Biography of Fats Waller, Jazz Artist

Jazz Pianist Fats Waller
Fats Waller, jazz pianist, at the organ. Undated photograph.

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A jazz pianist, performer, and composer, Fats Waller was born on May 21, 1904, in New York City. He achieved extraordinary fame as a jazz artist when the music form was still fledgling. He used comedy to appeal to the masses, writing hit songs such as "Ain’t Misbehavin'" and appearing in the 1943 film "Stormy Weather." By pairing his jazz music with a touch of slapstick, Waller became a household name. 

Fast Facts: Fats Waller

  • Full Name: Thomas Wright Waller
  • Occupation: Jazz singer, songwriter, pianist, comedian 
  • Born: May 21, 1904 in New York City
  • Died: December 15, 1943, in Kansas City, Missouri
  • Parents: The Rev. Edward Martin Waller and Adeline Locket Waller 
  • Spouses: Edith Hatch, Anita Rutherford 
  • Children: Thomas Waller Jr., Maurice Thomas Waller, Ronald Waller 
  • Key Accomplishments: Wrote two Grammy Hall of Fame songs: "Ain’t Misbehavin'" and "Honeysuckle Rose."
  • Famous Quote: "Jazz isn't what you do; it's how you do it."

Early Years

Fats Waller was born to the Rev. Edward Martin Waller, a trucker and pastor at Abyssinian Baptist Church, and Adeline Locket Waller, a musician. As a small boy, Waller already showed signs of promise as a musician, learning to play piano at age six. He’d go on to learn a number of other instruments, including the violin, reed organ, and string bass. Waller’s interest in music has, in part, been attributed to his mother, a church organ player and singer who introduced him to classical music. In addition, his grandfather, Adolph Waller, was a well-known Virginia violinist. 

As Waller grew up, he became interested in jazz music, which his pastor father disapproved of, characterizing the art form as "music from the Devil's workshop." Having played the harmonium in church at age 10, Waller also took to playing piano for his school band. He was so focused on music that he even worked in a grocery store after school to pay for lessons. By the time he entered DeWitt Clinton High School, it was clear that jazz was his destiny.

Although his father wanted him to follow in his footsteps and become a clergyman, Waller quit school in his mid-teens to become a professional organist, landing a steady gig at Harlem’s Lincoln Theatre. His mother’s death from a diabetes-related stroke in 1920 likely made it clear to Waller how he wanted to spend his life.

Fats Waller at CBS
American jazz musician Fats Waller smiles in front of a CBS radio microphone circa 1935. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Waller even found musical mentors, residing in the home of pianist Russell B.T. Brooks and becoming acquainted with James P. Johnson, known for innovating jazz piano’s stride sound, which took off on the East Coast and emphasized both improvisation and a variety of tempos. 

"Concentrate on the melody," Waller said of the stride sound. "If it's good, you don't have to shoot it out of a cannon. Jimmie Johnson taught me that. You got to hang onto the melody and never let it get boresome."

His mother’s death was not the only reason 1920 marked a turning point for Waller. That year, he married his first wife, Edith Hatch. The couple welcomed son Thomas Waller Jr. the following year. 

Jazz Career

By 1922, Waller began recording his first Okeh Records tracks, including "Muscle Shoals Blues" and "Birmingham Blues." As his professional life took off, his personal life experienced a setback when his wife divorced him in 1923. In 1924, the young musician’s first composition, "Squeeze Me," made its debut. Two years later, Waller married his second wife, Anita Rutherford, with whom he’d have sons Maurice Thomas Waller, born in 1927, and Ronald Waller, born in 1928.

Fats Waller
Pianist Fats Waller (front Center) poses with Les Hite (front in white) and his orchestra along with club owner Frank Sebastian and The Creole Dancing Revue at Frank Sebastian's New Cotton Club circa 1935 in Culver City, California. Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

During this time, Waller wrote and performed for revues, including 1927’s "Keep Shufflin.'" He also forged a fruitful partnership with Andy Razaf, writing his hits "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Ain’t Misbehavin'" with him. As the leader of Fats Waller and His Buddies, he recorded the tracks "The Minor Drag" and "Harlem Fuss," and as a solo artist, he recorded "Handful of Keys" and "Valentine Stomp." 

Waller’s fame grew as he made his foray into radio, appearing on the New York City programs "Paramount on Parade" and "Radio Roundup" from 1930 to 1931. He then spent three years as a performer on the Cincinnati radio show "Fats Waller's Rhythm Club," coming back to New York in 1934 to appear as a regular on the"Rhythm Club" radio show. That year, he also launched the band Fats Waller and His Rhythm sextet, which went on to record hundreds of tracks, combining jazz with slapstick comedy.

Waller managed to parlay his radio career into a film career, appearing in the movies "Hooray for Love!" and "King of Burlesque," both of which debuted in 1935. In radio and film, alike, he used slapstick comedy for laughs, but he grew tired of being typecast. He was serious about his craft and wanted his fans to view him in the same way. In 1938, he recorded the complex composition "London Suite" in an effort to change public perception about his artistry. 

Death and Legacy

In the late 1940s, Waller traveled heavily, making cross-country trips from the East Coast to the West Coast for live performances and acting roles. In 1943, he headed to Los Angeles to appear in the film "Stormy Weather," starring Lena Horne, Bill Robinson, and the Nicholas Brothers. That year, he also composed the music for the Broadway show "Early to Bed," which featured a mostly white cast. Rarely, if ever, had an African American been hired to compose a white musical. 

Poster for 'Stormy Weather'
Title lobby card from the movie 'Stormy Weather' (20th Century Fox).  John D. Kisch / Getty Images

Waller took advantage of the many opportunities that came his way, but his frenzied schedule and long-time alcohol abuse began to affect his health. In late 1943, when he performed at a club called the Zanzibar Room in Santa Monica, California, he began to display symptoms of illness. After the gig, he boarded a New York-bound train to return home, but his health took a turn for the worst as he approached the Kansas City, Missouri, area. On December 15, 1943, the jazz legend died from bronchial pneumonia at the age of 39. 

The politician, civil rights activist, and pastor Adam Clayton Powell Jr. eulogized Waller before an audience of more than 4,200 people in Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. Waller’s ashes were later scattered over Harlem. 

Well after his death, the music of Fats Waller continues to live on, with two of his recordings—"Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Honeysuckle Rose"—inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1984 and 1999, respectively. Waller has won a number of posthumous honors as well, including inductions into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970, the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1989, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993. Moreover, the 1978 Broadway Musical “Ain't Misbehavin'” featured a number of Waller’s hits and opened again on Broadway a decade later after its original run of more than 1,600 performances. 

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