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ClassicsOnline Home » WALLER, Fats: A Handful of Fats - Classic Hits (1929-1942)
‘Handful of Fats’ Original Recordings 1929-1942
Thomas “Fats” Waller was one of the most beloved figures in
jazz history. His life gave the
appearance 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 musical
talent and accomplishments. Not
only was he one of the greatest stride pianists of all time, but Waller was
also jazz’s first organist, a skilful songwriter, a personable vocalist and a
comic personality. He was a
legendary figure even during his lifetime, and he remains a household name more
than six decades after his death.
Fats Waller was born on 21 May 1904 in New York City. His first instrument was the harmonium
which he took up when he was five, switching to piano the following year. Waller, who played in his school
orchestra, was the son of a strict church minister who wanted him to stick
exclusively to religious music, but Fats preferred popular music and the
emerging stride piano style played by James P. Johnson. After his mother died, the teenage
Waller (who did not get along with his father) moved in with a friend and
became Johnson’s protégé, developing rapidly as a musician. By 1919 when he was fifteen, Waller was
stomping off hot solos on a pipe organ at the Lincoln Theatre, playing for
Fats became one of the stars of Harlem rent parties in the
1920s, playing alongside James P. Johnson and Willie “the Lion” Smith. He was busy on several other levels
during the decade, making twenty piano rolls, cutting his first solo records in
1922, recording pipe organ solos and with combos, accompanying many of the
classic blues singers, and writing music.
His first composition was 1918’s “Squeeze Me” and he collaborated with
lyricist Andy Razaf in the late 1920s shows Keep Shufflin’, Hot Chocolates and
Load Of Coal.
Handful Of Fats opens with a pair of classic Waller piano
solos from 1929. Handful Of Keys
gives listeners a perfect example of Fats’ striding (on the beat his left hand
“strides” between low bass notes and higher chords) and his ability to
improvise melodically at a rapid tempo.
Ain’t Misbehavin’, which had initially been recorded by Louis Armstrong
thirteen days earlier, is (along with “Honeysuckle Rose”) one of the two most
famous Waller originals. Fats lets
the melody speak for itself on this early version.
Other than during the obscure “Red Hot Dan,” Waller did not
sing on records until 1931. On I’m
Crazy About My Baby, Fats makes one wonder why he waited so long. His phrasing is attractive as is his
obvious sense of humour, and his vocalising never causes his playing to lose
After playing with the bands of Otto Hardwick and Elmer
Snowden during 1931-32, visiting France and England and beginning his long
stint on the radio as host and star of Fats Waller’s Rhythm Club, Waller really
began to emerge as a show business personality in 1934 when he signed with the
Victor label. During the next
eight years, he recorded 282 selections (not counting alternate takes, solo
piano features and a few sessions with big bands) with his “Rhythm,” a two-horn
sextet that often featured trumpeter Herman Autrey, Gene Sedric on tenor and
clarinet and guitarist Al Casey plus a variety of bassists and drummers. These often-rambunctious performances
put an emphasis on Waller’s vocals and no-holds-barred humour but always
included spots for his stride piano.
Fats displayed the ability to satirize weak and clichéd songs in
hilarious fashion, making fun of and ripping into their lyrics. Music publishers were happy because
their turkey tunes would otherwise probably never have been recorded, and fans
were delighted at the outrageous nature of some of the recordings. Among the more bizarre tunes that
Waller was saddled with during this era were “Us On A Bus,” “My Window Faces
The South,” “Why Hawaiians Sing Aloha,” “I Love To Whistle,” “Little Curly Hair
In A High Chair,” “You’re A Square From Delaware,” “Eep, Ipe, Wanna Piece Of
Pie,” “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 some
more enduring tunes (such as the ones on this definitive sampler) including
many of his own compositions. His
Viper’s Drag is a memorable piano piece that caught on as a standard among
later generations of swing and stride pianists. Twelfth Street Rag has Waller and his Rhythm digging into
the dixieland standard, tearing it apart in places and swinging hard. Much more sober but still quite
infectious are Waller’s solo piano versions of his own Keepin’ Out Of Mischief
Now and Tea For Two.
By the time Waller recorded his hit The Joint Is Jumpin’ in
the 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 years
earlier he had appeared in memorable scenes in the films Hooray For Love and
King Of Burlesque, stealing the show in both cases. He was a fixture on radio, his Rhythm was recording steadily
and many of his songs were being played nightly by the big swing bands. One song that could not be effectively
duplicated by other groups was The Joint Is Jumpin’, the ultimate musical
depiction of a wild party.
Hoagy Carmichael’s Two Sleepy People is played colourfully
and almost seriously by Waller and his Rhythm. There is no attempt at being straightforward during an
absolutely crazy and quite catchy rendition of Hold Tight. After touring Europe in 1938 and
visiting England in 1939, Waller returned to the U.S. on the eve of World War
II to record Honey Hush with his Rhythm.
His hits continued with the recording of Your Feet’s Too Big and he had
the opportunity to record his own Squeeze Me and a jam version of the already
ancient standard Darktown Strutter’s Ball.
On 13 May 1941, Waller recorded his final solo piano
features for the Victor label; four of the five are included on this set. Waller performs a definitive version of
Honeysuckle Rose (hinting at a few classical composers along the way), a pair
of famous Hoagy Carmichael songs (Georgia On My Mind and Rockin’ Chair) plus a
James P. Johnson classic (Carolina Shout) that always served as a challenge for
pianists of the 1920s and ’30s.
Waller led an occasional big band on tours. His orchestra is heard on the last two
numbers of this set: his pioneering jazz waltz The Jitterbug Waltz (which has
Fats on organ) and the joyful Come And Get It. Although he broke up his Rhythm in 1942, Waller remained
quite active, writing the music for the show Early To Bed and appearing in a
great nightclub scene in the 1943 movie Stormy Weather.
But the years of overeating and overdrinking finally caught
up with him. While on a
cross-country train trip on his way back to New York, Fats Waller died of
pneumonia in Kansas City on 14 December 1943, passing away at the height of his
fame. He had packed a great deal
of living, music and fun into his 39 years.
– author of 8 jazz books including Swing, Jazz On Record
1917-76, Classic Jazz and Trumpet Kings
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