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Fats Waller

“You get that right-tickin’ rhythm, man, and it’s ON!”Fats Waller

From the time composer/musician Fats Waller was a little kid playing organ in church, he knew his fingers were made for a divine purpose. His daddy, who was a Baptist preacher, believed that purpose was to make music for God. However Waller had something else in mind - jazz!

The New York native’s passion for jazz grew during high school when he met pianist James P. Johnson. While a protégé of Johnson’s, Waller adopted the Harlem stride style of piano playing, “the swinging left hand,” emphasizing tenths on the bass, to which Waller added his own distinctive touch.

Waller, who was born in 1904, made his recording debut in 1922 as a soloist for Okeh with Muscle Shoals Blues and Binningham Blues. That sparked a series of recordings the same year as accompanist for several blues singers, including Sara Martin, Alberta Hunter, and Maude Mills.

Soon, Waller began to establish a reputation as a composer of material performed and recorded by other artists. In 1923 he had his broadcasting debut for a Newark local station, followed by regular appearances on WHN of New York.

Though his skills on the piano opened the door to the music business, it wasn’t until after Fats started to sing that he became famous. He got his first break in 1926 when he caught the attention of a record label executive from Victor at a party where he was playing and singing. The executive was so impressed, he immediately signed Waller to the label.

It wasn’t long before Waller became a hit-maker. He released a string of popular tunes including “Ain’t Misbehavin’” “Honeysuckle Rose,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter,” “When Somebody Thinks You’re Wonderful,” “My Very Good Friend The Milkman,” and “Your Feet’s Too Big.”

In addition to his recording career, Waller wrote the score for the Broadway hit “Hot Chocolates” with lyrics supplied by his friend Andy Razaf. Fats’ most famous song, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” was introduced in this show, which featured Louis Armstrong.

In the mid-1930s, Waller worked on the West Coast with Les Hite’s band at Frank Sebastian’s New Cotton Club. He also appeared in two films while in Hollywood in 1935, “Hooray for Love!”and “King of Burlesque.”

During the last few years of his life, Waller toured frequently and cut many recordings. He returned to Hollywood in 1943 to make the film “Stormy Weather” with Lena Horne and Bill Robinson.

Over time, the demands of Waller’s rigorous touring schedule and his alcohol abuse began to take their toll. He died at the age of 39 from a bout with pneumonia.

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Last updated: 3/5/2006.

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