Thomas Wright "Fats" Waller was a singer, violinist, composer, organist, and pianist who also moonlighted as a comedic entertainer. Waller has over 400 songs copyrighted to his name, the majority of which were results of collaborations with Andy Razaf, a close friend. He is also heralded as the initiator of modern jazz piano for his utilization of the “Harlem stride style.”
Thomas Waller was born on the 21st of May, 1904, in New York City to Reverend Edward Martin Waller and Adeline Locket Waller. He was the seventh among 11 Waller children and started learning the piano at the mere age of six. He slowly upgraded to playing the organ at Reverend Edward Martin’s church when he turned ten. Adeline Waller was a music teacher herself and took care of his son’s initial training. Thomas also took music lessons from other teachers and paid for them by working at the local grocery. He further joined the DeWitt Clinton High School but left the institution at the age of 15 to pursue a career in music. He joined the local Lincoln Theater as an organist for a remuneration of $32/week, where he met James P. Johnson, a celebrated stride pianist with whom he enjoyed quite a rapport.
Waller was an accomplished recording artist by the time he came of age. In 1922, Waller made his first recordings for Okeh Records, titled “Birmingham Blues,” and “Muscle Shoals Blues” respectively. He also composed his inaugural piano roll in the same calendar year, titled “Got to Cool My Doggies Now.” He published his first composition two years later, which was titled “Squeeze Me.”
Thomas soon became an eminent performer of his era, enjoying both commercial and critical acclaim in America and even Europe. His collaborations with Andy Razaf started around this time as they wrote and performed for several highly successful Broadway musicals. “Keep Shuffling,” (1928), “Hot Chocolates,” (1929) “Early To Bed,” (1943) - to name a few. In 1926, Waller was famously kidnapped after a performance in Chicago by Al Capone. He was the surprise guest at the mobster’s birthday party held at the Hawthorne Inn.
1926 was also the year Waller’s association with the RCA Victor recording company started off, a relationship that lasted throughout his career. The organ solos, “Lenox Avenue Blues,” and “St. Louis Blues” were his first recordings. He also worked on a series of solo recordings, “Valentine Stomp,” “Numb Fumblin,” “Smashing Thirds,” and “Handful of Keys” - marking the initiation of the famous “Harlem stride piano tradition.” In 1934, he created a band called ‘Fats Waller and his Rhythm,” dishing out a voluminous series of recordings. The regular members of this band were Al Casey, Rudy Powell, and Herman Autrey, while Gene Sedric and John “Bugs” Hamilton were also roped in sporadically.
Waller crossed the Atlantic during the 1930s, with his UK and Ireland tours enjoying great success. He also appeared in one of the early television broadcasts of BBC in 1938. During his stint in England, he recorded multiple songs for the company EMI at their Abbey Road Studios. In 1943, he appeared in the movie “Stormy Weather.” Fats Waller performed various pieces of Johann Sebastian Bach for small gatherings on festive occasions. He also influenced plenty of jazz pianists and was quite well known for being jovial and humorous.
During these decades, Waller is presumed to have crafted and sold multiple novelty tunes for money. The song “I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby” by Jimmy McHugh is a prime example. Experts attribute Waller to this legendary song that became famous in 1928 at the Broadway show titled “Blackbirds.” The pianist’s biography also claims that Waller had sold the rights for $500. His son Maurice Waller further stated that his father had strictly objected to hearing “On the Sunny Side of the Street” on the radio, another song alleged to have been written by him.
In 1920, Waller tried the knot with Edith Hatchett. However, within 3 years, the couple got separated. In 1926, Waller fell in love with Anita Rutherford, which started off his second courtship. Thomas was also one of the very first members of the African American community to buy a home in Queens. The Addisleigh Park section of this New York City borough was infamous for its racially restrictive environment. Waller’s gesture was followed by several litigations in the State courts, which subsequently inspired several prosperous African Americans to follow in his footsteps. Fats Waller passed away on the 15th of December, 1943, from pneumonia.
Usage In Popular Culture
- Michael Longley, the celebrated Irish poet, wrote a poem titled “Elegy for Fats Waller” to commemorate the pianist.
- “This Old House,” an American TV series, used Waller’s rendition of “Louisiana Fairytale” as a theme song.
- In 1935, Waller made an appearance in the movies “King Of Burlesque,” and “Hooray For Love.” He performed the songs “Living In A Great Big Way” and “I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed,” respectively, stealing the limelight on both occasions.
- In 1941, he made further appearances in movies, performing various short Soundie versions, namely “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “The Joint Is Jumpin,” and “You’re Feet’s Too Big.”
- In 1944, his musical titled “Early to Bed” was performed in Chicago at the prestigious Blackstone Theatre.
- In 1977, David Lynch utilized Waller's “church organ” music prominently in his movie “Eraserhead.”
- In 1979, Richard Maltby Jr. crafted a musical after Waller’s song ‘Ain't Misbehavin'.” It was subsequently performed at Her Majesty's Theatre in the British capital.
- In 2008, Michel Gondry used a fake documentary on the pianist’s life in his movie “Be Kind Rewind.”
- The TV show “Mysteries at the Museum” portrayed the story of Waller’s performance at the notorious gangster Al Capone’s birthday party. The episode was titled “Columbus and the Mermaid, Skyscraper Snafu and Stealing the Show.”
The Stride King
Stride is much more than a mere jazz piano technique. It is a vital form of entertainment that revolves around a person who can single-handedly keep the crowd glued - one who can play virtuosic music accompanied by vocalists and dancers can create that warm atmosphere that could “wow” the viewers. Waller had those distinct capabilities and flair, which made him the most popular stride entertainer. Thomas had transformed the genre by incorporating popular aspects of music like form and melody into his works, elevating them to the next level.
Waller, like his fellow stride pianists, was mostly self-taught. He had learned to play by absorbing, listening, and emulating the works of ragtime pianists who performed across pubs and bars of Manhattan. His keen interest in musical idioms and popular musical theater was thoroughly evident in the majority of his compositions.
Whether it’s a recording or a live performance, stride has successfully retained its inherent excitement and vigor - just like the old days. The captivating and brilliant rhythms truly signify its status as one of the most exuberant forms of jazz in American music history. Waller resided at the top of the stride hierarchy - and he still remains the one true Stride King.
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