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From the current Spring 2018 Issue

Thomas "Fats" Waller, the musician who was -- in every respect -- larger than life


By Ted Mosser


Al Capone was not someone to whom you said no, especially if you worked him... and especially if it was his birthday.

On January 17, 1926, Capone was celebrating his birthday in grand style at the Hawthorne Inn (which he owned) in mob-controlled Cicero. He seemed to have everything he wanted for the celebration… except for the services of a great entertainer. Naturally, he dispatched his minions to find one.

Enter Thomas “Fats” Waller, a pianist, singer and entertainer who, in his way, was as legendary as Al Capone. It was the peak of the Jazz Age, and Waller — who had already risen to national acclaim — was performing that evening at the Hotel Sherman in downtown Chicago. He left the Hotel gig quite happy and ready for a peaceful night’s sleep — but, as the story goes, it was not to be.

Instead, as soon as he came out into the night, four armed thugs accosted the pianist, pushed him into a car and drove him to the Hawthorne Inn. Of course, Fats was scared out of his wits, not knowing whether these men might harm or even kill him.

When they arrived at the nightclub, Waller found Capone’s birthday party in full swing, and learned that he was the surprise guest. It may have provided some relief for him to know that he was meant to be “the life of the party,” and thus probably wouldn’t end up a corpse. He was pushed forcibly toward a piano and told to play.

Fats was very nervous at first, afraid of playing anything that would not be well received. Eventually, he got a second wind and was a huge success. Finally, after three days entertaining at the Inn, he was released unharmed, very drunk, extremely tired… and considerably richer, having earned thousands of dollars in tips from Capone and his fellow celebrants.

At first glance, this story has all the makings of a tall tale, even though Waller’s son Maurice later confirmed the account. Yet in a way, that’s entirely appropriate, since nearly everything about Fats Waller was larger than life – including Fats himself.

Thomas Wright Waller was born in New York City on May 21, 1904, the youngest of eleven children. His father was the Reverend Edward Martin Waller; his mother Adeline played the organ at her husband’s church. As a youngster, he acquired the nickname “Fats” because of his huge size and voracious appetite. “Naw, naw, sir, I never ran away from home,” he once told an interviewer. “There was too much good food on that table.”

It soon became clear that young Thomas was prodigious in more ways than one. When he was six, he began playing the piano; when he was ten, he became fascinated with the organ at his father’s church. At fourteen — much to his parents’ disapproval — he began playing organ in conjunction with vaudeville shows at Harlem’s Lincoln Theatre, a prominent venue for black entertainers. (Much later in life, when he had become famous as a piano player, Fats would emphasize that the organ was his preferred instrument.)

Fats’ professional debut coincided with the beginning of the famous “Harlem Renaissance,” an African American cultural, social, and artistic explosion that began in the late teens and continued into the mid-1930s. It was a remarkable concentration of African-American artists, and Fats was inevitably in the middle of it, both contributing to it and influenced by it.

In any case, the Lincoln Theater was not exactly the venue his devoutly religious parents desired; they were shocked that their independent son so often wandered astray from home and from their conservative views. Fats’ decision to occasionally play hymns with improvisations and asynchronous jazz beats was anathema to Reverend Waller, who considered jazz to be the devil’s music. As might be guessed, Fats and his father had widely divergent views regarding life, religion and music, creating a deep divide in their relationship that would never be reconciled completely.

Fats was much closer to and more compatible with his mother, who gave Thomas his first piano and organ lessons. If she was not fully enamored with his pursuits in popular music, at least she was more tolerant than his father. Indeed, one of the saddest moments in Waller’s life was his mother’s 1920 death from a stroke brought on by diabetes.

Fats was barely sixteen at the time of his mother’s death and very disconsolate. Fortunately, his joy for life and his love for music both re-emerged when he left home and moved in with pianist Russell B.T. Brooks. Brooks introduced the youngster to James P. Johnson. Although only ten years older than Fats, Johnson — along with Willie “The Lion” Smith — was one of the founders of the stride school of jazz piano. This style features a powerful and usually regular left hand keeping the rhythm while the right hand traces the melody or improvises.

Johnson soon became Fats’ instructor and major influence. He taught Fats the aforementioned stride style and soon the youngster was rivaling his teacher. Fats also followed Johnson’s lead by becoming a featured performer at many of the rent parties (essentially social occasions where tenants hired a musician or band and passed the hat to raise money to pay their rent) held at various homes throughout Harlem. Soon Fats became the life of these parties.

