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Summary Article: Thomas “Fats” Waller (1904–1943) from African American Almanac
Composer, Pianist, Singer, Bandleader

Weighing in at over three hundred pounds and standing more than six feet tall, Thomas Wright Waller, a preacher's son, was born in Greenwich Village, New York, on May 21, 1904, and came by his nickname naturally. He was, as one of his many good friends said, “all music.” His father wanted him to follow in his footsteps, but Fats liked the good times that came with playing the piano well, which he could do almost from the start. At fifteen he turned professional, backing singers in Harlem clubs and playing piano for silent movies at the Lincoln Theater. He played accompanist for Alberta Hunter and Bessie Smith. Wherever he went, people loved him, and he loved to spread joy. Few pianists have been able to match his terrific beat. He was also a master of the stride piano style. He loved to play Bach, especially on the organ, and he was the first to play the organ as a jazz instrument. In 1932 world-famous Marcel Dupre invited Fats to play the organ at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

Waller's talent for writing songs soon became evident. His first and biggest hit was “Ain't Mis-behavin’” in 1929; others include “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Blue Turning Gray Over You,” and “The Jitterbug Waltz.” He also wrote “London Suite” for solo piano, and the score for the Broadway hit Hot Chocolate.

Waller was a great performer on the new medium of the 1920s—the radio. He had a constant line of patter to go along with his great piano and carefree singing. He also made it to Hollywood. His finest medium, however, was recorded music. His big break came in 1934 while playing at a party given by George Gershwin. With his contagious rhythms and his ability to delight the crowd, he was offered a contract by an executive from Victor Records who was at the party. With his small group and the occasional big band, he cut more than five hundred sides between 1934 and his untimely death at thirty-nine in 1943. His personality came across on records, and no matter how trite the tune, he turned it into a jazz gem. Unfortunately, Waller suffered from ill health in the midst of a successful and productive career, partly due to his huge appetite and excessive drinking. He had just finished filming Stormy Weather, and his first complete Broadway musical was becoming a hit, when he died of pneumonia on December 15, 1943.

Copyright © 2012 by Visible Ink Press®

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