Fats Waller

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Fats Waller
Fats Waller edit.jpg
Background information
Birth name Thomas Wright Waller
Born (1904-05-21)May 21, 1904
New York City, New York, U.S.
Died Script error: The function "death_date_and_age" does not exist.
Kansas City, Missouri, U.S.
Genres Dixieland, jazz, swing, stride, ragtime
Occupation(s) Musician, composer
Instruments Piano, vocals, organ
Years active 1918–1943

Thomas Wright "Fats" Waller (May 21, 1904 – December 15, 1943) was an American jazz pianist, organist, composer, singer, and comedic entertainer, whose innovations to the Harlem stride style laid the groundwork for modern jazz piano, and whose best-known compositions, "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Honeysuckle Rose", were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1984 and 1999.[1]

Early life

Thomas Wright Waller was the youngest of 11 children (five survived childhood) born to Adeline Locket Waller and Reverend Edward Martin Waller in New York City. He started playing the piano when he was six and graduated to the organ of his father's church four years later. His mother instructed him as a youth. At the age of 14 he was playing the organ at Harlem's Lincoln Theater and within 12 months he had composed his first rag. Waller's first piano solos ("Muscle Shoals Blues" and "Birmingham Blues") were recorded in October 1922 when he was 18 years old.

He was the prize pupil, and later friend and colleague, of stride pianist James P. Johnson.


Overcoming opposition from his clergyman father, Waller became a professional pianist at 15, working in cabarets and theaters.[citation needed] In 1918 he won a talent contest playing Johnson's "Carolina Shout", a song he learned from watching a player piano play it.[citation needed]

Waller ultimately became one of the most popular performers of his era, finding critical and commercial success in his homeland and in Europe. He was also a prolific songwriter and many songs he wrote or co-wrote are still popular, such as "Honeysuckle Rose", "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Squeeze Me". Fellow pianist and composer Oscar Levant dubbed Waller "the black Horowitz".[2] Waller is believed to have composed many novelty tunes in the 1920s and 1930s and sold them for relatively small sums,[3] the attributions of which, on becoming widely known, went only to a later composer and lyricist.[citation needed]

Standards alternatively and sometimes controversially attributed to Waller include "I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby". Biographer Barry Singer conjectured that this jazz classic was written by Waller and lyricist Andy Razaf, and provides a description of the sale given by Waller to the NY Post in 1929—for $500, to a white songwriter, ultimately for use in a financially successful show (consistent with Jimmy McHugh's contributions first to Harry Delmar’s Revels, 1927, and then to Blackbirds, 1928).[3][4] 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.[3][5] Jazz historian P.S. Machlin comments that the Singer conjecture has "considerable [historical] justification".[6] 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.[citation needed] Maurice Waller's biography similarly notes his father's objections to hearing "On the Sunny Side of the Street" playing on the radio.[7] 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.[8]

The anonymous sleeve notes on the 1960 RCA Victor album Handful of Keys state that Waller copyrighted over 400 songs, many of which 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".[citation needed] Gene Sedric, a clarinetist who played with Waller on some of his 1930s recordings, is quoted in these same sleeve notes recalling Waller's recording technique with considerable admiration: "Fats was the most relaxed man I ever saw in a studio, and so he made everybody else relaxed. After a balance had been taken, we'd just need one take to make a side, unless it was a kind of difficult number."

Waller played with many performers, from Nathaniel Shilkret (on Victor 21298-A) and Gene Austin, to Erskine Tate, Fletcher Henderson, McKinney's Cotton Pickers and Adelaide Hall, but his greatest success came with his own five- or six-piece combo, "Fats Waller and his Rhythm".

His playing once put him at risk of injury. Waller was kidnapped in Chicago 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 in full swing. Gun to his back, he was pushed towards a piano, and told to play. A terrified Waller realized he was the "surprise guest" at Capone's birthday party, and took comfort that the gangsters did not intend to kill him. It is rumored that Waller stayed at the Hawthorne Inn for three days and left very drunk, extremely tired, and had earned thousands of dollars in cash from Capone and other party-goers as tips.[9]

In 1926, Waller began his recording association with the Victor Talking Machine Company/RCA Victor, his principal record company for the rest of his life, with the organ solos "St. Louis Blues" and his own composition, "Lenox Avenue Blues". Although he recorded with various 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 own compositions: "Handful of Keys", "Smashing Thirds", "Numb Fumblin'", and "Valentine Stomp" (1929). After sessions with Ted Lewis (1931), Jack Teagarden (1931) and Billy Banks' 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.

