Waller, Fats (12 May 1904 - 15 Dec. 1943), pianist, organist, singer...

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Waller, Fats (12 May 1904 - 15 Dec. 1943), pianist, organist, singer, and composer, was born Thomas Wright Waller in New York City, the fourth of five surviving children of Edward Waller and Adeline (maiden name unknown). Edward was a Baptist lay minister, and one of young Thomas’s earliest musical experiences was playing harmonium for his father’s street-corner sermons. Thomas’s mother was deeply involved in music as well, and the family acquired a piano around 1910. Although Waller had formal musical instruction during his formative years, he was largely self-taught and indulged in a lot of musical experimentation.

Thomas’s development as a jazz pianist really began in 1920, when, upon the death of his mother, he moved in with the family of the pianist Russell Brooks and then with the Harlem stride piano master James Price Johnson. Like his pianist contemporaries, Waller had learned some aspects of ragtime and jazz style from studying the player piano rolls of masters such as Johnson. Now his instructional experience consisted of sitting at one piano while Johnson sat at another. Johnson’s earliest impression of Waller was that he “played with fervor” but that “he didn’t have any swing then” (Peck, 20). At the time, young Thomas was playing quite a bit of organ and had not developed the propulsive and difficult stride left hand required of the jazz piano style of the day. Long hours of practice, association with Johnson and other stride masters, and formal studies with the pianist Leopold Godowsky and the composer Carl Bohm at Juilliard honed Waller’s skills.

By 1922 Waller had embarked on a busy career cutting piano rolls and playing theater organ at the Lincoln and Lafayette theaters. In that same year he made his debut solo recording for the Okeh label with “Muscle Shoals Blues” and “Birmingham Blues.” He also began accompanying a number of vaudeville blues singers, including Sara Martin and Alberta Hunter. In 1923, through an association with the New Orleans songwriter Clarence Williams, Waller launched his own songwriting career with the publication and recording of “Wild Cat Blues.”

In the mid-1920s many of Waller’s instrumental compositions were recorded by the prominent Fletcher Henderson orchestra, including “Henderson Stomp,” which featured a brief sixteen-bar solo by Waller as guest pianist that demonstrated his muscular technique and innovative ascending parallel tenths in his left hand. Henderson also recorded Waller’s “Stealin’ Apples” and an overblown parody of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra called “Whiteman Stomp.” During this time Waller began his association with the lyricists Spencer Williams and Andy Razaf. With Razaf, Waller wrote his most enduring songs, those included in the musicals Keep Shufflin’ (1928) and Hot Chocolates (1929). Hot Chocolates, which premiered at Connie’s Inn in Harlem, moved to Broadway within a month. “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” a song from that show, was a signature vehicle for CAB CALLOWAY and was largely responsible for propelling the singing career of LOUIS ARMSTRONG.

Waller became a star entertainer in his own right. His large physical dimensions--which earned him the nickname “Fats”--his wit, and his extroverted personality made him a comic favorite to millions. While many fans and critics saw Waller as a mere buffoon, they failed to grasp the true genius of his humorous presentation. Often given uninspired hack songs to record, Waller transformed the material into successful performance vehicles that simultaneously offered veiled, biting commentary. Through his musical and comic ingenuity, he chided pompous, highbrow society in the song “Lounging at the Waldorf” and tainted the glib romantic sentiment of Billy Mayhew’s “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie” by modifying the lyric to “If you break my heart, I’ll break your jaw, and then I’ll die.” Much like the interlocutors of minstrelsy, he used pompous, complex word replacements, such as “your pedal extremities are colossal” in place of “your feet’s too big.” Waller was also able to diffuse overt racist expressions in songs like “Darktown Strutters’ Ball” by referring to it as “Sepia Town.”

Waller had a long-running relationship with Victor Records dating back to 1926 and had an exclusive contract with them by 1934. He recorded prolifically with his own ensembles, Fats Waller and His Rhythm, and costarred with and accompanied other artists. In addition to an exhausting and ultimately fatal road tour schedule, he had his own regular radio program on WOR in New York (1931) and WLW in Cincinnati (1932 - 1934). He made four “soundies,” song-length music videos on film that were shown in nickelodeon arcades, and appeared in three full-length films, King of Burlesque (1935), Hoorayfor Love (1935), and Stormy Weather (1943), costarring LENA HORNE, BILL “BOJANGLES” ROBINSON, KATHERINE DUNHAM, the Nicholas Brothers, and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson.

Fats Waller’s ultimate contribution to music was as a pianist. Behind the comic exterior was an uncompromising and deeply gifted keyboard artist. His most sublime piano performances were recorded in a series beginning in 1929 that included “Handful of Keys,” “Smashing Thirds,” and “Numb Fumblin’.” These pieces continued the two-fisted, swinging, and virtuoso solo style developed by James P. Johnson and others, but they also showcased Waller’s own innovations, such as a graceful melodic sense and gliding walking tenths in the left hand that presaged modern swing. His influence can be heard in almost all the swing pianists who followed him, including COUNT BASIE. Waller had a love and deep knowledge of classical music, especially Bach, and in 1928 he was the soloist premiering in James P. Johnson’s Yamekraw, a concert work for piano and orchestra performed at Carnegie Hall. In London in 1939 Waller ventured into longer compositional forms with his London Suite, which was orchestrated and recorded by the Ted Heath Orchestra in 1950. Waller continued to record jazz, blues, and popular songs on his beloved pipe organ and was the first prominent artist to showcase the new Hammond electric organ in the 1930s.

In 1943 Waller’s overweight condition and indulgences in food, tobacco, and liquor, combined with the exhausting pace of his career and several personal crises, including an alimony liability to Edith Hatchett, his wife of 1920 - 1923, that dogged him all his adult life, finally caught up with him. On a train returning to the East Coast from Hollywood after filming Stormy Weather, Waller died in his sleep somewhere around Kansas City. He was thirty-nine years old.

Further Reading

Hadlock, Richard. Jazz Masters of the Twenties (1965, reprinted 1988).
Kirkeby, Ed. Ain’t Misbehavin’: The Story of Fats Waller (1966, reprinted 1988).
MacHlin, Paul S. Stride: The Music of Fats Waller (1985).
Peck, Seymour. “The Dean of Jazz Pianists,” PM, 27 Apr. 1945: 20.
Shipton, Alyn. Fats Waller: The Cheerful Little Earful (2002).
Waller, Maurice, and Anthony Calabrese. Fats Waller (1977).

Discography

“Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller” in Performances in Transcription 1927 - 1943, comp. Paul S. MacHlin, Music of the United States of America series, vol. 10 (2001).
Posnak, Paul, compiler. The Great Piano Solos 1929 - 1941 (1998).

David Joyner

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