Born Thomas Wright Waller, May 21, 1904, in New York, NY; died of pneumonia near Kansas City, MO, December 15, 1943; son of Edward Martin (a Baptist minister) and Adeline (Lockett) Waller; married second wife, Anita Priscilla Rutherford, 1926; children: (first marriage) Thomas Wright, Jr., (second marriage) Maurice, Ronald. Education: Studied with stride pianists Willie Smith and James P. Johnson; studied classical piano with Leopold Godowsky and composition with Carl Bohm at the Juilliard School.

While best remembered for his comic songwriting and musical performances, show business legend Fats Waller was a gifted jazz musician whose greatest contribution to music lay in his brilliant stride piano compositions. Introduced to this particular piano idiom by Harlem stride master James P. Johnson, Waller was a wizard at this successor to ragtime, in which the left hand carries the beat and the right delivers the melody. His dynamic, creative keyboard style extended to the organ and the celesta; he was, in fact, the first significant jazz organist, his swing on the pipe organ unsurpassed. But because "white America preferred its jazzmen to be Falstaffs rather than ... Hamlets," suggested Jack Kroll in Newsweek, "Waller ... was granted a certain measure of success because he agreed to emphasize his real gift for comedy and buffoonery, letting the jazz fall where it might."

Becoming an international star performing popular songs and satiric tunes like "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Honeysuckle Rose," and "Your Feet's Too Big," the 300-pound Waller cultivated an exuberant stage persona that audiences heartily embraced. With wagging head and joking asides, he slyly poked fun at the feeble songs he was frequently asked to perform; "He would disembowel Tin Pan Alley's more inane creations vocally and on the keyboard," observed National Review contributor Ralph De Toledano, "but even in his lightest moments, he was always the virtuoso, always the master of ragtime cum jazz." Said Kevin Whitehead in Down Beat, "He always found something of value in the rubbish. Fats had the double curse of being able to sing anything, and always being asked to prove it. But Waller's verbal comedy was too lively for someone just going through the motions, and he enjoyed subverting weak material ... making it sublimely ridiculous."

The son of an Abyssinian Baptist minister, Thomas Wright Waller was raised in New York City's Harlem. At the age of six he began to play the reed organ; by ten he was performing in school concerts and before his father's congregation. The senior Waller considered jazz "the devil's music" and encouraged his son to become a classical pianist; but by the time young Thomas had reached his teens he had met James P. Johnson, and his father's battle was lost. Abandoning high school to become a movie theater organist, Waller studied jazz piano with Johnson. Soon word of the young man's artistry began to spread. By the early 1920s Waller--his girth quickly earning him the nickname "Fats"--was one of Harlem's most prominent keyboards players, delighting patrons in cabarets and nightclubs accompanying blues singers like Bessie Smith and Alberta Hunter, or performing piano and organ solos. In 1922 Waller cut his first player-piano roll, "Got to Cool My Doggies Now." That year he also made his solo recording debut, "Muscle Shoals Blues/Birmingham Blues," for Okeh Records.

A prolific songwriter, Waller sold his first tune, "Squeeze Me," in 1923; by the late twenties his compositions were being performed and recorded by the most popular entertainers of the day, most notably Fletcher Henderson and Cab Calloway. In 1928 Waller and lyricist Andy Razaf wrote much of the music for the all-black Broadway musical Keep Shufflin'. Later Waller-Razaf collaborations included the stage show Connie's Hot Chocolates, which featured the enduring hit song "Ain't Misbehavin.'" Frequently pressed for money, the free-living Waller sometimes sold the rights to a song for taxi fare or the price of a meal, though he would later regret it; playing fast and loose with traditional business practices, he sometimes obtained cash advances for songs he never finished or sold the same piece to more than one publisher. He took his keyboards compositions more seriously, however, recording an important series of stride piano pieces--"Handful of Keys," "Smashing Thirds," "Numb Fumblin'," "Valentine Stomp," "Viper's Drag," "Alligator Crawl," and "Clothes Line Ballet"--between 1929 and 1934. Waller also recorded on occasion as a sideman in jazz combos like Morris's Hot Babes and McKinney's Cotton Pickers, as well as heading his own small ensembles. His Fats Waller's Buddies was one of the earliest recorded interracial groups.

In 1934 Waller assembled a sextet called Fats Waller and His Rhythm that consisted of Eugene "Honey Bear" Sedric on reeds, Al Casey on guitar, Charles Turner on bass, Yank Porter or Harry Dial on drums, and Herman Autrey (sometimes replaced by Bill Coleman or John "Bugs" Hamilton) on trumpet. Featuring Waller's humorous vocal interpretations and masterful stride playing, the group recorded scores of songs for the Victor label over the next few years, producing the hits "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," "Lulu's Back in Town," and "Your Feet's Too Big." Many of the tunes the performer skewered were his own; yet "his comedy wasn't merely verbal," wrote Down Beat' s Whitehead. "[Waller] conveyed sly humor with rolling piano triplets, bright rips up the keyboard's top octaves, and amply buoyant rhythm." With a popularity that rivaled famed trumpet player Louis Armstrong's, Waller performed regularly on radio and toured throughout the U.S. and abroad before record crowds. Visiting Europe in 1938, he even played jazz on the organ in Paris's Notre Dame Cathedral.

Waller died of pneumonia at the age of 39, his health ruined by his heavy work schedule and passion for food, drink, and revelry. While a number of pianists kept his stride style alive, most of his nearly 500 songs almost faded into obscurity--until 1978 and the Broadway musical "Ain't Misbehavin'." A revue of some thirty-odd songs Waller wrote or made famous--performed by a cast of five headed by the sassy Nell Carter--the show was a smash hit that toured the country, was performed on television, and eventually immortalized on vinyl. Director Richard Maltby, Jr., hoped that the success of "Ain't Misbehavin'" would spur a revival of Waller's music, bringing more lost songs and records to light. "Waller was a national resource," Maltby rhapsodized in Time. "He grabbed an armful of life in an exhilarating way, and I want people everywhere to feel that exalting spirit."

by Nancy Pear

Fats Waller's Career

Began playing the harmonium at age six, was playing the organ at father's Harlem church by ten; began professional career at 15 as organist at Lincoln Theater, New York City; played in New York city cabarets and nightclubs as accompanist and solo performer, early 1920s; cut first player-piano rolls and records, 1922; radio debut, 1923, headlined radio show Fats Waller's Rhythm Club; composer and performer of popular and show tunes; worked as sideman and frontman for various jazz combos; formed ensemble Fats Waller and His Rhythm, 1934; toured and recorded with own big band. Appeared in motion pictures Hooray for Love!, 1935, King of Burlesque, 1935, and Stormy Weather, 1943.

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