74. Thomas “Fats” Waller

Thomas “Fats” Waller was a pianist, composer and singer from New York, New York. He was a precocious student; his mother started teaching her son the piano at age six, and by age ten he was playing organ in his father’s church. The Reverend Edward Martin Waller disapproved of secular music and its influences, but young Thomas turned professional at age fifteen, working in theaters and cabarets. His recording career began in 1922, and his early recordings are mostly solo piano and organ instrumentals. By the end of the Roaring Twenties, Waller had teamed with lyricist Andy Razaf; together they created some of the most beloved pop standards of the early 20th century. It is even suspected that he sold a few well known songs (for example, “On The Sunny Side Of The Street” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”, for example) to songwriter Jimmy McHugh) to help pay bills during lean times. In his prime, Waller was an influential stride piano player and riveting entertainer. Like the great Bambino, Waller was an immense talent with a great appetite for the high life. Shortly after the success of the film Stormy Weather, which celebrated the talents of many great African-American entertainers, he contracted pneumonia in Los Angeles, and died in Kansas City trying to get home to New York to recuperate. He was thirty-nine years old.

Fats Waller, 1935

Thomas “Fats” Waller (1904-1943), piano, organ, singer, composer

Notable Collaborators:

Andy Razaf (1895-1973), poet, composer, lyricist

Herman Autrey (1904-1980), trumpet
Gene Sedric (1907-1963), clarinet, saxophone
Al Casey (1915-2005), guitar
Wilmore “Slick” Jones (1907-1969), drums

James P. Johnson (1894-1955), piano, teacher

fatswaller.org, An Excellent Fan Website
Fats Waller Biography by Donald Clarke

Honeysuckle Rose

I first bought a Fats Waller compilation about forty years ago, perhaps at the college record store in Davis, California. I purchased it to get a copy of “It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie”, because my father recommended it as one of his favorites. Back then I was always trying to please the old man. But I became enamored with the lightning fast piano and the happy feeling of the final verse of “Honeysuckle Rose”. Man, that song crests a wave of excitement coming down the home stretch.

“Oh!, when I’m taking sips, from your tasty lips
The honey fairly drips.
Confection, goodness knows,
Talkin’ about honeysuckle rose…yes, yes!”

— Razaf/Waller, “Honeysuckle Rose”

“Honeysuckle Rose” is a great early example of fully realized popular music. Great musicianship, compelling solos, a sly sense of double entendre, while building a crescendo of excitement. Good modern popular music is typically much less sophisticated. The 1934 recording is the best version; it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. In this 1943 clip, Waller plays “Honeysuckle Rose” in the movie Stormy Weather.

Similarly, the song “Ain’t Misbehavin” received many posthumous awards, and was one of fifty recordings selected for inclusion in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in 2004.

The novelty song “Your Feet’s Too Big” was covered by The Beatles in their early days working on the Hamburg Reeperbahn. My wife has big feet, size 12 to be exact, and she doesn’t like this song. Her pedal extremities may be colossal, but they are well proportioned for the rest of her. Here the song is performed from the female perspective; perhaps too many women objected to the premise:

It’s not unreasonable to suggest Fats Waller was a more talented entertainer than anyone performing today. He might be the greatest musical entertainer of the 20th century. He leaves a massive legacy of recordings to appreciate his talents, well beyond the scope of his funny “party” songs. He was often given poor material to record, a backwards tribute to his talent.

“He liked to ball,” said his friend and clarinet player Gene Sedric. “He’d go three or four days without sleep then go to bed for 48 hours.”

But Waller was also something of a stunted talent whose catalog is full of minor pieces he could just knock off at will, and as Sedric noted about his record company tossing him weak material, “It seems like they would always give him a whole lot of junky tunes to play because it seemed as if only he could get something out of them”.

Graham Reid, February 8, 2012


Tears Of A Clown

“To be sure, the organ was also the instrument of escape for Fats Waller; it symbolized a world — a distant, uninhabitable world — in which the artist is accepted solely on the basis of his musical abilities, without racial or social prejudice and also without regard for his talents as showman and entertainer. If one hears the organ records made by Fats Waller — such as his famous version of the spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” — one encounters an element of sentimentality that makes it clear that Waller had only a fuzzy notion of the world in which he wanted to escape.”

— Joachim-Ernst Berendt, “The Jazz Book: From Ragtime to the 21st Century”

Amazon.com Link to “The Jazz Book: From Ragtime to the 21st Century”, by Joachim-Ernst Berendt

Fats Waller Song Notes:

1. A good place to begin collecting Fats Waller music is the compilation called If You Got To Ask, You Ain’t Got It!.

2. “Honeysuckle Rose (Alt)”
“I Ain’t Got Nobody”
“Handful Of Keys”

can be found on Rewind: The Very Best Of Fats Waller.

3. The following three songs feature Fats Waller on organ.

“Lenox Avenue Blues” can be found on 1926-1927.
“Deep River” can be found on 1938.
“Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” can be found on 1942-1943.

4. “Chant Of The Groove” and “Buck Jumpin'” can be found on 1941.

5. “Yacht Club Swing” and “My Very Good Friend The Milkman” can ber found on Fats Waller — Thru The 30’s, Vol. 2.

6. “By The Light Of The Silvery Moon” and “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” can be found on 1942-1943.

7. “The Minor Drag” can be found on 1927-1929.

Fats Waller Songs:

Ain’t Misbehavin’, Fats Waller ✭✭✭✭
It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie, Fats Waller ✭✭✭✭
Honeysuckle Rose, Fats Waller ✭✭✭✭
I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter, Fats Waller ✭✭✭✭

Your Feet’s Too Big, Fats Waller ✭✭✭

The Jitterbug Waltz, Fats Waller ✭✭
All That Meat And No Potatoes, Fats Waller ✭✭
Somebody Stole My Gal, Fats Waller ✭✭
Chant Of The Groove, Fats Waller ✭✭
I Ain’t Got Nobody, Fats Waller ✭✭
Yacht Club Swing, Fats Waller ✭✭
Honeysuckle Rose (Alt), Fats Waller ✭✭
By The Light Of The Silvery Moon, Fats Waller ✭✭

The Joint Is Jumpin’, Fats Waller
My Very Good Friend The Milkman, Fats Waller
Hold Tight (Want Some Seafood Mama), Fats Waller
Handful Of Keys, Fats Waller
Dinah, Fats Waller
Lenox Avenue Blues, Fats Waller
The Minor Drag, Fats Waller
Numb Fumblin’, Fats Waller
Deep River, Fats Waller
Buck Jumpin’, Fats Waller
I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Fats Waller
Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child, Fats Waller
Two Sleepy People, Fats Waller
Lulu’s Back In Town, Fats Waller

Related Songs:

Ain’t Misbehavin’, Hank Williams, Jr. ✭✭

Honeysuckle Rose, Django Reinhardt with Benny Carter & His Orchestra ✭✭
Honeysuckle Rose, Le Quintette du Hot Club de France ✭✭✭
Honeysuckle Rose, Nat “King” Cole Trio

Just A Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody, Louis Prima ✭✭✭
Just A Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody, David Lee Roth ✭✭

Dinah, Cab Calloway ✭✭✭
Dinah, Thelonious Monk ✭✭✭
Dinah, Le Quintette du Hot Club de France ✭✭

I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Duke Ellington & His Orchestra ✭✭
I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Ethel Waters ✭✭
I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Red Nichols

Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child, Archie Shepp & Horace Parlan ✭✭
Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child, Charlie Haden & Hank Jones ✭✭
Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child, Little Jimmy Scott

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