Fats Waller was the son of a preacher and learned to play the organ in church with his mother. In 1918 he won a talent contest playing James P. Johnson’s Carolina Shout which he learned from watching a pianola play the song. He would later take piano lessons from Johnson. Fats began his recording career in 1922 and made a living playing rent parties, as an organist at movie theatres and as an accompanist for various vaudeville acts. In 1927 he co-wrote a couple of tunes with his old piano teacher James P. Johnson for his show “Keep Shufflin'”. Two years later Waller wrote the score for the Broadway hit “Hot Chocolates” with lyrics supplied by his friend Andy Razaf. Fats’ most famous song, “Ain’t Misbehavin'” was introduced in this show which featured Louis Armstrong. Fats Waller’s big break occurred at a party given by George Gershwin in 1934, where he delighted the crowd with his piano playing and singing.
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.
After making his first record at age 18 for Okeh in 1922, “Birmingham Blues”/”’Muscle Shoals Blues,”” he backed various blues singers and worked as house pianist and organist at rent parties and in movie theaters and clubs. He began to attract attention as a composer during the early- and mid-‘20s, forming a most fruitful alliance with lyricist Andy Razaf that resulted in three Broadway shows in the late ‘20s, Keep Shufflin’, Load of Coal, and Hot Chocolates.
After finally signing an exclusive Victor contract in 1934, he began the long-running, prolific series of records with His Rhythm, which won him great fame and produced several hits, including “Your Feet’s Too Big,” “The Joint Is Jumpin’” and “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.” He began to appear in films like Hooray for Love and King of Burlesque in 1935 while continuing regular appearances on radio that dated back to 1923.
Into the 1940s, Waller’s touring schedule of the U.S. escalated, he contributed music to another musical, Early to Bed, the film appearances kept coming (including a memorable stretch of Stormy Weather where he led an all-star band that included Benny Carter, Slam Stewart and Zutty Singleton), the recordings continued to flow.
While every clown longs to play Hamlet as per the cliche and Waller did have so-called serious musical pretensions, longing to follow in George Gershwin’s footsteps and compose concert music it probably was not in the cards anyway due to the racial barriers of the first half of the 20th century. Besides, given the fact that Waller influenced a long line of pianists of and after his time, including Count Basie (who studied with Fats), Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck and countless others, his impact has been truly profound.