Although Johnson was a dynamic pianist, he was never quite as great an entertainer as his young pupil became. Over time, Waller became both more popular than Johnson and received more critical acclaim as well; according to The Grove Dictionary of American Music, “Few pianists could match Waller’s technique, accuracy and irresistible swing which he maintained even at furious tempos. Johnson, for all his facility at the keyboard, sounds somewhat dry in comparison.” (This analysis doesn’t even take into account Waller’s dynamic vocals, which became an even more famous aspect than his piano playing.) These rent parties also provided Fats with copious amounts of alcohol and constant female attention, both of which he would enjoy in abundance for the rest of his life.

In 1921, Fats met and married Edith Hatch; a son, Thomas Jr., was born the following year. However, the marriage was very problematic almost from the beginning, as Fats’ womanizing, drinking and irresponsibility with money became more prevalent. Edith sought and got a divorce in 1923.

Still, the music played on. At some of the rent parties Fats frequented, he ran into the famous composer George Gershwin — a great pianist and charismatic entertainer who, like Fats, was also frequently the life of the party. Like Gershwin, Fats eventually became an accomplished composer as well as entertainer and both men had a great respect for both American jazz and European classical and impressionistic music. (Waller had learned to play the works of J.S. Bach at a young age.) Over time, these two icons of American popular and jazz music grew to admire each other greatly.

In 1922, Waller made his first recording for the Okeh Record label with solo piano renditions of “Muscle Shoals Blues” and “Birmingham Blues.” He was 18 years old. Not long afterward, he recorded “Squeeze Me,” generally considered to be his first important work, and the song that helped him to establish himself as a songwriter. During this period, Waller continued to play the organ at the Lincoln Theatre and also began taking engagements at theatres in Philadelphia and Chicago.

In 1926, Waller began two unions that would affect the rest of his life. First, he signed a record deal with RCA Victor; second, he married his second wife, Anita Rutherford. Fortunately, this marriage was more successful than his first and produced two sons, Maurice and Ronald.

By the late 1920s, Waller had become more involved with writing and performing for musicals, forging a strong collaborative partnership with lyricist Andy Razaf. Together, the duo wrote “Honeysuckle Rose” and the song that became Waller’s theme, the classic “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”

Years later, jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie talked about the transitional bridge in “Ain’t Misbehavin’ (“Like Jack Horner/in the corner/Don’t go nowhere/What do I care?”). “Where did he get that from?” Gillespie raved. “Boy, I bet all the piano players right now love it. I haven’t heard anything in music since that’s more hip, harmonically and logically.”

Razaf became a friend and great admirer of Waller, and would later describe Fats 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.” The duo wrote much of the music for the all-black 1928 Broadway musical Keep Shufflin’ and Connie’s Hot Chocolates, which featured “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”

In addition to his more famous compositions, it’s been suggested that Waller composed many novelty tunes in the 1920s and 1930s and sold them for small sums, with the credit going to other composers and lyricists. Among the standards that have been attributed to Waller are “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby“ and “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” In his 1977 biography, Waller’s son Maurice wrote that his father “had once complained on hearing ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street,’” admonishing his son never to play it in his presence — or on the radio — because he had had to sell it at a time when he needed money.

During the 1920s, Waller met another icon of American music, the great Louis Armstrong, who made his Broadway debut in Connie’s Hot Chocolates. The two men soon became friends, with Armstrong later recording some of Waller’s most famous compositions, including “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Black and Blue.”

In the early 1930s, Waller branched out into radio, first with locally produced shows in New York (including Paramount on Parade and Radio Roundup) and later starring on Fats Waller’s Rhythm Club for Cincinnati’s WLW. After returning to New York in 1934, he began a new regular radio program called Rhythm Club. More importantly, he formed the Fats Waller and His Rhythm sextet, the group that would play behind him for most of his life. Their recordings and filmed performances reveal so much of what made Waller a great musician and entertainer: his wonderful touch and rhythmic dynamism on piano, his cocked derby hat and highly expressive face (especially the eyes, brows and lashes) and his comic yet very substantial voice.

