King of the stride, Fats Waller was a colorful comedic personality and jazz legend in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. Waller was an influential pianist, composer, singer and comedic entertainer, whose innovations to the Harlem stride style laid the groundwork for modern jazz piano. His best-known compositions, Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Honeysuckle Rose were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame posthumously, in 1984 and 1999.
Fats Waller (Thomas Wright Waller), was born in New York City in 1904. He started playing piano when he was six and by the age of fourteen he was playing the organ at Harlem’s Lincoln Theater. Within twelve months he had written his first rag (ragtime) song.
By the age of fifteen he became a professional pianist, overcoming opposition from his clergyman father, working in cabarets and theaters. Waller went on to become one of the most popular performers of his era, finding critical and commercial success in his homeland and in Europe. He was also a prolific songwriter and many songs he wrote or co-wrote are still popular, such as “Honeysuckle Rose”, “Ain’t Misbehavin” and “Squeeze Me”.
He enjoyed success touring the United Kingdom and Ireland in the 1930s. He appeared in one of the first BBC television broadcasts. While in Britain, Waller also recorded a number of songs for EMI. He appeared in several feature films and short subject films, most notably Stormy Weather which you can view a video clip of below. It was released in 1943 just months before his death.
Multi-talented Waller performed Bach organ pieces for small groups on occasion. Waller influenced many pre-bop jazz pianists; Count Basie and Erroll Garner have both reanimated his hit songs (notably, “Ain’t Misbehavin'”). In addition to his playing, Waller was known for his many quips during his performances.
Between 1926 and the end of 1927, Waller recorded a series of pipe organ solo records. These represent the first time syncopated jazz compositions were ever performed on a full-sized church organ.
His final recording session was with an interracial group in Detroit, Michigan in 1943, that included trumpeter Don Hirleman. Waller was returning to New York City from Los Angeles, after the smash success of Stormy Weather, and after a successful engagement at the Zanzibar Room, during which he had fallen ill. He contracted pneumonia on a cross-country train trip near Kansas City, Missouri, where he died on December 15, 1943. Coincidentally, as the train with the body of Waller stopped in Kansas City, so stopped a train with his dear friend Louis Armstrong on board. Coincidence or providential?
More than 4,000 people attended his funeral in Harlem at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. Dr. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., delivered the eulogy, and said that Fats Waller “always played to a packed house.”
I highly recommend FATS WALLER “compilation” on iTunes.
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See below 2 Videos by Fats Waller.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ – Stormy Weather (1943) – FATS WALLER
I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter (1935) – FATS WALLER