Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller
Born May 21, 1904, in New York City, Fats Waller became a professional pianist at 15, working in cabarets and theatres, and soon became deeply influenced by James P. Johnson, the founder of the stride school of jazz piano. Waller’s innovations to the Harlem stride style laid the groundwork for modern jazz piano.
By the late 1920s he was also an established songwriter whose work often appeared in Broadway revues. From 1934 on he made hundreds of recordings with his own small band. His best-known compositions, “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and “Honeysuckle Rose”, were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame posthumously, in 1984 and 1999.
Fats Waller’s father, Edward Waller, was a Baptist lay preacher who conducted open air religious services in Harlem, at which as a child Waller played reed organ. He played piano at his public school and at the age of 15 became organist at the Lincoln Theatre on 135th Street. His father hoped that Waller would follow a religious calling rather than a career in jazz, but after the death of his mother Adeline Waller in 1920, he moved in with the family of the pianist Russell B. T. Brooks.
Waller met James P. Johnson, under whose tutelage he developed as a pianist and through whose influence he came to make piano rolls — starting in 1922 with Got to Cool My Doggies Now. There is some evidence to support Waller’s claims that during his formative years as a pianist he studied with Leopold Godowsky and composition with Carl Bohm at the Juilliard School.
In October 1922, Waller made his recording debut as a soloist for Okeh with Muscle Shoals Blues and Binningham Blues. He began a series of recordings the same year as accompanist for several blues singers including Sara Martin, Alberta Hunter, and Maude Mills. In 1923, a collaboration with Clarence Williams led to the publication of Waller’s Wild Cat Blues, which Williams recorded with his Blue Five, including Sidney Bechet (July 1923). Another composition, Squeeze Me, was published the same year; these began to establish Waller’s reputation as a composer of material performed and recorded by other artists. 1923 also saw his broadcasting debut for a Newark local station, followed by regular appearances on WHN of New York. Waller continued to broadcast as a singer and soloist throughout his life, including the long-running Fats Waller’s Rhythm Club and Moon River (on which he played organ). During the early 1920s, he continued as an organist at the Lincoln and Lafayette theaters in New York.
In 1927, Waller recorded his own composition Whiteman Stomp with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra. Henderson also made use of other works by Waller, including Crazy ’bout My Baby and Stealing Apples. Waller’s other work as a composer with the lyricists Edgar Dowell, J. C. Johnson, Andy Razaf, and Spencer Williams produced such songs as Honeysuckle Rose and Black and Blue. With Razaf he worked on much of the music for the all-black Broadway musical Keep Shufflin’ (1928). Their later collaborations for the stage included the shows Load of Coal and Hot Chocolates (which opened in May 1929 and transferred onto Broadway on June 20 and incorporated the song Ain’t Misbehavin’ as a vehicle first for Cab Calloway and later Louis Armstrong). Waller’s Carnegie Hall debut was on April 27, 1928, where he was a piano soloist in a version of Johnson’s fantasy Yamekraw for piano and orchestra.
In 1926, Waller began his recording association with Victor, his principal record company for the rest of his life, with the organ solos St. Louis Blues and his own Lenox Avenue Blues. Although he recorded with various groups, including Morris’s Hot Babes (1927), Fats Waller’s Buddies (1929) (one of the earliest interracial 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 own compositions: Handful of Keys, Smashing Thirds, Numb Fumblin’, and Valentine Stomp (1929). After sessions with Ted Lewis (1930), Jack Teagarden (1931), and Billy Banks’s Rhythmakers (1932), he began in May 1934 the voluminous series of recordings with a small band known as Fats Waller and his Rhythm. This six-piece group usually included Herman Autrey (sometimes replaced by Bill Coleman or John “Bugs” Hamilton), Gene Sedric or Rudy Powell, and Al Casey.
In the mid-1930s, Waller worked on the West Coast with Les Hite’s band at Frank Sebastian’s New Cotton Club. He also appeared in two films while in Hollywood in 1935, Hooray for Love! and King of Burlesque. For tours and recordings, Waller often led his own big band. This began as an expanded version of the band led by his bass player (Charlie Turner’s Arcadians), and in 1935, with most members of the Rhythm (as well as Don Redman, among others), it made its first recording. The group’s version of I Got Rhythm includes a cutting contest of alternating piano solos by Waller and Hank Duncan.
In 1938, Waller undertook a European tour, recording in London with his Continental Rhythm, as well as making solo pipe-organ recordings for HMV. His second European tour in 1939 was terminated by the outbreak of war, but while in Britain, he recorded his London Suite, an extended series of six related pieces for solo piano: Piccadilly, Chelsea, Soho, Bond Street, Limehouse, and White Chapel. It is Waller’s longest composition and represents something of his aspirations to be a serious composer rather than just the author of a string of hit songs.
The last few years of Waller’s life involved frequent recordings and extensive tours of the USA. In early 1943, he returned to Hollywood to make the film Stormy Weather with Lena Horne and Bill Robinson, in which he led an all-star band including Benny Carter and Zutty Singleton. He undertook an exceptionally heavy touring load that year, as well as collaborated with the lyricist George Marion, Jr. on the score for the stage show Early to Bed (which opened in Boston on May 24,1943). The touring, constant abuse of his system through overeating and overdrinking, and the nervous strain of many years of legal trouble over alimony payments all took their toll and his health began to break down. He was taken ill during a return visit to the West Coast as a solo pianist at the Zanzibar Room in Hollywood and died of pneumonia while traveling back to New York by train with his manager Ed Kirkeby.