Waller’s family moved to New York from Virginia in l888. His grandfather was an accomplished violist. His parents Edward and Adeline were serious Christians. Edward was chairman of the Board of Deacons and Superintendent of Sunday School as well as a lay street preacher at Abyssian Baptist Church in Harlem during Rev. Adam Clayton Powell’s early years. Adeline was the organist for the church. However, due to dissatisfaction with the leadership and direction of the church, the Wallers left Abyssian Baptist and helped form a new Pentecostal congregation called Greater Refuge Temple in Harlem in 1919. The Wallers threw themselves into the new congregation, Edward continuing as a street preacher. It is claimed that when Fats was around 5 years old he was playing the harmonica to accompany the street preaching of his dad (1909). His mother tried to teach him organ and piano but he preferred to play by “ear.” His adored mother died in 1920 of diabetes and in a disagreement with his father, who wanted Fats to follow him into the pastorate Fats moved out of the house at age 16 into the home of a childhood friend and neighbor, Russ Brooks. Rev. Waller approved the move, thinking it was good for both father and son. As Fats got more involved in the world of jazz music the estrangement from his father (and mother before her death) became more pronounced. They thought jazz words and music were degenerate and demoralizing and not appropriate for godly people. Fats was beginning to taste the debauched life of the Harlem music scene in the 1920 as he went whoring and boozing and partying. All this living large led him to his 300 pound frame, a Black Al Dubin. During this time of “living high on the hog” he met Edith Hatchett, who was from a devout Christian family in Harlem. The senior Wallers approved of Edith and the 17 year old Fats married her in l921 soon after his mother’s death. His marriage to the religious Edith may have been a reaction to his mother’s death, but in any case, Fats continued his profligate ways and satyristic lifestyle. Even with the announcement of the premature coming of his son in l921, Thomas, Jr., Fats was not to be slowed down. In l923 Edith and Fats finally had enough of each other and divorced with alimony expected from the fat piano player. Failure to pay landed Waller in jail several times in the next two decades as he spent his money on prostitutes and liquor. Never one to miss an opportunity to get drunk or party, Waller met 16 year old Anita Rutherford and married her in l926. She gave birth to their first son, Maurice, in l927. In l929 their second son, Ronald, was born.
Still carousing, 29 year old Fats met 14 year old Una Mae Carlisle in 1932 and “brought her along the road to maturity in his own way” (Ed Kirkeby). Fats continued to perform for church concerts and benefits during the l930s. However, during this decade and remainder of his life, his alcoholism led to irresponsible conduct and no-shows which was affecting his career, driving him to Europe for engagements during the late 30s and early 40s.
Waller died in December 1943, of bronchial pneumonia in Kansas City on a train from Los Angeles to New York City. It is reported that Louie Armstrong, on a train waiting in the Kansas City station, cried all night on receiving the news of Waller’s death. His funeral was held at the Abyssinian Baptist Church and conducted by the congregation’s pastors Adam Clayton Powell, Jr and Benjamin Richardson. Powell would go on to serve 14 terms as a congressman from Harlem and be expelled from congress in l967 for ethics violations. Richardson, an accomplished musician and liberal activist, ended his ministry as a Unitarian pastor. It was estimated that over 5,000 people attended the funeral service and traffic was brought to a standstill for blocks around the church building. Pallbearers at the funeral included James P. Johnson, Andy Razaf and arranger and musician Don Redman.
There is an interesting quote from the Waller biography by his long time manager, Ed Kirkeby, as a summation of Waller’s spiritual worldview: “Despite all this dissipation, Fats did have his more spiritual moments. Outstanding in the memories of his bandsmen were countless times when, in the dressing-room between shows, Fats would read to them from the Bible. A confirmed student of the Good Book, which he had read since childhood, he could quote long passages and was adept at translating the Old Testament meanings into everyday terms. The imprint of his Christian upbringing never left him, and rather than using it to cloak his more worldly habits, the reverse is probably nearer the truth. Fats always insisted that his children went to Sunday School and, when asked why he didn’t go himself, he said simply that he didn’t think the life he led in the entertainment world qualified him for proper church attendance.”
From all reports, Waller came from godly folk with a pious heritage and a weak theological worldview. Unfortunately, Fats was not given the theological foundation upon which to rest his God-given gifts and talents and to build his musical career. His potential to be a great witness for the Jesus of his family was squandered by sinful living, self-serving character and a defective understanding of Christianity. It would be wonderful to think of Waller (and Andy Rasaf who also had Christian roots) enjoying the glory of the risen Christ in heaven but their lifestyles leave much room for doubt.