Thomas Wright "Fats" Waller (May 21, 1904 – December 15, 1943) was an influential American jazz pianist, organist, composer, singer, and comedic entertainer, whose innovations to the Harlem stride style laid the groundwork for modern jazz piano, and whose best-known compositions, "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Honeysuckle Rose", were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame posthumously, in 1984 and 1999.
Thomas Wright Waller was the youngest of 11 children (five survived childhood) born to Adeline Locket Waller and Reverend Edward Martin Waller in New York City. He started playing the piano when he was six and graduated to the organ of his father's church four years later. His mother instructed him as a youth. At the age of 14 he was playing the organ at Harlem's Lincoln Theater and within 12 months he had composed his first rag. Waller's first piano solos ("Muscle Shoals Blues" and "Birmingham Blues") were recorded in October 1922 when he was 18 years old.
Overcoming opposition from his clergyman father, Waller became a professional pianist at 15, working in cabarets and theaters. In 1918 he won a talent contest playing Johnson's "Carolina Shout", a song he learned from watching a player piano play it.
Waller ultimately became one of the most popular performers of his era, finding critical and commercial success in his homeland and in Europe. He was also a prolific songwriter and many songs he wrote or co-wrote are still popular, such as "Honeysuckle Rose", "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Squeeze Me". Fellow pianist and composer Oscar Levant dubbed Waller "the black Horowitz". Waller is believed to have composed many novelty tunes in the 1920s and 1930s and sold them for relatively small sums, the attributions of which, on becoming widely known, went only to a later composer and lyricist.
The anonymous sleeve notes on the 1960 RCA Victor album Handful of Keys state that Waller copyrighted over 400 new songs, many of which co-written with his closest collaborator Andy Razaf. Razaf described his partner as "the soul of melody... a man who made the piano sing... both big in body and in mind... known for his generosity... a bubbling bundle of joy".Gene Sedric, a clarinetist who played with Waller on some of his 1930s recordings, is quoted in these same sleeve notes recalling Waller's recording technique with considerable admiration: "Fats was the most relaxed man I ever saw in a studio, and so he made everybody else relaxed. After a balance had been taken, we'd just need one take to make a side, unless it was a kind of difficult number."
His playing once put him at risk of injury. Waller was kidnapped in Chicago leaving a performance in 1926. Four men bundled him into a car and took him to the Hawthorne Inn, owned by Al Capone. Waller was ordered inside the building, and found a party in full swing. Gun to his back, he was pushed towards a piano, and told to play. A terrified Waller realized he was the "surprise guest" at Capone's birthday party, and took comfort that the gangsters did not intend to kill him. It is rumored that Waller stayed at the Hawthorne Inn for three days and left very drunk, extremely tired, and had earned thousands of dollars in cash from Capone and other party-goers as tips.
In 1926, Waller began his recording association with Victor Records, his principal record company for the rest of his life, with the organ solos "St. Louis Blues" and his own composition, "Lenox Avenue Blues". Although he recorded with various groups, including Morris's Hot Babes (1927), Fats Waller's Buddies (1929) (one of the earliest multiracial groups to record), and McKinney's Cotton Pickers (1929), his most important contribution to the Harlem stride piano tradition was a series of solo recordings of his own compositions: "Handful of Keys", "Smashing Thirds", "Numb Fumblin'", and "Valentine Stomp" (1929). After sessions with Ted Lewis (1931), Jack Teagarden (1931) and Billy Banks' Rhythmakers (1932), he began in May 1934 the voluminous series of recordings with a small band known as Fats Waller and his Rhythm. This six-piece group usually included Herman Autrey (sometimes replaced by Bill Coleman or John "Bugs" Hamilton), Gene Sedric or Rudy Powell, and Al Casey.
Waller performed Bach organ pieces for small groups on occasion. Waller influenced many pre-bop jazz pianists; Count Basie and Erroll Garner have both reanimated his hit songs (notably, "Ain't Misbehavin'"). In addition to his playing, Waller was known for his many quips during his performances.
Between 1926 and the end of 1927, Waller recorded a series of pipe organ solo records. These represent the first time syncopated jazz compositions were performed on a full-sized church organ.
Waller contracted pneumonia and died on a cross-country train trip near Kansas City, Missouri, on December 15, 1943. His final recording session was with an interracial group in Detroit, Michigan, that included white trumpeter Don Hirleman. Waller was returning to New York City from Los Angeles, after the smash success of Stormy Weather, and after a successful engagement at the Zanzibar Room, during which he had fallen ill. Coincidentally, as the train with the body of Waller stopped in Kansas City, so stopped a train with his dear friend Louis Armstrong on board. More than 4,000 people attended his funeral in Harlem, which prompted Dr. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who delivered the eulogy, to say that Fats Waller “always played to a packed house.” Afterwards he was cremated and his ashes were scattered, from an airplane piloted by an unidentified World War I black aviator, over Harlem.
Recordings of Fats Waller were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame which is a special Grammy Award established in 1973 to honour recordings that are at least 25 years old and that have "qualitative or historical significance".
Probably the most talented pianist to keep the music of "Fats" Waller alive in the years after his death was Ralph Sutton, who focused his career on playing stride piano. Sutton was a great admirer of Waller, saying "I've never heard a piano man swing any better than Fats - or swing a band better than he could. I never get tired of him. Fats has been with me from the first, and he'll be with me as long as I live."
Actor and band leader Conrad Janis also did a lot to keep the stride piano music of "Fats" Waller and James P. Johnson alive. In 1949, as an 18-year-old, Janis put together a band of aging jazz greats, consisting of James P. Johnson (piano), Henry Goodwin (trumpet), Edmond Hall (clarinet), Pops Foster (bass) and Baby Dodds(drums), with Janis on trombone.