Throughout the 1930s, Fats became more famous and in demand; in 1935, he traveled to Hollywood to appear in the films Hooray for Love! and King of Burlesque. During this period, he also made two trips to Europe; the first one saw him playing several Bach compositions on the organ at what might have been his most prestigious venue ever — Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. During his second trip in 1939, he barely avoided a confrontation with Nazi troops and made his way to England, where he recorded his London Suite. Waller’s most ambitious, serious work, London Suite comprised of six related pieces for solo piano. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz suggests that this suite “represents something of his aspirations to be a serious composer rather than just the author of a string of hit songs.”

His final two years proved to be particularly dramatic and eventful. With the outbreak of World War II, he frequently entertained servicemen and -women, both at home and abroad. In January 1942, he gave a concert at Carnegie Hall, which, despite a few unfavorable critical reviews, was well received by the audience. In January 1943, he wrote music for the show Early to Bed and travelled to Hollywood to perform “Ain’t Misbehavin’” in the film Stormy Weather, which starred Lena Horne and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

Fats’ performance was accompanied by many of the great sidemen who had been part of “Fats Waller and His Rhythm” for so many years. It’s vintage Fats, revealing his wonderful touch on piano and his highly expressive face and voice. His only competition in this scene is some tangential romantic interplay between Robinson and Horne (who are part of his audience) and a very funny comic dance routine by an anonymous, seemingly inebriated man with his hat pulled over his eyes. Still, this scene is essentially the Waller magic on screen, and readily available thanks to home video.

After completing his work on Stormy Weather, Waller briefly returned to New York but came back to California in late 1943 for a short engagement at Los Angeles’ Zanzibar Club. During this time, he developed pneumonia. His body was breaking down after so many years of overindulging in food and alcohol. Waller believed he could fight it off by getting a lot of sleep, and decided to take the Santa Fe Chief back to New York.

It was approximately 2:00 am on December 15 when the train was going through a winter storm in Kansas. Fats’ manager Ed Kirkeby opened the door to Waller’s sleeper and was hit by a strong blast of cold air. “Jesus, it’s cold in here,” Kirkeby said.

“Yeah, Hawkins sure is blowin’ out there tonight,” Waller replied.

Perhaps Fats was thinking at the time of the great tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, or perhaps, as some have suggested, he was simply using an African-American expression for describing a cold, blustery north wind. Whatever the case might be, when the train pulled into Kansas City later that morning, Kirkeby found Waller lying in his berth, completely still and unresponsive. A doctor came aboard to examine him and informed Kirkeby that Fats was dead. The tragic end had come quite unexpectedly, and the news soon spread across America. Fats was only thirty-nine years old.

Although Waller had accomplished more in four decades than most people do in twice that time, it offered little consolation to those mourning a man who had brought so much joy to so many people, or to the many great musicians and critics who recognized that he was more than just a charismatic entertainer. At his funeral back in New York, the famous preacher and statesman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. eulogized Waller in a church filled to the point of overflowing. “Fats always played to a full house,” he remarked.

Fats’ all-too-brief life had ended; however, his music and persona would come alive again for later generations. On February 8, 1978, Manhattan Theatre Club’s East 73rd Street cabaret opened Ain’t Misbehavin’, a revue that saluted the African-American musicians of the 1920s and 1930s who were part of the Harlem Renaissance — Waller in particular. The reception from audiences and critics was so overwhelming that the show became a full-scale Broadway production in May; it won three Tony Awards (including the Best Musical Award and another for performer Nell Carter) and ran for more than 1,600 performances before closing in February 1982.

In addition to the standards “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” the show features two vintage Waller comic pieces. “The Joint is Jumping” tells of a party that is so boisterous that the police invade, ending with Waller’s famous retort, “Don’t give your right name, oh no!” The second, “Your Feets Too Big,” is a satirical song about a friend who is evidently great in every way except for his large feet. The song ends with the equally famous aside, “Your pedal extremities really are obnoxious. One never knows, do one?”

The musical has remained popular over the years and received a Tony nomination when it was revived on Broadway in 1988. It’s the next best thing to having seen him in person and a reminder that Fats Waller’s music was as large, as sweet and as memorable as the man himself — truly, as Andy Razaf called him, a bubbling bundle of joy.

Tune in to Those Were the Days on June 2 to hear Fats Waller on radio.

Tune in to Those Were the Days on January 20 to hear a broadcast of Hawaii Calls.


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