Influenced by his grandfather, a violinist, and his mother, Thomas Wright Waller was playing piano at students' concerts and organ in his father's church by the time he was 10 years old. In 1918, while still in high school, he was asked to fill in for the regular organist at the Lincoln Theatre, and subsequently gained a permanent seat at the Wurlitzer Grand. A year later he won a talent contest, playing ragtime pianist James P. Johnson's 'Carolina Shout'. While a protégé of Johnson's, Waller adopted the Harlem stride style of piano playing, 'the swinging left hand', emphasizing tenths on the bass, to which Waller added his own distinctive touch. In 1919, while on tour as a vaudeville pianist, Waller composed 'Boston Blues' which, when the title was later changed to 'Squeeze Me', with a lyric by Clarence Williams, became one of his best-known songs. In the early 20s, with the USA on the brink of the 'jazz age', and Prohibition in force, Waller's piano playing was much in demand at rent-parties, bootleg joints, in cabaret and vaudeville. Inevitably, he mixed with gangsters, and it is said that his first 100 dollar bill was given to him by Al Capone, who fortunately enjoyed his piano playing. Around this time Waller made his first records as accompanist to one of the leading blues singers, Sara Martin. He also recorded with the legendary Bessie Smith, and toured with her in 1926. His first solo piano recording was reputedly 'Muscle Shoals Blues'.
From 1926-29 Waller made a series of pipe organ recordings in a disused church in Camden, New Jersey. Having studied composition from an early age with various teachers, including Leopold Godowski and Carl Bohm, Waller collaborated with James P. Johnson and Clarence Todd on the music for the Broadway revue Keep Shufflin' (1928). This was a follow-up to Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake's smash hit Shuffle Along (1921), which starred Joséphine Baker, and was the show that is credited with making black music acceptable to Broadway audiences. Although not on stage in Keep Shufflin', Waller made a considerable impression with his exuberant piano playing from the show's orchestra pit at Daly's Theatre. Andy Razaf, who wrote most of the show's lyrics, including the outstanding number, 'Willow Tree', would become Waller's regular collaborator, and his closest friend. Just over a year later, in June 1929, Waller again combined with Razaf for Hot Chocolates, another Negro revue, revised for Broadway. In the orchestra pit this time was trumpeter Louis Armstrong, whose role was expanded during the show's run. The score for Hot Chocolates also contained the plaintive '(What Did I Do To Be So) Black, And Blue"', and one of the team's most enduring standards, 'Ain't Misbehavin", an instrumental version of which became Waller's first hit, and years later, was selected for inclusion in the NARAS Hall of Fame.
Both Keep Shufflin' and Hot Chocolates were first staged at Connie's Inn, in Harlem, one of the biggest black communities in the world. Waller lived in the middle of Harlem, until he really hit the big-time and moved to St. Albans, Long Island, where he installed a built-in Hammond organ. In the late 20s and early 30s he was still on the brink of that success. Although he endured some bleak times during the Depression he was writing some of his most effective songs, such as 'Honeysuckle Rose', 'Blue, Turning Grey Over You' and 'Keepin' Out Of Mischief Now' (all with Razaf); 'I've Got A Feeling I'm Falling' (with Billy Rose and Harry Link); and 'I'm Crazy 'Bout My Baby' (with Alexander Hill). In 1932 he toured Europe in the company of fellow composer Spencer Williams, and played prestigious venues such as London's Kit Kat Club and the Moulin Rouge in Paris. Worldwide fame followed with the formation of Fats Waller And His Rhythm in 1934. The all-star group featured musicians such as Al Casey (guitar), Herman Autrey (trumpet), Gene Sedric (reeds), Billy Taylor or Charles Turner (string bass), drummers Harry Dial or Yank Porter and Rudy Powell (clarinet). Signed for Victor Records, the ensemble made over 150 78 rpm records between May 1934 and January 1943, in addition to Waller's output of piano and organ solos, and some big-band tracks. The Rhythm records were a revelation: high-class musicianship accompanied Waller's exuberant vocals, sometimes spiced with sly, irreverent asides on popular titles such as 'Don't Let It Bother You', 'Sweetie Pie', 'Lulu's Back In Town', 'Truckin", 'A Little Bit Independent', 'It's A Sin To Tell A Lie', 'You're Not The Kind', 'Until The Real Thing Comes Along', 'The Curse Of An Aching Heart', 'Dinah', 'S'posin', 'Smarty', 'The Sheik Of Araby', 'Hold Tight' and 'I Love To Whistle'. Waller had massive hits with specialities such as 'I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter', 'When Somebody Thinks You're Wonderful', 'My Very Good Friend The Milkman' and 'Your Feet's Too Big'. He recorded ballads including 'Two Sleepy People' and 'Then I'll Be Tired Of You', and several of his own compositions, including 'Honeysuckle Rose' and 'The Joint Is Jumpin" (written with Razaf and J.C.Johnson).
In 1935, Waller appeared in the first of his three feature films, Hooray For Love, which also featured Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson. In the following year he received excellent reviews for his rendering of 'I've Got My Fingers Crossed' in King Of Burlesque. In 1938, he toured Europe again for several months, this time as a big star. He played concerts in several cities, performed at the London Palladium, and appeared in an early television broadcast from Alexandra Palace. Waller also became the first - and probably the only - jazz musician to play the organ of the Notre Dame de Paris. He returned to England and Scotland the following year. Back in the USA, Waller toured with a combo for a while, and during the early 40s performed with his own big band, before again working as a solo artist. In 1942 he tried to play serious jazz in concert at Carnegie Hall - but was poorly received. In 1943, he returned to Broadway to write the score, with George Marion Jnr., for the bawdy musical Early To Bed. The comedy high-spot proved to be 'The Ladies Who Sing With The Band'.
Waller teamed with 'Bojangles' Robinson once again in 1943 for the film of Stormy Weather, which included a version of 'Ain't Misbehavin". Afterwards, he stayed in California for an engagement at the Zanzibar Club in Los Angeles. On his way back to New York on the Santa Fe Chief railway express, he died of pneumonia as it was pulling into Kansas City. His life had been one of excess. Enormous amounts of food and liquor meant that his weight varied between 285 and 310 lbs - 'a girthful of blues'. Days of carousing were followed by equal amounts of sleeping, not necessarily alone. Jazz continually influenced his work, even when he was cajoled into recording inferior material. He worked and recorded with leading artists such as Fletcher Henderson, Ted Lewis, Alberta Hunter, Jack Teagarden, Gene Austin and Lee Wiley. Waller felt strongly that he did not receive his fair share of the songwriting royalties. He was said to have visited the Brill Building, which housed New York's most prominent music publishers, and obtained advances from several publishers for the same tune. Each, however, had a different lyric. He sold many numbers outright, and never received credit for them. Two songs that are sometimes rumoured to be his, but are always definitely attributed to Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields are 'I Can't Give You Anything But Love' and 'On The Sunny Side Of The Street'. In the 1978 Broadway show Ain't Misbehavin', most of the numbers in that production were genuine Waller, along with a few others like 'Mean To Me', 'It's A Sin To Tell A Lie', and 'Fat And Greasy', which, in performance, he had made his own. The majority of his recordings have been reissued and appear on a variety of labels such as RCA Records, Saville, Halcyon, Living Era, President, Swaggie (Australia) and Vogue (France).
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