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".[citation needed]

He enjoyed success touring the United Kingdom and Ireland in the 1930s. He appeared in 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, most notably Stormy Weather in 1943, which was released July 21, just months before his death. 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. Waller influenced many pre-bebop jazz pianists; Count Basie and Erroll Garner have both reanimated his hit songs. In addition to his playing, Waller was known for his many 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.


Waller contracted pneumonia and died on a cross-country train trip near Kansas City, Missouri, on December 15, 1943. His final recording session was with an interracial group in Detroit, Michigan, that included white trumpeter Don Hirleman. Waller was returning to New York City from Los Angeles, after the smash success of Stormy Weather, and after a successful engagement at the Zanzibar Room, during which he had fallen ill.[10] More than 4,000 people attended his funeral in Harlem, which prompted Dr. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who delivered the eulogy, to say that Fats Waller "always played to a packed house."[11] Afterwards he was cremated and his ashes were scattered, from an airplane piloted by an unidentified World War I black aviator, over Harlem.[12] One of his surviving relatives is former Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket and current Baltimore Ravens wideout Darren Waller, who is Fats' paternal great-grandson.

Revival and awards

A Broadway musical revue showcasing Waller tunes entitled Ain't Misbehavin' was produced in 1978. (The show and a star of the show, Nell Carter, won Tony Awards.) The show opened at the Longacre Theatre and ran for more than 1600 performances. It was revived on Broadway in 1988. Performed by five African-American actors, the show included such songs as "Honeysuckle Rose", "This Joint Is Jumpin'", and "Ain't Misbehavin'".

Year Inducted Title
2008 Gennett Records Walk of Fame
2005 Jazz at Lincoln Center: Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame
1993 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award
1989 Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame
1970 Songwriters Hall of Fame

Recordings of Fats Waller were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame which is a special Grammy Award established in 1973 to honour recordings that are at least 25 years old and that have "qualitative or historical significance".

Grammy Hall of Fame Awards[13]
Year Recorded Title Genre Label Year Inducted Notes
1934 "Honeysuckle Rose" Jazz (Single) Victor 1998
1929 "Ain't Misbehavin'" Jazz (Single) Victor 1984 Listed in the National Recording Registry
by the Library of Congress in 2004.

Probably the most talented pianist to keep the music of "Fats" Waller alive in the years after his death was Ralph Sutton, who focused his career on playing stride piano. Sutton was a great admirer of Waller, saying "I've never heard a piano man swing any better than Fats – or swing a band better than he could. I never get tired of him. Fats has been with me from the first, and he'll be with me as long as I live."[14]

Actor and band leader Conrad Janis also did a lot to keep the stride piano music of "Fats" Waller and James P. Johnson alive. In 1949, as an 18-year-old, Janis put together a band of aging jazz greats, consisting of James P. Johnson (piano), Henry Goodwin (trumpet), Edmond Hall (clarinet), Pops Foster (bass) and Baby Dodds (drums), with Janis on trombone.[15]

In popular culture

  • Waller is the subject of the Irish poet Michael Longley's "Elegy for Fats Waller".[16]
  • Robert Pinsky's poem, "History of My Heart," opens with Waller walking into the 34th St. Macy's at Christmastime
  • He was caricatured in several Warner Brothers animated shorts, most notably Tin Pan Alley Cats.
  • In the 2008 film Be Kind Rewind, Waller was a major theme and influence for the storyline.
  • Italian comics book artist Igort published a comic book about Waller entitled Fats Waller on Coconino Press in 2009.
  • Some of Waller's music ("Jitterbug Waltz") is used in the video game series BioShock.
  • Waller's version of "Louisiana Fairytale" was used for many years as the theme song to the American television series This Old House.[17]
  • Waller's church organ music featured prominently in David Lynch's breakthrough film Eraserhead in 1977.[18]
  • Irish rock band Thin Lizzy, wrote the song "Fats" in their album Renegade. It is inspired in the figure of Waller.

