“Fats” Waller was jazz music’s first great organist and perhaps its greatest stride pianist. Stride piano, exceedingly popular in the first quarter of the 20th century, has the trademark of an oom-pah beat from the left hand (“striding”) and syncopation from the right-hand. Before Art Tatum, there was James P. Johnson and Waller.
*The concert pianist Oscar Levant called Waller “the black Horowitz.”
*He was one of the few authentic jazz musicians, along with his friends Louie Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Benny Goodman, to become commercially successful and popular with the public.
*His teaming with Andy Rasaf produced some of the most popular songs between 1925 and 1935.
*He copywrited over 400 songs.
*he was the first jazz musician to have a solo concert in Carnegie Hall (1942)
*In his short life of 39 years, he mastered all the forms of American entertainment.
*Louie Armstrong cried all night on receiving the news of Waller’s death in 1943.
*inducted into Songwriters Hall of Fame in its inaugural year (1970)
*A Broadway musical revue showcasing Waller tunes entitled Ain’t Misbehavin’ was produced in 1978 and won Tony Awards. It ran for over 1600 performances.
*He won a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement (1993)
The lyrics of his life
The Early Years of Waller
Thomas Wright Waller was born in New York City in 1904 into a Baptist preacher’s family. He began playing the piano at 6 years old and soon moved to the organ in his family’s church, which at the time was Abyssian Baptist Church in Harlem pastored by Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. It was during the time at Abyssian Baptist that the church organist taught him to play and appreciate the music of J. S. Bach. At 14 (1918) he was already weighing 200 pounds and nicknamed “Fats.” He also started playing the organ at Harlem’s famous Lincoln Theater (which his father called “house of Satan”) and winning a talent contest playing a James P. Johnson song which he learned by watching a player-piano “play” the song. At 15 (1919) he wrote his first rag time song (“the devil’s music” according to his father) and he got his first paying musical job playing the organ at a Harlem movie theater to accompany silent films. In 1920 he moved out of his family’s home into the home of pianist Russell B.T. Brooks where he met James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith, the two reigning kings of stride performers. Johnson began to teach him stride piano techniques, as well as the music of 19th century impressionists Claude Dubussy and Maurice Ravel. Waller claims to have studied with Julliard composers Leopold Godowsky and Carl Bohm but there is not corroborating evidence of this.