Regarded as one of the greatest pianists in the history of jazz music, Fats Waller was a singer, musician and entertainer of exceptional forte. His amazingly light and flexible touch belies his physical simplicity. Waller initiated the use of pipe organ and Hammond organ in Jazz. Calling the pipe organ as the ‘god box’, he created a world of joy for the music lovers. That is one of the reasons why he is hailed as a genius even years after his death. As an improviser and composer, there were very rare occasions when his invention flagged, adding paradoxically winsome songs like "Honeysuckle Rose", "Ain't Misbehavin”, "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now", "Blue Turning Grey Over You" and the extraordinary "Jitterbug Waltz" to the jazz inventory. However, in spite of his exuberance and talent, he is best remembered for his comic personality. Explore more on this musician’s life in this biography below.
Fats Waller’s Childhood and Early Life
Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller was born on 21 May 1904 to Edward Waller and Adeline Waller, a Baptist preacher who conducted open-air religious services in Harlem. Waller’s granddad was an accomplished violinist while his mother was a church organist. It was from her that he learnt to play organ and got his early lessons in classical music. Even his church musical director played a key role in acquainting him to the basics of music as well as to the works of J.S. Bach. Since he was keen on learning the piano, his mother hired a tutor for him.
Waller’s father, however, was averse to his fondness for music, and wanted him to follow his footsteps and make a career in religion. Nevertheless, Waller continued with his passion for music. Due to disagreements with his father, in 1920, after his mother’s death, he moved out of the family house and started to live with the family of Russell Brooks, the pianist. In 1918, he won a talent contest performing James P. Johnson’s ‘Carolina shout’, which he learned by watching a Pianola play. This is where he met James P. Johnson and Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith, the two bigwigs of the Harlem stride. Later, when Johnson met Fats and heard him play the pipe organ, he was convinced that he could help the boy improve his play. Johnson and Smith greatly influenced the young man by teaching him stride piano style and introducing him to the works of impressionistic composers of the nineteenth century.
Influence of Johnson
Fats improved his skills under Johnson and were introduced to the first Harlem rent party. Waller was a hard-working student who practiced piano until late hours every day. In 1922, Johnson was asked to take over the piano in a club at Leroy’s where Willie ‘the Lion’ Smith performed. However, as Johnson was going out of town due to a show, he asked Fats to take over. This was the nightclub debut of Waller. Waller performed like a professional as and left everyone spellbound.
Johnson also introduced Waller to Quality Reigns Supreme (QRS) in order to make piano rolls. In the next five years, Waller performed for 19 rolls for QRS for hundred dollars each. His key board style had an individuality, which could be associated only with Fats Waller. His unique style and approach to music got the record sales soaring, thanks to his ability to convert even the inconsequential popular ballad into a thing of joy.
In 1926, Waller joined hands with Victor, his principal record organization, which lasted throughout his life. Though he recorded with various groups, his most significant contribution to 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 having sessions with Ted Lewis (1930), Jack Teagarden (1931) and Billy Bank’s Rhythm makers (1932), he started a series of small band known as Fats Waller and Rhythm. It featured Herman Autrey, Gene Sedic, Rudy Powell and Al Casey.
In 1927, Waller recorded with Fletcher Henderson orchestra and in the following year in 1928, he made his Carnegie hall debut. He also met the poet and lyricist Andy Razaf in 1927, which led to both collaborating on musicals such as ‘Hot Chocolates’. This brought critical as well as commercial acclaim.
According to an interesting anecdote, in 1926, when he was leaving for home after a performance, he was abducted by four men and was bundled into a car and taken to Hawthorne Inn, which was owned by a gangster. A terrified Waller later realized that he was the surprise guest at Al Capone’s birthday and the gangsters did not intend to kill him. As per the story, Waller performed there for three days and by the time he left, he was drunk, tired and had earned thousands of dollars.
In 1931, he toured Paris and after his return to New York, he formed his small combo ‘Falls Waller and His Rhythm’. He also performed for radio broadcasts and starred in movies. In the middle of 1930’s, he frequently performed on west coast and returned to Europe in 1938 to have a tour of British Isles. For one more time, he performed at the Carnegie Hall before touring United States extensively for the rest of his life. In the middle of 1930’s, he also worked on Les Hite’s band, which was Frank Sebastian’s New Cotton Club. He starred in two films in 1935 — ‘Hooray for Love’ and ‘King of Burlesque’
In the year 1943, he starred in the film ‘Stormy Weather’. In December, in the same year, while playing the Zanzibar room in Hollywood, he suffered a bout of influenza. This forced him to cut all his engagements in order to return home. His health suffered badly due to excessive drinking, over work and obesity and influenza added to the complications. On December 15, 1943, while travelling in a train back to New York, Thomas Fats Waller passed away near Kansas City, at the age of 39 of pneumonia.
Fats Waller was married to Edith Hatchet whom he divorced in 1924. They had a son named Thomas. Then, he married Anita Rutherford with whom he had two kids, called Maurice and Ronald.
Fats Waller had penned an innumerable number of compositions. Some of Waller’s works with enthusiastic vocals and popular titles are ‘Don’t Let It Bother You’, ‘Sweetie Pie’, ‘Lulu’s Back In Town’, ‘Truckin’’, ‘A Little Bit Independent’, ‘It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie’, ‘You’re Not The Kind’, ‘Until The Real Thing Comes Along’, ‘The Curse Of An Aching Heart’, ‘Dinah’, ‘S’posin’, ‘Smarty’, ‘The Sheik Of Araby’, ‘Hold Tight’ and ‘I Love To Whistle’. Waller had massive hits with specialities such as ‘I’m Gonna Sit Right down and Write Myself a Letter’, ‘When Somebody Thinks You’re Wonderful’, ‘My Very Good Friend the Milkman’ and ‘Your Feet’s Too Big’. He recorded ballads including ‘Two Sleepy People’ and ‘Then I’ll Be Tired of You’. Some of his other compositions include ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ and ‘The Joint Is Jumping’ (co-written with Raze and J.C. Johnson).
Awards and Accolades
- The Recordings of Fats Waller were included in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
- A Broadway musical revue that displayed Waller tunes with the title Ain't Misbehavin' was produced in 1978.