Fats Waller dresses for show at the London Palladium during 1938 tour of the British Isles. The collection of Ed Kirkeby, Fats Waller's manager, is unique for the photographs documenting Waller on tour in the United States and Europe between 1938 through 1943.

 

Musical selection: Got A Bran' New Suit
New York, August 20, 1935
I'm Gonna Sit Right Down . . . The Early Years, Part 2, 1935-36
Bluebird/RCA 66640-2


   
 
         

 

The Harlem that Thomas Wright Waller was born into on May 21, 1904 was already well on its way to becoming the largest and most important urban community of African-Americans, though it had yet to acquire the cachet that would mark it as a center for African-American culture in the 1920s. Waller's parents, Edward and Adeline, had come 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 surviving children. Like many of their peers, Edward and Adeline were devout and regular churchgoers, and deeply musical as well; indeed, music in a religious context informed much of their daily lives. This exalted regard for music evidently had a more profound impact on Tom than on any of their other children. Possibly as early as his fifth or sixth year he was already at work playing the harmonium to accompany his family's singing at street corner sermons delivered by his father.

Waller's musical education intensified in his teenage years. By 1920 he was studying both pipe organ and stride piano (with the most important practicioner of the style, James P. Johnson) in earnest. At about this time he also began to play organ regularly at Harlem's Lincoln Theater; the young audience there undoubtedly brought out the comic and the theatrical in his persona. During the next few years, as a result of his increasingly frequent public appearances, Waller came to be recognized as one of the most gifted and inventive of the younger generation of stride pianists. He made his first recording late in 1922; other early performance activity included accompanying several different blues singers on recordings and cutting numerous piano rolls in 1923. During the early years of this decade, he continued to play for rent parties, but broadened his experience by performing at nightclubs as well. And by the time he composed the music for two revues with Spencer Williams in 1926, he had also already written dozens of songs (though not all were published).

 

 

The pace of Waller's already energetic career picked up noticeably in 1929. In that year alone, he was involved in numerous extensive recording sessions for Victor at the company's newly refurbished studios in Camden, New Jersey, sometimes doing as many as five takes of one song, switching in some cases between pipe organ and piano. 1929 was also one of Waller's most productive years as a composer: he completed some of his finest songs during this year ("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.) From late 1930 through the first half of 1931 he appeared on radio (the Columbia-owned station WABC), and from 1932-1934 he broadcast his own show regularly for WLW in Cincinnati ("Fats Waller's Rhythm Club"). All of this work on radio—which required him to talk constantly when he was not playing and which offered an unparalleled opportunity to sing, satirize, and provide a running commentary while he was playing—caused Waller to sharpen his already considerable verbal skills as a comedian and entertainer.

It also increased his fame and popularity, which in turn must have provided Victor the inducement it needed to offer him an exclusive contract in 1934. Though most of the material chosen by Victor's staff for Waller to record consisted of Tin Pan Alley songs of dubious merit, he was able to redeem his performances of them through his musical gifts as a stride pianist and his cutting wit as a satirist. Usually, the songs were arranged for Waller and a group of five other musicians who recorded under the name "Fats Waller and His Rhythm." Although several musicians of various degrees of talent performed as members of this group, Waller's most frequent partners in the Victor sessions were Herman Autrey (trumpet), Gene Sedric (clarinet, tenor sax), Albert Casey (guitar), Charles Turner (bass, replaced by Cedric Wallace in 1939), and Slick Jones (drums). Together they formed a tight, well-rehearsed group that played competently and could be relied on to dispose of its musical obligations efficiently—almost always in one take—but that never lost its ability to improvise in fresh and often intriguing ways.

 
 
 
 
 
         
 
         
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