional football player, is Fats’ great-grandson.

Fats Waller is a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame (1970), Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame (1989), Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (1993), Neuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame (2005), and Gennett Records Walk of Fame (2008). Two of his recordings, “Honeysyckle Rose” (1999) and “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (1984), are in the Grammy Hall of Fame. In addition, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” was added to the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in 2004.

New York State’s music news source, covering events of all genres from all corners of the Empire State. NYSMusic.com

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