On December 15, 1943, Thomas Wright ‘Fats’ Waller succumbed to pneumonia during a cross-country train trip near Kansas City, Missouri.
As the train with the body of Waller stopped in Kansas City, a train stopped at the next platform with his dear friend Louis Armstrong on board.
More than 4,000 people attended his funeral in Harlem. During his eulogy, Dr. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., said that Fats Waller “always played to a packed house.” Afterwards he was cremated and his ashes were scattered, from an airplane piloted by an unidentified World War I black aviator, over Harlem.
Waller’s parents, Adeline Locket Waller and Reverend Edward Martin Waller (a Baptist preacher) produced 11 children (five survived childhood), in New York City. Fats, born on May 21, 1904, was the youngest child.
He started playing the piano when he was six and graduated to the organ of his father’s church four years later. His mother instructed him as a youth. At the age of 14 he was playing the organ at Harlem’s Lincoln Theater and within 12 months he had composed his first rag. He was the top scholar, and a friend and colleague, of stride pianist James P. Johnson.
Waller’s father was unhappy about his son’s love of jazz and put up some opposition to Fats’ plans to become a pianist in the genre. He had plans for Fats to follow him into spreading the gospel. But, Fats, at the age of 15, became a professional artist and worked in jazz joints, theatres and speakeasies.
Fats won a talent contest in 1918, performing James P. Johnson’s Carolina Shout. This is where he met James P. Johnson and Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith, the two bigwigs of the Harlem stride and the biggest influences in Fats’ life.
Waller made his recording debut as a soloist for Okeh with Muscle Shoals Blues and Birmingham Blues which were recorded in October 1922 when he was 18 years old.
In 1926, Waller began his recording association with Victor, his principal record company for the rest of his life, with the organ solos St. Louis Blues and his own Lenox Avenue Blues. Although he recorded with various groups, including Morris’s Hot Babes (1927), Fats Waller’s Buddies (1929) (one of the earliest interracial groups to record), and McKinney’s Cotton Pickers (1929), his most important contribution to the Harlem stride piano tradition was a series of solo recordings of his own compositions: Handful of Keys, Smashing Thirds, Numb Fumblin’, and Valentine Stomp (1929). After sessions with Ted Lewis (1930), Jack Teagarden (1931), and Billy Banks’s Rhythmakers (1932), he began in May 1934 the voluminous series of recordings with a small band known as Fats Waller and his Rhythm. This six-piece group usually included Herman Autrey (sometimes replaced by Bill Coleman or John “Bugs” Hamilton), Gene Sedric or Rudy Powell, and Al Casey.
Waller ultimately became one of the most popular performers of his era, finding critical and commercial success in his homeland and in Europe. He was also a prolific songwriter and many songs he wrote or co-wrote are still popular, such as Honeysuckle Rose, Ain’t Misbehavin ‘and Squeeze Me. Fellow pianist and composer Oscar Levant dubbed Waller ‘the black Horowitz’. Waller is believed to have composed many novelty tunes in the 1920s and 1930s and sold them for relatively small sums, the attributions of which, on becoming widely known, went only to a later composer and lyricist.
Waller continued to broadcast as a singer and soloist throughout his life, including the long-running Fats Waller’s Rhythm Club and Moon River (on which he played organ). During the early 1920s, he continued as an organist at the Lincoln and Lafayette theaters in New York.
QRS (Quality Reigns Supreme) in the Bronx were the top piano rolls manufacturer. James P Johnson introduced Waller to (QRS) in order to make piano rolls. In the next five years, Waller performed on 23 rolls for QRS at $100 each. His key board style was unique and was instantly recognizable as a Fats Waller recording. This distinct Fats Waller sound caused sales to rocket. Waller later replaced Johnson as the house pianist for QRS.
Music entrepreneur Phil Ponce (1886-1945), became the first agent-manager for Fats Waller in 1932. Ponce promptly negotiated a contract with WLW, a popular Cincinnati radio station which broadcast throughout the Midwest. His show, ‘Fats Waller’s Rhythm Club’, was an instant success. At the end of the WLW contract at the start of 1934, Waller returned to New York where he broadcast the ‘Rhythm Club’ show over the CBS network to an even larger audience.
Phil Ponce was suffering from failing health and felt that he couldn’t handle his management responsibilities any longer and asked Wallace ‘Ed’ Kirkeby to support him.
One of the stories told about Ed’s first meetings with Fats, was, that Ed was sitting in the control room ready to start a recording. He saw a half-empty bottle of gin on the table and asked Fats through the intercom: “Is that your last drink?” “No,” Fats replied, “it’s my first bottle!” (Source: Fats Waller by Maurice Waller). Early 1938 Ed Kirkeby became Fats’ manager and stayed with him until to Waller’s death in December 1943.
Fats Waller Timeline
1904: Fats Waller was born on 21 May to Edward Waller and Adeline Waller
1918: Fats won a talent contest performing James P. Johnson’s ‘Carolina shout’.
1920: Fats moved out of the family due to disagreements regarding his career.
1926: Waller started his association with Victor, his principal record organization for the rest of his life.
1927: Waller recorded with Fletcher Henderson orchestra
1927: He met the poet and lyricist Andy Razaf that led to both collaborating on musicals such as ‘Hot Chocolates’.
1928: Waller made his Carnegie Hall debut.
1931: Toured across Paris
1943: He starred in the film ‘Stormy Weather’
1943: On December 15, 1943, while travelling in a train back to New York, Thomas Fats Waller passed away near Kansas City, due to pneumonia.
1993: Waller was posthumously recognized by the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Fats Waller was married twice. His first wife was Edith Hatchet and they had a son named Thomas. They were divorced in 1924. His second wife was Anita Rutherford with whom he had two sons, Maurice and Ronald.
Watch Fats in action: