Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller (May 21, 1904 – December 15, 1943) was an influential American jazz pianist, organist, composer, singer, and comedic entertainer, whose innovations to the Harlem stride style laid the groundwork for modern jazz piano, and whose best-known compositions, “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and “Honeysuckle Rose”, were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame posthumously, in 1984 and 1999.
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.
Waller’s first piano solos (“Muscle Shoals Blues” and “Birmingham Blues”) were recorded in October 1922 when he was 18 years old.
Standards alternatively and sometimes controversially attributed to Waller include “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby”.
Biographer Barry Singer conjectured that this jazz classic was written by Waller and lyricist Andy Razaf, and provides a description of the sale given by Waller to the NY Post in 1929—for $500, to a white songwriter, ultimately for use in a financially successful show (consistent with Jimmy McHugh’s contributions first to Harry Delmar’s Revels, 1927, and then to Blackbirds, 1928).
He further supports the conjecture, noting that early handwritten manuscripts in the Dana Library Institute of Jazz Studies of “Spreadin’ Rhythm Around” (Jimmy McHugh ©1935) are in Waller’s hand; anecdotally, there is an account that when near death from cancer in the early 1970s, Razaf whispered the favorite of all his lyrics as being the chorus of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”.
Jazz historian P.S. Machlin comments that the Singer conjecture has “considerable [historical] justification”.
Waller’s son Maurice wrote in his 1977 biography of his father that Waller had once complained on hearing the song, and came from upstairs to admonish him never to play it in his hearing because he’d had to sell it when he needed money.
Maurice Waller’s biography similarly notes his father’s objections to hearing “On the Sunny Side of the Street” playing on the radio.
Waller recorded “I Can’t Give You…” in 1938, playing the tune but making fun of the lyrics; the recording was with Adelaide Hall who had introduced the song to the world at Les Ambassadeurs Club in New York in 1928.
In 1931, he toured Paris and after his return to New York, he formed his small combo ‘Falls Waller and His Rhythm’. He also performed for radio broadcasts and starred in movies.
In the middle of 1930’s, he frequently performed on west coast and returned to Europe in 1938 to have a tour of British Isles.
For one more time, he performed at the Carnegie Hall before touring United States extensively for the rest of his life. In the middle of 1930’s, he also worked on Les Hite’s band, which was Frank Sebastian’s New Cotton Club.
He starred in two films in 1935 — ‘Hooray for Love’ and ‘King of Burlesque’.
Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s Fats was a star of radio and nightclubs, and toured Europe.
He unexpectedly died on board a train near Kansas City, Missouri of pneumonia in 1943.