Thomas Wright Waller was born on May 21, 1904 in a subsection of New York City, New York known as Harlem – a city that was already well on its way to becoming the largest and most significant urban community of African-Americans in the northeast. It would be in Harlem where Waller, among other artistic prodigies, would launch one of the most profound cultural celebrations in American history, the Harlem Renaissance.
Waller’s parents, Edward, a Baptist lay preacher and Adeline, migrated to New York from Virginia in 1888, and by 1902 had permanently settled in Harlem. Fats, as he would come to be known in his youth, was the youngest of the couple’s five children. Like many in the African-American community, Edward and Adeline were devout churchgoers, and intensely musical as well; indeed, music in a religious context informed much of their everyday lives. This reverence for music, as espoused by his parents, had a tremendous impact on Fats; by the age of six, he was already at work playing the harmonium to accompany his father’s sermons at open-air services.
Waller’s musical education and professional growth intensified in his teenage years. In 1918, he won a talent contest for his rendition of James P. Johnson’s “Carolina Shout,” which was considered to be the barometer by which all budding stride pianists were measured. By 1920, he was under the tutelage of Johnson, the father of the Harlem stride piano style. At about this time he also began to perform regularly at Harlem’s Lincoln and Lafayette theaters. During the next few years, as a result of his increasingly frequent public appearances, Waller came to be acknowledged as one of the most gifted, inventive and virtuosic of the younger generation of stride practitioners. He made his debut recording, “Birmingham Blues” and “Muscle Shoals Blues” in October of 1922; other early performance activity included accompanying blues singers, such as Bessie Smith, on recordings and cutting numerous piano rolls in 1923 for the Victor, QRS and Okeh labels. During the early years of this decade, he continued to play for rent parties, engaged in cutting contests, was an organist at movie theatres and served as an accompanist for various vaudeville acts.
While still in his early twenties, Waller composed dozens of songs (although some were not published) and began critical collaborations with such songwriters as Spencer Williams and most importantly, Andy Razaf.
In 1927, Waller recorded his own composition “Whiteman Stomp” with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, one of the pioneering African-American bands of the Swing Era. Henderson used other compositions by Waller as vehicles for his arrangements and improvisations, including “I’m Crazy ’Bout My Baby” and “Stealin’ Apples.”
In 1928, along with Razaf, he contributed much of the music for James P. Johnson’s all-black Broadway musical Keep Shufflin’. He would also make his Carnegie Hall debut on April 27, 1928, when he was the piano soloist in a version of James P. Johnson’s Yamekraw, A Negro Rhapsody for piano and orchestra.
Waller’s star was rapidly ascendant in 1929; in that year alone, he was involved in numerous extensive recording sessions that documented some of his finest songs: (“Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue?,” “The Minor Drag,” “Numb Fumblin’,” and many others). This exposure gained him a certain cachet with record executives; he was permitted to use an interracial band (one of the earliest in recording history).
In 1930, he appeared on radio as one of the earliest African-Americans hosts. And from 1932-1934 he broadcasted his own show regularly for WLW in Cincinnati, “Fats Waller’s Rhythm Club.” When the WLW contract concluded in early 1934, Waller returned to New York where he broadcasted the “Rhythm Club” show over the CBS network to a still larger audience. This experience would prove to be invaluable as it offered an unparalleled opportunity to sing, satirize, and provide a running commentary while he was playing – all traits for which he would become widely known.
Waller’s success on CBS convinced Victor to sign him to his first recording contract; Waller decided upon a six-piece band format similar in organization to a typical Dixieland band ensemble: clarinet, trombone, trumpet, piano, bass and drums. Maintaining the association with the “Rhythm Club” name, Waller dubbed the band “Fats Waller and His Rhythm.” Between 1934 and 1942 the group recorded about 400 sides, well over half of Waller’s lifetime recorded output. Many critics consider that the band’s best work was issued in 1935 and 1936, and many of these releases sold millions of copies. In February 1938, Victor extended Waller’s contract through May 1944.
In 1938, Waller undertook a European tour and recorded in London with his Continental Rhythm as well as making solo organ recordings for the HMV (His Master’s Voice) label. His second European tour in the following year was terminated by the outbreak of World War II, but while in Britain he recorded (also for HMV) his London Suite, an extended series of six related pieces for solo piano: “Piccadilly,” “Chelsea,” “Soho,” “Bond Street,” “Limehouse” and “Whitechapel.” It became Waller’s greatest composition in scale and magnitude and is indicative of his aspirations to be a composer of concert works, along the lines of his mentor, Johnson.
The final years of Waller’s life involved frequent recordings and extensive tours of the United States. In early 1943, he traveled to Hollywood to make the film Stormy Weather with Lena Horne and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, in which he led an all-star band. His professional responsibilities intensified in that year with more touring as well as collaborating with the lyricist George Marion for the stage show Early to Bed. This exhaustive schedule along with constant overindulgence of food and alcohol irrevocably damaged Waller’s health. He died of pneumonia while returning to New York by train with his manager, Ed Kirkeby.
Waller, in his short life, served as an ebullient champion of the African-Americans’ contribution to the cultural fabric of the United States. Whether it was through his jubilant and virtuosic musical performances, his comedic antics or his dapper sartorial taste, Waller was determined to celebrate his community and transcend the racial barriers put before him.