I Spotified some good old Fats Waller today whilst driving around aimlessly and to no good purpose. Fats is a longtime favorite of mine, and I hadn’t given him a listen in far too long. I thought about doing a post on him tonight, but somewhere in the back of what passes for my mind these days I was pretty sure I did one years ago. After some cursory poking around in the archives, though, I could only find a few oblique mentions of him in posts on other topics, so I guess my Spidey sense is in need of a little tuning and tweaking.
Fats was a bona fide giant among American musicians and composers, a legend who attained rarified heights reached by only the true greats. His early music served as a bridge between ragtime, stride, and jazz; his creations spanned multiple genres and styles, and his keyboard prowess was nothing short of astonishing. His personality, too was larger than life. He was a vivacious, joyous, irrepressible sort—overflowing with laughter, generosity, curiosity, and enthusiasm. This famous incident gives some pretty good insight into Waller’s character:
On one occasion his playing seemed to have put him at risk of injury. Waller was kidnapped in Chicago leaving a performance in 1926. Four men bundled him into a car and took him to the Hawthorne Inn, owned by Al Capone. Waller was ordered inside the building, and found a party in full swing. Gun to his back, he was pushed towards a piano, and told to play. A terrified Waller realized he was the “surprise guest” at Capone’s birthday party, and took comfort that the gangsters did not intend to kill him. It is rumored that Waller stayed at the Hawthorne Inn for three days and left very drunk, extremely tired, and had earned thousands of dollars in cash from Capone and other party-goers as tips.
If you got yourself shanghaied by a covey of Capone goons, hauled off to who knows where in a gangland gunship, and could nonetheless muster aplomb and sangfroid in copious enough amounts as to enable you to recover from the shock and terror and go on to establish yourself as the life of a three-day Mob party, I’d have to humbly tip my hat to you for your adaptability and charm at the very, very least.
Fats was a prolific songwriter; he copyrighted over 400 songs in his own name, and nobody really knows how many others he wrote and then sold to others who then claimed them as their own. Several of those sales, usually done to keep body and soul together when times were tight—something every professional musician learns all about sooner or later—ended up leaving him with deep regrets. Some years after he sold “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” for 500 bucks to a white songwriter in the 20s, he later angrily demanded that his son Maurice never play the thing again in his earshot.
Fats was always damned serious about his music, but was also known for not taking things too seriously. He wasn’t above a good bit of clowning around, indulging a sense of humor that was as outsized and larger-than-life as everything else about him:
Not only was Fats Waller one of the greatest pianists jazz has ever known, he was also one of its most exuberantly funny entertainers — and as so often happens, one facet tends to obscure the other. His extraordinarily light and flexible touch belied his ample physical girth; he could swing as hard as any pianist alive or dead in his classic James P. Johnson-derived stride manner, with a powerful left hand delivering the octaves and tenths in a tireless, rapid, seamless stream. Waller also pioneered the use of the pipe organ and Hammond organ in jazz — he called the pipe organ the “God box” — adapting his irresistible sense of swing to the pedals and a staccato right hand while making imaginative changes of the registration. As a composer and improviser, his melodic invention rarely flagged, and he contributed fistfuls of joyous yet 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 repertoire.
During his lifetime and afterwards, though, Fats Waller was best known to the world for his outsized comic personality and sly vocals, where he would send up trashy tunes that Victor Records made him record with his nifty combo, Fats Waller & His Rhythm. Yet on virtually any of his records, whether the song is an evergreen standard or the most trite bit of doggerel that a Tin Pan Alley hack could serve up, you will hear a winning combination of good knockabout humor, foot-tapping rhythm and fantastic piano playing. Today, almost all of Fats Waller’s studio recordings can be found on RCA’s on-again-off-again series The Complete Fats Waller, which commenced on LPs in 1975 and was still in progress during the 1990s.
He didn’t seem to be much bothered by the lightweight stuff Victor saddled him with; neither did he seem to consider his method of working the audience via mugging and humorous asides demeaning, nor have I ever read that he was irritated by that either. He’d certainly be harshly condemned for “playing up to the white man” today whether it actually offended him or not—his enormous talent dismissed, his influence and achievements overlooked, all lost in the PC shuffle due to noncompliance with present-day pieties.
Everybody knows—uhh, actually, strike that; by now, I’d think hardly anybody does—his many big hits, wildly popular in his day: Ain’t Misbehavin’, Honeysuckle Rose, The Joint Is Jumpin’, I’m Crazy About My Baby, and a hell of a lot more besides. He produced serious, groundbreaking instrumental works like Handful Of Keys and Smashin’ Thirds. He also cranked out lighthearted novelty confections like this one:
Fats was famous for always being up for a party, surrounding himself with rowdy, fun-loving people and bedazzling them all with hours of music. He would play a two or three hour show in New York, then head up to Harlem for one of the infamous “rent parties” of the era, hanging out till way past dawn…or for a couple of days. Those parties had it all: booze, broads, food, and music. Fats would sit down at the piano, a gallon jug of whiskey and a piled-high plate of fried chicken within easy reach on top of it, a pretty girl on either side of him, and play all night and into the next day, pausing only for a pull on the jug, a bite of the food, and a squeeze or a kiss from one of the girls. All this, mind you, after the aforementioned hours-long performance earlier in the evening. By all accounts, the man just never seemed to wind down or wear out. Nobody ever asked Fats to “play one more” without him doing just that. He was a born performer, bringing his natural habitat with him everywhere he went; as long as there was a piano and he was in the midst of an enthralled audience hanging on each and every note, he was right at home.
Alas, the flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long. Fats wasn’t quite 40 years old when he died of pneumonia on his way back home from a West Coast tour, after years of exhaustive touring had led to a gradual breakdown in his overall health. His life was over too soon, maybe, but it was full enough that you might say he lived quite a long time in only a few years. This TV biography, featuring interesting personal recollections from his son and lots of video footage, is well worth a watch if you’re into the great old music of yore. I won’t embed it, since it’s about an hour long. But it’s damned good. I saw it years ago myself, and loved it.