'Handful of Fats' Original Recordings 1929-1942
Thomas \Fats" Waller was one of the most beloved figures injazz history. His life gave theappearance of being one long goodtime party full of hot jazz, liquor, food,humour and women, and few others could keep up with him in any of those areas.
Few could also keep up with Waller when it came to musicaltalent and accomplishments. Notonly was he one of the greatest stride pianists of all time, but Waller wasalso jazz's first organist, a skilful songwriter, a personable vocalist and acomic personality. He was alegendary figure even during his lifetime, and he remains a household name morethan six decades after his death.
Fats Waller was born on 21 May 1904 in New York City. His first instrument was the harmoniumwhich he took up when he was five, switching to piano the following year. Waller, who played in his schoolorchestra, was the son of a strict church minister who wanted him to stickexclusively to religious music, but Fats preferred popular music and theemerging stride piano style played by James P. Johnson. After his mother died, the teenageWaller (who did not get along with his father) moved in with a friend andbecame Johnson's protege, developing rapidly as a musician. By 1919 when he was fifteen, Waller wasstomping off hot solos on a pipe organ at the Lincoln Theatre, playing forsilent movies.
Fats became one of the stars of Harlem rent parties in the1920s, playing alongside James P. Johnson and Willie "the Lion" Smith. He was busy on several other levelsduring the decade, making twenty piano rolls, cutting his first solo records in1922, recording pipe organ solos and with combos, accompanying many of theclassic blues singers, and writing music. His first composition was 1918's "Squeeze Me" and he collaborated withlyricist Andy Razaf in the late 1920s shows Keep Shufflin', Hot Chocolates andLoad Of Coal.
Handful Of Fats opens with a pair of classic Waller pianosolos from 1929. Handful Of Keysgives listeners a perfect example of Fats' striding (on the beat his left hand"strides" between low bass notes and higher chords) and his ability toimprovise melodically at a rapid tempo. Ain't Misbehavin', which had initially been recorded by Louis Armstrongthirteen days earlier, is (along with "Honeysuckle Rose") one of the two mostfamous Waller originals. Fats letsthe melody speak for itself on this early version.
Other than during the obscure "Red Hot Dan," Waller did notsing on records until 1931. On I'mCrazy About My Baby, Fats makes one wonder why he waited so long. His phrasing is attractive as is hisobvious sense of humour, and his vocalising never causes his playing to loseits power.
After playing with the bands of Otto Hardwick and ElmerSnowden during 1931-32, visiting France and England and beginning his longstint on the radio as host and star of Fats Waller's Rhythm Club, Waller reallybegan to emerge as a show business personality in 1934 when he signed with theVictor label. During the nexteight years, he recorded 282 selections (not counting alternate takes, solopiano features and a few sessions with big bands) with his "Rhythm," a two-hornsextet that often featured trumpeter Herman Autrey, Gene Sedric on tenor andclarinet and guitarist Al Casey plus a variety of bassists and drummers. These often-rambunctious performancesput an emphasis on Waller's vocals and no-holds-barred humour but alwaysincluded spots for his stride piano. Fats displayed the ability to satirize weak and cliched songs inhilarious fashion, making fun of and ripping into their lyrics. Music publishers were happy becausetheir turkey tunes would otherwise probably never have been recorded, and fanswere delighted at the outrageous nature of some of the recordings. Among the more bizarre tunes thatWaller was saddled with during this era were "Us On A Bus," "My Window FacesThe South," "Why Hawaiians Sing Aloha," "I Love To Whistle," "Little Curly HairIn A High Chair," "You're A Square From Delaware," "Eep, Ipe, Wanna Piece OfPie," "My Mommie Sent Me To The Store," "I'm Gonna Salt Away Some Sugar" and"Abercrombie Had A Zombie."
Fortunately Waller also had opportunities to record somemore enduring tunes (such as the ones on this definitive sampler) includingmany of his own compositions. HisViper's Drag is a memorable piano piece that caught on as a standard amonglater generations of swing and stride pianists. Twelfth Street Rag has Waller and his Rhythm digging intothe dixieland standard, tearing it apart in places and swinging hard. Much more sober but still quiteinfectious are Waller's solo piano versions of his own Keepin' Out Of MischiefNow and Tea For Two.
By the time Waller recorded his hit The Joint Is Jumpin' inthe fall of 1937, Fats was one of the most famous black performers in music,ranking at the top with Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Bill"Bojangles" Robinson. Two yearsearlier he had appeared in memorable scenes in the films Hooray For Love andKing Of Burlesque, stealing the show in both cases. He was a fixture on radio, his Rhythm was recording steadilyand many of his songs were being played nightly by the big swing bands. One song that could not be effectivelyduplicated by other groups was The Joint Is Jumpin', the ultimate musicaldepiction of a wild party.
Hoagy Carmichael's Two Sleepy People is played colourfullyand almost seriously by Waller and his Rhythm. There is no attempt at being straightforward during anabsolutely crazy and quite catchy rendition of Hold Tight. After touring Europe in 1938 andvisiting England in 1939, Waller returned to the U.S. on the eve of World WarII to record Honey Hush with his Rhythm. His hits continued with the recording of Your Feet's Too Big and he hadthe opportunity to record his own Squeeze Me and a jam version of the alreadyancient standard Darktown Strutter's Ball.
On 13 May 1941, Waller recorded his final solo pianofeatures for the Victor label; four of the five are included on this set. Waller performs a definitive version ofHoneysuckle Rose (hinting at a few classical composers along the way), a pairof famous Hoagy Carmichael songs (Georgia On My Mind and Rockin' Chair) plus aJames P. Johnson classic (Carolina Shout) that always served as a challenge forpianists of the 1920s and '30s.
Waller led an occasional big band on tours. His orchestra is heard on the last twonumbers of this set: his pioneering jazz waltz The Jitterbug Waltz (which hasFats on organ) and the joyful Come And Get It. Although he broke up his Rhythm in 1942, Waller remainedquite active, writing the music for the show Early To Bed and appearing in agreat nightclub scene in the 1943 movie Stormy Weather.
But the years of overeating and overdrinking finally caughtup with him. While on across-country train trip on his way back to New York, Fats Waller died ofpneumonia in Kansas City on 14 December 1943, passing away at the height of hisfame. He had packed a great dealof living, music and fun into his 39 years.
- author of 8 jazz books including Swing, Jazz On Record1917-76, Classic Jazz and Trumpet Kings