American jazz pianist, organist, composer, violinist, singer, and comedic entertainer, Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller lived from May 21, 1904 – December 15, 1943.
Fats Waller became one of the most popular and influential performers of his era and a master of stride piano playing, finding critical and commercial success in both the United States and abroad, particularly in Europe. Waller was also a prolific songwriter, with many of his compositions becoming huge commercial successes. His technique and attention to decorative detail influenced countless jazz pianists including Art Tatum, Count Basie, and Thelonious Monk.
Fats Waller was the seventh child of 11 (five of whom survived childhood) born to Adeline Locket Waller, a musician, and Reverend Edward Martin Waller, a trucker and pastor in New York City. He started playing the piano when he was six and graduated to playing the organ at his father’s church four years later. His mother instructed him in his youth, and he attended other music lessons, paying for them by working in a grocery store. Waller attended DeWitt Clinton High School for one semester, but left school at 15 to work as an organist at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem, where he earned $32 a week. Within 12 months he had composed his first rag song and was the prize pupil and later the friend and colleague of the stride pianist James P. Johnson.
Fat’s Waller’s first recordings, “Muscle Shoals Blues” and “Birmingham Blues”, were made in October 1922 for Okeh Records. That year, he also made his first player piano roll, “Got to Cool My Doggies Now”. Waller’s first published composition, “Squeeze Me”, was published in 1924.
Many of the songs he later wrote or co-wrote are still popular, such as “Honeysuckle Rose”,“Ain’t Misbehavin'” and “Squeeze Me“.
The anonymous sleeve notes on the 1960 RCA Victor album Handful of Keys state that Waller copyrighted over 400 songs, many of them co-written with his closest collaborator, Andy 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”
In 1926 his career took off when he signed with the RCA Victor Label. Waller recorded many sides and scored an abundance of hits with RCA such as “Jitterbug Waltz,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” and “The Joint is Jumpin‘.” He became very popular despite the notion that jazz was not a “serious” form of music.
The 400 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 conjectured that this jazz classic was written by Waller and lyricist Andy Razaf and provided a description of the sale given by Waller to the New York Post in 1929—he sold the song for $500 to a white songwriter, ultimately for use in a financially successful show (consistent with Jimmy McHugh’s contributions to Harry Delmar’s Revels, 1927, and then to Blackbirds of 1928). He further supports the conjecture, noting that early handwritten manuscripts in the Dana Library Institute of Jazz Studies of “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around” (Jimmy McHugh ©1935) are in Waller’s hand. Jazz historian Paul S. Machlin comments that the Singer conjecture has “considerable [historical] justification”. Waller’s son Maurice wrote in his 1977 biography of his father that Waller had once complained on hearing the song, and came from upstairs to admonish him never to play it in his hearing because he had had to sell it when he needed money. Maurice Waller’s biography similarly notes his father’s objections to hearing “On the Sunny Side of the Street” playing on the radio. Waller recorded “I Can’t Give You…” in 1938, playing the tune but making fun of the lyrics; the recording was with Adelaide Hall who had introduced the song to the world at Les Ambassadeurs Club in New York in 1928.
Waller’s other accomplishments include vaudeville appearances with the famous blues singer Bessie Smith, soon after which he wrote the music to the show “Keep Shufflin’”. In 1927, Waller and lyricist Andy Razaf collaborated on several musicals, the most of popular of which, Hot Chocolates would bring them great critical and commercial success. It also produced the song “Ain’t Misbehavin’” which became a huge hit for Louis Armstrong. By the early 1940s Waller was earning a comfortable living as an entertainer. He wrote the first non-black musical for Broadway by an African American, Early to Bed, and took a role in the film Stormy Weather. He also appeared regularly on radio.
In a 2016 essay about Waller by John McWhorter, an American academic and linguist who Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where he teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy, and music history. (He is the author of a number of books on language and on race relations.)
Even as late as 1943, the idea of a black composer writing the score for a standard-issue white show was unheard of. When Broadway performer and producer Richard Kollmar began planning Early to Bed, his original idea was for Waller to perform in it as a comic character, not to write the music. Waller was, after all, as much a comedian as a musician. Comedy rarely dates well, but almost 80 years later, his comments and timing during “Your Feet’s Too Big” are as funny as anything on Comedy Central, and he nearly walks away with the movie Stormy Weather with just one musical scene and a bit of mugging later on, despite the competition of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Lena Horne, and the Nicholas Brothers. Kollmar’s original choice for composer [of Early to Bed] was Ferde Grofé, best known as the orchestrator of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” whose signature compositions were portentous concert suites. But Grofé withdrew, and it is to Kollmar’s credit that he realized that he had a top-rate pop-song composer available in Waller. Waller’s double duty as composer and performer was short-lived. During a cash crisis and in an advanced state of intoxication, Waller threatened to leave the production unless Kollmar bought the rights to his Early to Bed music for $1,000. (This was typical of Waller, who often sold melodies for quick cash when in his cups. The evidence suggests, for example, that the standards “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street” were Waller tunes.) Waller came to his senses the next day, but Kollmar decided that his drinking habits made him too risky a proposition for eight performances a week. From then on, Waller was the show’s composer only, with lyrics by George Marion, whose best-remembered work today is the script for the Astaire-Rogers film The Gay Divorcée.
Six months after the premiere of Early to Bed, while traveling cross-country following performances on the West Coast, Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller died of pneumonia in Kansas City, Missouri‘s Union Station train depot on December 15, 1943 at the age of 39.