Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Thomas Wright Waller, 21 May 1904, NYC; d on a train near Kansas City, 15 December 1943) Piano, organ, composer, leader. A great master of the New York 'stride' piano style and a prolific composer of shows and hit songs, including 'Keepin' Out Of Mischief Now', 'Ain't Misbehavin',' said to have been written while he was in jail for nonpayment of alimony, 'Black And Blue', 'I've Got A Feelin' I'm Fallin',' 'I'm Crazy 'Bout My Baby' and 'Honeysuckle Rose' (which began as a piano variation on 'Tea For Two'). He sold many hits outright; he may have written the melodies of 'On The Sunny Side Of The Street' and 'I Can't Give You Anything But Love' and sold them to Jimmy McHugh, but he also obtained advances when he needed cash, selling songs and lead sheets (some never finished) to more than one publisher.

Though a great jazz musician, it was his singing and irrepressible humour that made him an internationally popular star. He began playing at six, won a talent contest as a teenager with James P. Johnson's 'Carolina Shout' and later had lessons from Johnson. He began making piano rolls c.1920, records '22 (piano solos 'Muscle Shoals Blues', 'Birmingham Blues'); accompanied blues singers Sara Martin (b 18 June 1884, Louisville KY; d there 24 May 1955), Rosa Henderson (as Mamie Harris; b 24 November 1896, Henderson Co KY; d 6 April 1968, NYC; used many other names), others; played rent parties, piano and organ in silent movie houses (giving informal lessons to Bill Basie). He collaborated with lyricist Andy Razaf; shows included Keep Shufflin' '28, Hot Chocolates '29, Early To Bed '43. He recorded with Fletcher Henderson ('Henderson Stomp' and others were sold to Henderson and Don Redman for a bag of hamburgers, though it is said they insisted on paying him); McKinney's Cotton Pickers (his accompaniment behind Redman's vocal on 'The Way I Feel Today' '29 is a masterpiece of delicacy), Jack Teagarden (singing and repartee on 'You Rascal You' and 'That's What I Like About You' '31).

His records for Victor '26-9 began with pipe organ solos made in a disused church in Camden NJ: the piano was the instrument of his stomach, the organ of his heart, and his ability to make the pipe organ swing using both digital and pedal extremities has never been equalled: titles included W. C. Handy's 'St Louis Blues', 'Loveless Love' (aka 'Careless Love'), but 'Soothin' Syrup Stomp', 'Sloppy Water Blues', 'Rusty Pail' etc were a beautiful series of original improvisations; issued complete on French RCA LPs including alternate takes, later on England's JSP CDs, they have a unique and timeless beauty. There were also vocals by Alberta Hunter with pipe organ (e.g. 'Sugar', 'I'm Goin' To See My Ma'). Sides by Fats Waller and his Buddies included a historic 1929 quintet date organized by Eddie Condon on which the titles (made up on the morning) were reversed, so that 'Harlem Fuss' is a slow blues, 'Minor Drag' an up-tempo romp. He also recorded piano solos and the first of two dates with his friend and admirer Gene Austin (the other in '39). The Depression brought a temporary halt to his own recording; he played with Elmer Snowden and others, led his own band, had popular radio shows '32-4. In particular he played the organ late at night on a Midwestern station where he could improvise his heart out, but no airchecks have survived.

The small-group series for Victor as 'Fats Waller and his Rhythm' began '34 and made his fame. The sextet usually included Al Casey b 10 September 1915, Louisville KY; d 9 September 2005, NYC), guitar, Eugene 'Honey Bear' Sedric (b 17 June 1907, St Louis MO; d 3 April 1963, NYC), reeds; and Herman Autrey (b 4 December 1904, Evergreen AL; d 14 June 1980, NYC), trumpet; Charles Turner on bass, drummers Yank Porter (b c1895, Norfolk VA; d 22 March 1944, NYC), Willmore 'Slick' Jones (1907-69) or Harry Dial (b 17 February 1907, Birmingham AL; d 25 January 1987; autobiography All This Jazz About Jazz '85). They could take almost any song Victor pushed at them and turn it into gold: if Waller liked the song he might do it fairly straight, but made hilarious fun of second-rate material, often blurting out salacious tag-lines ('No, Lady, we can't haul your ashes for twenty-five cents. That'd be bad business.'). They made hundreds of records, and towards the end some of the songs were so bad that nothing could save them, but there is a large number of masterpieces: 'I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself a Letter', 'Lulu's Back In Town', 'What's The Reason (I'm Not Pleasin' You)', 'You're Feet's Too Big' ('Your pedal extremities really are obnoxious')--the list could go on for a page; Pop Memories lists 63 of them as hits, including 'Truckin',' 'A Little Bit Independent', 'All My Life', 'It's A Sin To Tell A Lie' '35-6, 'Smarty' '37, 'Two Sleepy People' '38 all as good as number one hits (before charts). He recorded more piano solos '34, '37, '41, toured with a big band ('Fat And Greasy' was never officially issued and might be considered offensive today but has a wonderful reed sound; one wonders if it was arranged by Redman). He went to Europe twice ('32, '38), recording the last time in London with a pick-up group including Edmundo Ros and George Chisholm; also pipe organ solos and his 'London Suite', six piano impressions (the masters were lost in WWII; test pressings were later found and issued). He appeared in several films (Hooray For Love and King Of Burlesque '35, Stormy Weather '43), gave a Carnegie Hall recital '42 but after the interval was almost too drunk too play.

He loved Bach; he tired of the role of clown and should have done more serious work: the piano impressions recorded in London were tossed off too easily, stealing from his own memory bank. He enjoyed his success and his life-style too much, eating, drinking and partying non-stop; he developed pneumonia and his body gave up the struggle. But his success as an entertainer made him a legend. His last records were V-discs, solos for the armed forces including 'The Reefer Song' ('I dreamed about a reefer five feet long...'), not issued at the time. Despite the comedy he remained profoundly influential as a pianist, Cecil Taylor speaking of 'the depth of his single notes': there was nobody like him. Virtually everything he ever recorded has been reissued on CD; a series of two- and three-disc sets on Bluebird included the complete piano solos as Turn On The Heat and the small-group tracks; but the pipe organ solos have not appeared on RCA/BMG, which is a shame because their remastering might have been very good indeed.

Live recordings '38 have been issued in astonishingly good sound, albums called Live At The Yacht Club, Fascinatin' Fats. Books include one by his manager Ed Kirkeby; Fats Waller '77, by his son Maurice with Anthony Calabrese; and the authoritative bio-discography 'Fats' In Fact '92 by Laurie Wright.