Thomas Wright Fats Waller (1904-1943) was a popular American jazz singer, pianist, organist, band-leader, and composer; on radio and records and in movies. His ebullient personality endeared him to a wide jazz and pop audience.
Thomas Wright Waller was born in New York City on May 21, 1904. His father was a Baptist minister; his mother was a musician who played and taught piano and organ. As a child Waller studied piano, bass, and violin, but after a time devoted himself exclusively to keyboards— chiefly piano (with a bit of organ), which he had begun playing at age six. His father wanted him to be a clergyman and objected emphatically when, at age nine, Waller jazzed up a hymn on the church organ.
Waller worked in a grocery store to pay for music lessons and played in his grade school orchestra, which was led by Edgar Sampson (later a famous arranger for Benny Goodman). Waller then attended DeWitt Clinton High School, but quit after a year, and at 15 was organist in a Harlem movie theater, earning $32 a week. (He was later to earn as much as $72,000 in a single year.) He continued to study with a number of teachers, including ragtime piano great James P. Johnson. He began his recording career in 1922, played in a silent movie house in Washington, D.C., and led his own trio in Philadelphia into the mid-1920s. The first of his nearly four hundred compositions, "Squeeze Me," was published in 1924.
The late 1920s was a watershed period for Waller. Despite a distracting series of court appearances for nonpayment of alimony, he began a highly successful collaboration with lyricist Andy Razaf; and in 1927, reunited with his former mentor James P. Johnson, he led the band and wrote the score for a hit revue, "Keep Shufflin'," which featured two of Fats' trademark songs, "Ain't Misbehavin"' and "Honeysuckle Rose." In 1928 he performed at Carnegie Hall along with Johnson and W. C. Handy ("The Father of the Blues"); and in 1929 he was the featured organist at New York's Paramount Theater and composed some of the music for another hit revue, "Hot Chocolates."
In the early 1930s Waller did a series of radio broadcasts for WABC and CBS and worked in a variety of bands, usually as leader. His first semi-permanent unit was formed in 1935 and made a classic series of fun-pop-and-jazz recordings; their great appeal for both the jazz audience and the larger commercial market led to many tours for the small band (usually a sextet) and, ultimately, to international fame.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s the group played frequently at New York's Famous Door and the Apollo Theater, at Chicago's Hotel Sherman, and at Boston's Tic-Tac Club. In 1943 Waller's last big show, "Early to Bed," opened in Boston. Also in the year that was to be his last, he toured armed service camps, made some cameo appearances in Hollywood movies—most notably "Stormy Weather"—and played at Los Angeles' Zanzibar Club. It was on the return trip from the West Coast to New York, on December 15, 1943, that Waller, at age 39, died in his train berth of bronchial pneumonia.
Waller's reputation is permanently embedded in jazz and pop lore, and his fame was underscored by the huge late 1970s success of the Broadway musical revue "Ain't Misbehavin'," a funny and loving tribute to the man and his music.
Nowhere in musical history has there been a closer alliance of man and music than in Fats Waller. He was 5 feet 11 inches and his weight wavered between 280 and 300 pounds. He was a jolly, quick-witted man whose compositions were almost always playful (even the sad ones are leavened by a cheerful acceptance of life's difficulties and vagaries). He was generous to a fault, frequently selling a minor compositional masterpiece for a pittance to a needy friend or even a down-and-out barstool acquaintance; money simply didn't matter to him.
For white America Waller seemed to play the self-mocking Negro clown, but attentive listening dispels the notion that his was the persona of a racially accommodating fool: his sense of fun and self-mockery were most often slyly satiric of the culture-at-large.
Fats was well-loved in the music business and his musicianship respected. His digital dexterity, particularly considering the plumpness of his fingers, was astonishing, and jazz critics regard him as one of the very greatest of "stride," or early, pianists. His vocal style—the light, grainy voice, with its sly inflections and defensively argumentative stance—was unique.
Many of Waller's vocal and pianistic performances of his own and others' compositions were reissued in the 1970s on RCA's Vintage series. Included, of course, are his earliest compositions, "Squeeze Me," "Ain't Misbehavin'," and "Honeysuckle Rose," in addition to some unjustly forgotten late 1930s tunes such as "Jitterbug Waltz," "Hold My Hand," "Thief in the Night," "The Girl I Left Behind Me," "What's the Reason I'm Not Pleasin' You," "The Joint Is Jumpin"' (on which he typically interpolates "Don't give your right name!" as police sirens are heard in the background), and "Spring Cleaning" (Waller interpolates "No, lady, we can't haul your ashes for 25 cents—that's bad business!").
There are also splendid (often humorous) vocal readings of tunes written by others: "Jingle Bells" (a strangled "Jingle Bells!" followed by a concerned "What's the matter with him?" "I don't know—I think the jingle bells got him."); "Two Sleepy People"; "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie" ("If you break my heart/I'll break your jaw/And then I'll die."); Earl Hines' "Rosetta," Harburg & Schwartz's lovely "Then I'll Be Tired of You"; Caesar & Lerner's "(O Susanna) Dust Off That Old Pianna"; and "Your Feet's Too Big" (Gun the gunboats!"). Waller's instrumental skills are in full evidence throughout, especially on the straight instrumental versions of "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Honeysuckle Rose," and "Tea for Two."
Further Reading on Thomas Wright Waller
Waller is the subject of a great number of periodical articles and book chapters; there are several biographies, the most noteworthy of which are his son Maurice Waller's Fats Waller (1979) and Alyn Shipton's Fats Waller (1988).
Additional Biography Sources
Kirkeby, W. T. Ed., Ain't misbehavin': the story of Fats Waller, New York: Da Capo Press, 1975, 1966.
Vance, Joel, Fats Waller, his life and times, Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1977.
Waller, Maurice, Fats Waller, New York: Schirmer Books, 1977.