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8.120760 - WALLER, Fats: A Handful of Fats - Classic Hits (1929-1942)
‘Handful of Fats’ Original Recordings 1929-1942
Thomas “Fats” Waller was one of the most beloved figures in jazz history. His life gave the appearance of being one long goodtime party full of hot jazz, liquor, food, humour and women, and few others could keep up with him in any of those areas.
Few could also keep up with Waller when it came to musical talent and accomplishments. Not only was he one of the greatest stride pianists of all time, but Waller was also jazz’s first organist, a skilful songwriter, a personable vocalist and a comic personality. He was a legendary figure even during his lifetime, and he remains a household name more than six decades after his death.
Fats Waller was born on 21 May 1904 in New York City. His first instrument was the harmonium which he took up when he was five, switching to piano the following year. Waller, who played in his school orchestra, was the son of a strict church minister who wanted him to stick exclusively to religious music, but Fats preferred popular music and the emerging stride piano style played by James P. Johnson. After his mother died, the teenage Waller (who did not get along with his father) moved in with a friend and became Johnson’s protégé, developing rapidly as a musician. By 1919 when he was fifteen, Waller was stomping off hot solos on a pipe organ at the Lincoln Theatre, playing for silent movies.
Fats became one of the stars of Harlem rent parties in the 1920s, playing alongside James P. Johnson and Willie “the Lion” Smith. He was busy on several other levels during the decade, making twenty piano rolls, cutting his first solo records in 1922, recording pipe organ solos and with combos, accompanying many of the classic blues singers, and writing music. His first composition was 1918’s “Squeeze Me” and he collaborated with lyricist Andy Razaf in the late 1920s shows Keep Shufflin’, Hot Chocolates and Load Of Coal.
Handful Of Fats opens with a pair of classic Waller piano solos from 1929. Handful Of Keys gives listeners a perfect example of Fats’ striding (on the beat his left hand “strides” between low bass notes and higher chords) and his ability to improvise melodically at a rapid tempo. Ain’t Misbehavin’, which had initially been recorded by Louis Armstrong thirteen days earlier, is (along with “Honeysuckle Rose”) one of the two most famous Waller originals. Fats lets the melody speak for itself on this early version.
Other than during the obscure “Red Hot Dan,” Waller did not sing on records until 1931. On I’m Crazy About My Baby, Fats makes one wonder why he waited so long. His phrasing is attractive as is his obvious sense of humour, and his vocalising never causes his playing to lose its power.
After playing with the bands of Otto Hardwick and Elmer Snowden during 1931-32, visiting France and England and beginning his long stint on the radio as host and star of Fats Waller’s Rhythm Club, Waller really began to emerge as a show business personality in 1934 when he signed with the Victor label. During the next eight years, he recorded 282 selections (not counting alternate takes, solo piano features and a few sessions with big bands) with his “Rhythm,” a two-horn sextet that often featured trumpeter Herman Autrey, Gene Sedric on tenor and clarinet and guitarist Al Casey plus a variety of bassists and drummers. These often-rambunctious performances put an emphasis on Waller’s vocals and no-holds-barred humour but always included spots for his stride piano. Fats displayed the ability to satirize weak and clichéd songs in hilarious fashion, making fun of and ripping into their lyrics. Music publishers were happy because their turkey tunes would otherwise probably never have been recorded, and fans were delighted at the outrageous nature of some of the recordings. Among the more bizarre tunes that Waller was saddled with during this era were “Us On A Bus,” “My Window Faces The South,” “Why Hawaiians Sing Aloha,” “I Love To Whistle,” “Little Curly Hair In A High Chair,” “You’re A Square From Delaware,” “Eep, Ipe, Wanna Piece Of Pie,” “My Mommie Sent Me To The Store,” “I’m Gonna Salt Away Some Sugar” and “Abercrombie Had A Zombie.”
Fortunately Waller also had opportunities to record some more enduring tunes (such as the ones on this definitive sampler) including many of his own compositions. His Viper’s Drag is a memorable piano piece that caught on as a standard among later generations of swing and stride pianists. Twelfth Street Rag has Waller and his Rhythm digging into the dixieland standard, tearing it apart in places and swinging hard. Much more sober but still quite infectious are Waller’s solo piano versions of his own Keepin’ Out Of Mischief Now and Tea For Two.
By the time Waller recorded his hit The Joint Is Jumpin’ in the fall of 1937, Fats was one of the most famous black performers in music, ranking at the top with Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Two years earlier he had appeared in memorable scenes in the films Hooray For Love and King Of Burlesque, stealing the show in both cases. He was a fixture on radio, his Rhythm was recording steadily and many of his songs were being played nightly by the big swing bands. One song that could not be effectively duplicated by other groups was The Joint Is Jumpin’, the ultimate musical depiction of a wild party.
Hoagy Carmichael’s Two Sleepy People is played colourfully and almost seriously by Waller and his Rhythm. There is no attempt at being straightforward during an absolutely crazy and quite catchy rendition of Hold Tight. After touring Europe in 1938 and visiting England in 1939, Waller returned to the U.S. on the eve of World War II to record Honey Hush with his Rhythm. His hits continued with the recording of Your Feet’s Too Big and he had the opportunity to record his own Squeeze Me and a jam version of the already ancient standard Darktown Strutter’s Ball.
On 13 May 1941, Waller recorded his final solo piano features for the Victor label; four of the five are included on this set. Waller performs a definitive version of Honeysuckle Rose (hinting at a few classical composers along the way), a pair of famous Hoagy Carmichael songs (Georgia On My Mind and Rockin’ Chair) plus a James P. Johnson classic (Carolina Shout) that always served as a challenge for pianists of the 1920s and ’30s.
Waller led an occasional big band on tours. His orchestra is heard on the last two numbers of this set: his pioneering jazz waltz The Jitterbug Waltz (which has Fats on organ) and the joyful Come And Get It. Although he broke up his Rhythm in 1942, Waller remained quite active, writing the music for the show Early To Bed and appearing in a great nightclub scene in the 1943 movie Stormy Weather.
But the years of overeating and overdrinking finally caught up with him. While on a cross-country train trip on his way back to New York, Fats Waller died of pneumonia in Kansas City on 14 December 1943, passing away at the height of his fame. He had packed a great deal of living, music and fun into his 39 years.
– author of 8 jazz books including Swing, Jazz On Record 1917-76, Classic Jazz and Trumpet Kings
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