A Tribute To Fats Waller ► A Musical Appreciation

If Fats Waller had only written “Honeysuckle Rose” he would have been famous. If Fats Waller had only written “Ain’t Misbehavin’” he would have been famous. If Fats Waller had only written “Squeeze Me” he would have been famous. If Fats Waller had only written “Jitterbug Waltz” he would have been famous. If Fats Waller had only written “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” he would have been famous.

Celebrating the joyous birthday of the greatest Stride piano player this country ever produced. Thomas “Fats” Waller was born on May 21, 1904, and died at the young age of 39. Yet in his time he copyrighted more than 400 tunes. He made money off some of them. Others he sold off cheap when he was hurting for cash. Some he lost completely. According to the WikiWackyWoo:

Waller composed many novelty tunes in the 1920s and 1930s and sold them for relatively small sums. When the compositions became hits, other songwriters claimed them as their own. Many standards are alternatively and sometimes controversially attributed to Waller. Waller’s son Maurice wrote in his 1977 biography of his father, that once he was playing “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby” when he heard his father complaining from upstairs and came down and admonished him never to play that song in his hearing, saying that he had to sell that song when he needed some money. He even made a recording of it in 1938 with Adelaide Hall who, coincidentally, had introduced the song to the world (at Les Ambassadeurs Club in New York in 1928), in which he played the tune but made fun of the lyrics.[2] Likewise, Maurice noted his father’s objections whenever he heard “On the Sunny Side of the Street” played on the radio.[3]

Fats had been taught to play piano by the great James P. Johnson. Johnson was 10 years older and had practically invented Stride piano (often mistakenly called Ragtime piano). He got Fats his first piano roll and recording gigs and they became good friends. However, even Johnson admitted the student had surpassed the teacher.

As a great a piano player Fats was, his favourite instrument was the pipe organ. His father was a preacher and, after taking up the piano at 6, Fats started playing organ in the church at the age of 10. Later he played organ during the silent movies. Once he had gained a bit of fame he was allowed to record syncopated Jazz on the pipe organ, both solo and with “his Rhythm,” the name of his 5 and 6 man combos.

Recording a Jazz group that had a pipe organ as a lead instrument proved to be a technical challenge. It was during the days before electronic microphones had been invented. Performers had to be carefully arranged around a horn, from quietest to loudest, to balance the sound properly. A pipe organ is LOUD! So loud that the recording equipment and Fats’ band had to be on the opposite side of a cavernous room from the pipe organ. That presented a new problem. A slight delay due to the speed of sound caused havoc with the syncopated rhythms. Only the supreme musicianship of “his Rhythm” was able to overcome that challenge. I am most excited by the organ music that Fats recorded.

Sadly Fats Waller made few movies. His over-sized personality and mugging were just perfect for motion pictures, as these two clips attest:

However, the times being what they were, there was not a lot of call for Black performers in the Hollywood of the ’30s and ’40s.

Having said all that, maybe it’s a good thing that Fats Waller didn’t live to his 50s or 60s. I often think of how painful it must have been for Louis Armstrong, accused of being an Uncle Tom during the Civil Rights Era because he felt that putting on an entertaining performance, which included Satchmo’s trademark handkerchief and onstage mugging. However, no one mugged bigger and wider than Fats Waller. I doubt he would have escaped this criticism had he lived.

There are so many great songs and performances that I am having trouble putting together a representative Fats Waller jukebox. I have 515 Fats Waller MP3s, all from my own CD collection. As well, Spotify has identified 1,327 tunes for listening. However, I have tried to include some of his greatest tunes, both solo and band performances, with and without pipe organ. I also included a few interpretations of his music. Enjoy!



About Headly Westerfield

Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.