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This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

“Fats” Waller (1904-1943): Ain’t Misbehavin,’ but you were, Fats, #2

The lyrics of his life

The Middle Years of Waller

He made his first recording in 1922 when he was 18 years old. In 1926 he wrote his first show tune and in l928 he made his Carnegie Hall debut as a piano soloist when he was 24 years old. In l929 he collaborated with poet and lyricist and future friend, Andy Rasaf, to write the score for the Broadway hit Ain’t Misbehavin’ which produced the song “Ain’t Misbehavin’” which in turn propelled Cab Calloway first, and then Louis Armstrong into fame. In l923 he began his radio broadcasting at WHN in New York City which lasted until his death in 1943. His radio work required him to talk and banter between songs. This practice developed his verbal skills as a comedian and commentator of music styles. All his professional life he received criticism from true jazz believers, that he was too commercial and pandering to Whitey. Indeed, Ted Gioia wrote that Waller excelled at “playing Falstaff to his generation” and Barry Singer wrote of Waller’s “clownish persona and ludicrous song material.” Part of that was due to his size: 5/11 and 300 pounds but part of that was due to his Louis Armstrong mugging for his adoring largely White audience. An interesting story at this point may illustrate the tension Waller, Rasaf, Armstrong, et al felt during this period. The Broadway show Ain’t Misbehavin’ was named Hot Chocolates while it ran as a stage show in Harlem. As was usual during those days, the show was bankrolled by mobsters, in this case, Dutch Schultz, a particularly vicious Jewish gangster. As the story goes, Schultz came up to Andy Rasaf, the lyricist for the show, and wanted a funny number telling the story of a “colored girl” who can’t get a man because she is too “colored.” It was to be an interracial lament. Rasaf grinningly replied that he couldn’t possibly write such lyrics for a commercial production. Barry Singer relates, “Schultz responded in characteristic raging fashion by pinning Rasaf to the nearest wall with a gun. You’ll write it, he more or less rasped, or you’ll never write anything again.” The resulting song (Waller/Rasaf) called “Black and Blue” was sung to an overwhelmingly Black audience in attendance at the Connie’s Inn 1929 show. Rasaf pitched it as an interracial song but Louie Armstrong recorded it later that year by dropping a verse thus making it a straight Black lament and that is what it is seen to be today. Twenty years later, Ralph Ellison in his novel Invisible Man treats the Armstrong version as an anthem of release. Some have said it is the first racial protest song and others have dismissed it as a Harlem show piece.

Dave Dexter relates the following story as he is trying to define what jazz is: “Several years before his death in December 1943, Fats Waller was seated at the Steinway in a New York night club playing a final arpeggio to his famous version of Honeysuckle Rose. A young woman approached him to ask his definition of jazz. Fats’ massive hands struck a stentorian discord as he turned to the inquiring dilettante, ‘Honey,’ said Wall obligingly, ‘if you don’t know what jazz is by now, then you’ve got no business messin’ with it.’” Dexter’s conclusion “Jazz remains indefinable, but never intangible.”

At a party in l934 at the home of George Gershwin he so impressed a record executive that he began a recording career which lasted until l943. In 1935 he began appearing in Hollywood movies, which included Stormy Weather in l943. In 1938 and l939 he toured Europe and recorded his “London Suite” of classical music.

The lyrics of his life

The Later Years of Waller

In l942 he was the first jazz musician to have a solo concert in Carnegie Hall. It is stated on a l960 record jacket that he copyrighted over 400 tunes. All of this frenetic activity, especially in the last five years of his life took its physical toll on him. Waller died during the middle of World War 2, in l943. At his death, Waller was at the height of his popularity.

My favorite Waller song: “Ain’t Misbehavin’”

In l978, a Broadway show of his music entitled Ain’t Misbehavin’ won a Tony, an Obie, a New York Drama Critics’ Circle, and a Grammy. Finally, in l993 he was given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

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