Fats Waller

TrackFirst Recording
Muscle Shoals BluesOKeh 4757-A (1922)
Go Down MosesVictor 27458 (1938)
Stompin' The BugVictor 20655-B (1927)
Smashing ThirdsVictor 38613-B (1929)
Handful Of KeysVictor 27768-B (1929)
It's A Sin To Tell A LieVictor 25342 (1936)
Viper's DragVictor 27768-A (1929)
DinahVictor 25471 (1935)
London SuiteHMV B-10059 (1938)
Jitterbug WaltzBluebird 11518 (1942)

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Contributor: Ian du Feu

During 1926, Fats Waller was playing to wealthy guests at the Sherman Hotel in Chicago. Late one evening, after leaving the hotel, he was accosted by two gunmen and bundled into a waiting limousine. Blindfolded, and fearing for his life, Fats was driven to a secret location. This turned out to be the Hawthorne Inn, one of Al Capone’s hang-outs. A party was in full swing for Capone’s birthday. Fats was pushed towards a piano and told to play. Nearby, Capone was enjoying the music. Days later, Fats was taken back to the Sherman Hotel, very drunk and with his pockets stuffed with thousands of dollars, tips from the gangster’s party.

That escapade neatly captures prohibition era, jazz crazy Chicago; a city awash with booze, cash and music. And shining through was Fats Waller, with his happy swinging music. It’s an image which was used and exaggerated by Hollywood, particularly in the minstrelsy ‘Stormy Weather’ musical of 1943.

Fats Waller was indeed a happy, infectious entertainer. The few film clips we have of him are quite mesmerising. But, for someone who died aged 39, there is a real depth to his legacy.

Fats Waller wrote a lot of music, well over 300 songs, some of these have become part of the classic song fabric. He recorded over 800 pieces of music before his death in 1943.

I have chosen ten songs that reflect what I enjoy about Fats; he was a virtuoso pianist, band leader, showman and writer of great music. These tunes were initially released as 78rpm records and have since been re-released on many compilation albums. The neatest of these compilations could be Ain’t Misbehavin – Fats Waller and His Rhythm.

fats waller photo

Thomas Wright Waller was born on 21st May 1904, the youngest of eleven children. His father, Rev. E. Waller, was a minister at a Baptist church in Harlem, New York, and his mother, Adeline, played organ and piano at the church. Adeline taught young Thomas to play piano from about age six. By ten years old he was playing organ at the church. His father hoped that his son would become a minister; instead he chose to follow music.

Fats gave up school at about age fifteen, and left home after Adeline died. He lived with Russell Brooks and studied stride piano with James P. Johnson. Fats’ first recording session for Okeh, in 1922, produced Muscle Shoals Blues, a swinging blues piano composition.

Fats would often return to playing the organ, an instrument he referred to as the ‘God Box’. His rendition of Go Down Moses is particularly moving. David Lynch used his organ pieces for atmospheric effect in ‘Eraserhead’, the incongruity of Fats’ technique on this instrument is unsettling. Stompin’ The Bug is in this film. Fats was the first musician to record jazz on the organ, an instrument normally associated with religious music. There is almost an Oedipus subtext running throughout Fats’ more serious religious side conflicting with his happy, joyful omnivorous personality.

Fats worked as solo artist and an accompanist throughout the 1920s. Playing in theatres and touring with vaudeville acts. He was writing music for other musicians and musicals during this period. He started to gain popularity beyond musicians when he formed his band, Fats Waller & His Rhythm, and began to release a great deal of material on Victor Records. His link to Victor involved another party, this time at George Gershwin’s house, where his piano playing and warm personality led to a quick introduction to a record company executive.

Fats is a famous exponent of stride piano; great examples of this technique are Smashing Thirds and Handful Of Keys. The style is characterised by the left hand pumping 3rds, 5ths, 7ths and chords, whilst the right hand can play the melody, and tickle a tune from the ivories. Fats had very large hands, so his span allowed him to easily play 10ths, an extra 3rd above a route chord note. His piano playing can be loud and fast, or gentle and light; and the overall feel is always an effortless swing. The stride technique allowed for improvisation around the tune; the pianists weren’t sticking rigidly to a musical score as they had been in ragtime. There is also a feeling of tension and release from the left hand-right hand combinations.

In It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie Fats displays another technique that was popular in the 20s and 30s; the extended introduction to the song where the tune is played and improvised before the song starts. Some musical historians suggest this was one of his innovations.

Fats’ recordings were often risqué for the times and contain lots of innuendo and coded references to drinking, partying, oral sex, prostitutes and guns. Viper’s Drag is an open celebration of marijuana.

Pre-WWII and the rock ‘n’ roll era, musicians and bands relied far more on recording and playing popular tunes of the time. A great deal of this music seems corny and dated. Some tunes have stood the test of time though; Dinah was one such popular tune in the 1930s and was recorded by many musicians. Louis Armstrong’s version and his first recording captured on film is great, but all versions seem pale in comparison to Fats Waller & His Rhythm’s rendition, which has great stride piano and swings along nicely.

Fats and Louis knew each other and were good friends. They recorded many of the same tunes, and Louis recorded lots of versions of Fats’ compositions, Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Black And Blue, eventually releasing the Satch Plays Fats album in 1955. Both men could swing the beat and both seemed to derive pleasure from entertaining an audience. I find Louis’ versions of these songs simpler, deeper and soulful. This may be due to his trumpet, deep voice and straightforward personality. In comparison, Fats’s work is complex.

In the 1930s Fats’ popularity grew and his schedule became hectic. He toured Europe twice, and he appeared on an early BBC TV broadcast. The London Suite was recorded at Abbey Road studio in 1938 and highlights his desire to be taken seriously as a composer and musician, rather like Gershwin. This wasn’t going to happen in America where racial segregation was still the norm and black performers were required to fulfil certain stereotypes. Their music wasn’t taken seriously by many critics of the time. On top of this, his life was rather chaotic, hampered by alimony cases and spells in prison.

Fats Waller died of pneumonia in 1943, at Kansas City station on a train returning to New York.

His music is still relevant today; Jitterbug Waltz is included in the BioShock computer game, and in 2014 Jason Moran’s All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller has a varied collection of tributes to Fats Waller songs.

Fats Waller memorabilia – collectors’ website

Fats Waller discography

Fats Waller biography (iTunes)

This is Ian’s first post for Toppermost, adding the great Fats Waller to the other jazzmen on here (see #toppermost #92 for Louis Armstrong). Ian spends time listening to music and can be found @IanFurgie

TopperPost #372

1 Comment

  1. Andrew Shields
    Oct 21, 2018

    Ian, not sure why I missed this great piece when it came out first. Knew some of Fats’ more well-known pieces, but have spent an enjoyable morning listening to the brilliant selections you have chosen here. Classic stuff – thanks again

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