Key recordings


Title Recording Date Recording Location Company
"African Ripples" 11-16-34 New York, New York Victor 24830 (reissued Bluebird B-10115)
"After You've Gone" 3-21-1930 New York, New York Victor 22371-B
"A Handful Of Keys" 3-1-1929 Camden, New Jersey Victor V-38508
Ain't Misbehavin' 8-2-1929 Camden, New Jersey Victor 22092, 22108
"All God's Chillun Got Wings" 8-28-1938 London, England Victor 27460
"Alligator Crawl" 11-16-1934 New York, New York Victor 24830 (reissued Bluebird B-10098)
"Baby Brown" 3-11-1935 New York, New York (only issued on LP)
"Baby, Oh! Where Can You Be?" 8-29-1929 Camden, New Jersey Victor rejected, issued on LPV-550
"Basin Street Blues" 3-11-1935 New York, New York Bluebird B-10115
"Because Of Once Upon a Time" 3-11-1935 New York, New York RFW
"Believe It, Beloved" 3-11-1935 New York, New York HMV
"Birmingham Blues" 10-21-1922 New York, New York Okeh 4757-B
"Blue Black Bottom" 2-16-1927 Camden, New Jersey Victor
"Blue Turning Gray Over You" 3-11-1935 New York, New York HMV
"California, Here I Come" 3-11-1935 New York, New York HMV
"Carolina Shout" 5-13-1941 New York, New York Victor
"Clothes Line Ballet" 3-11-1935 New York, New York Victor 25015
"I Can't Give You Anything but Love" (vocals by Adelaide Hall) 8-28-1938 London, England HMV B8849
"Deep River" 8-28-1938 London, England Victor 27459
"Goin' About" 9-11-1929 New York, New York Victor
"Gladyse" 8-2-1929 Camden, New Jersey Victor
"Go Down, Moses" 8-28-1938 London, England Victor 27458
"Honeysuckle Rose" 1934 New York, New York HMV
"I'm Crazy 'Bout My Baby" 1931 New York, New York HMV
"I've Got A Feeling I'm Falling" 8-2-1929 Camden, New Jersey Victor
"Jitterbug Waltz" 16-3-1942 Camden, New Jersey Victor
"Keeping Out Of Mischief Now" 6-11-1937 New York, New York Bluebird 10099
"Lennox Avenue Blues" 11-17-1926 Camden, New Jersey Victor 20357-B
"Lonesome Road" 8-28-1938 London, England Victor 27459
"Minor Drag" 3-1-1929 New York, New York Victor
"Messin' Around With The Blues Blues" 1-14-1927 Camden, New Jersey Victor
"My Fate Is In Your Hands" 12-4-1929 New York, New York Victor
"My Feelin's Are Hurt" 12-4-1929 New York, New York Victor
"Numb Fumblin'" 3-1-1929 Camden, New Jersey Victor
"Russian Fantasy" 3-11-1935 New York, New York HMV
"Soothin' Syrup Stomp" 1-14-1927 Camden, New Jersey Victor
"Sloppy Water Blues" 1-14-1927 Camden, New Jersey Victor
"Smashing Thirds" 9-24-1929 New York, New York Victor
"Sweet Savannah Sue" 8-2-1929 Camden, New Jersey Victor
"The Rusty Pail" 1-14-1927 Camden, New Jersey Victor
"That's All" 8-29-1929 Camden, New Jersey Victor 23260
"Valentine Stomp" 8-2-1929 Camden, New Jersey Victor
"Viper's Drag" 11-16-1934 New York, New York HMV
"Zonky" 3-11-1935 New York, New York HMV



Title Director Year
King of Burlesque Sidney Lanfield 1936
Hooray for Love Walter Lang 1935
Stormy Weather Andrew L. Stone 1943

See also


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  2. Palmer, David. All You Need Is Love. Viking Press. 1976. ISBN 0-670-11448-0
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  6. [1] Archived May 16, 2015 at the Wayback Machine
  7. Waller, Maurice and Anthony Calabrese. Fats Waller, Schirmer Books, 1977. ASIN B000JV3G1U, p. 164.
  8. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  9. Waller-Calabrese, pp. 62-3.
  10. Machlin, Paul S. Stride: The Music of Fats Waller. G.K. Hall, 1985.
  11. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  12. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. From "Gone with the wind, sort of: ashes of 19 famous people – and 1 dog."
  13. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  14. Schacter, James D. Piano Man: The Story of Ralph Sutton, p. 12, Jaynar Press, Chicago, IL.
  15. Uhl, Jim. "For Conrad Janis, Acting and Jazz Share the Spotlight," The Mississippi Rag, pp. 1-9, Sept. 2002, Minneapolis, MN.
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Further reading

  • Machlin, Paul S., ed. (2001). Thomas Wright "Fats" Waller: Performances in Transcription, 1927–1943. Music of the United States of America (MUSA), vol. 10. Madison, Wisconsin: A-R Editions.
  • Taylor, Stephen (2006). Fats Waller on the Air: The Radio Broadcasts & Discography. Lanham: Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0-8108-5656-5.

External links