The great American poet and lyricist Andy Razaf described his friend and collaborator Fats Waller as, “the soul of melody… a man who made the piano sing… both big in body and in mind… known for his generosity… a bubbling bundle of joy.” Although he only lived to the young age of 39, the pivotal jazz pianist and composer Fats Waller had a truly remarkable career. He penned over 400 songs, including the first anti-racism and protest song in the black community. As a Prince Hall Freemason, Brother Waller represented the fraternity with integrity, creativity, and an industrious work ethic.
A Piano Prodigy
Fats Waller was born to Adeline Locket Waller, a musician, and Reverend Edward Martin Waller, in New York City on May 21, 1904. He was the 7th of 11 children and quickly adopted his mother’s love for music. She gave him lessons from a young age, and young Fats began playing the piano when he was a mere 6 years old. Within a few years, at the age of 10, he began playing the organ for his father’s church. His mother paid for Fats to attend additional music lessons by working in a grocery store and sent him to DeWitt Clinton High School. He spent one semester at school before leaving to work as an organist at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem, despite protestations from his father. Only 15 years old, Waller earned $32 a week and composed his first tune within a year, becoming the prize pupil and friend of pianist James P. Johnson.
The Prolific Composer
The 1920s were a whirlwind for the young pianist who married Edith Hatchett in 1920. The following year the couple welcomed their first son, Thomas Waller Jr. The family was together for two years before Hatchett divorced Waller in 1923. In 1926, he married Anita Rutherford, and they soon had two boys, Maurice Thomas Waller, born on September 10, 1927, and Ronald Waller the following year.
Waller completed his first recordings, “Muscle Shoals Blues” and “Birmingham Blues,” in October 1922 for Okeh Records, and two years later, he published his first original composition, “Squeeze Me.” “Squeeze Me” was a significant achievement for Waller and established him as a serious, bona fide songwriter amidst a blossoming jazz scene in New York City.
On the back of his newfound success, Fats took his skills and compositions beyond the Lincoln Theatre, playing to audiences in Philadelphia and Chicago. As he honed his craft, the young pianist collaborated with the other great Harlem talents, performing at house parties and ingratiating audiences with his charming personality.
One famous story regarding one of these parties occurred in 1926 after Waller completed a performance in Chicago. On this day, as he left the venue, several men forced him into a car and drove him to the Hawthorne Inn, an establishment owned by the infamous mobster Al Capone. At the insistence of his captors, Waller ventured inside the inn and into a party. The story tells that a gun was put to Waller’s back, and he was urged towards a piano. Upon realizing he was brought to the party as a surprise performer for Capone’s birthday, Fats’ terror faded, and he began to play.
In the back half of the 1920s, Waller produced what became some of his biggest hits, including 1927’s “Keep Shufflin.'” From here, he teamed up with the great lyricist Andy Razaf, forming a transcendent partnership that bore hit numbers such as “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, “Honeysuckle Rose,” and “(What Did I Do to be So) Black and Blue.”
Fats hits Broadway
As the 1930s dawned, it was clear that Waller was meant for the limelight, and he soon took to the radio, performing on the New York-based shows, “Paramount on Parade” and “Radio Roundup.” Leaning into his impeccable composition skills, he partnered with lyricist Andy Razaf, creating and sometimes performing in several successful Broadway musicals. Waller exuded charisma which earned him a following but soon became renowned for his comedic persona, a reputation he would grow to resent.
Beginning in 1932, he secured his own show in Cincinnati, the “Fats Waller’s Rhythm Club.” Fats’ show ran for several years before he made his homecoming to New York in 1934, kicking off the radio program, “Rhythm Club” and forming his band: the Fats Waller and His Rhythm. Building off the success of his radio shows and magnetic performances, Waller was invited to Hollywood, where he appeared in two Hollywood films, Hooray for Love! and King of Burlesque.
Before long, despite his growing fame, he came to resent the irreverent persona for which he became known. Fats felt he demanded more respect as an artist, and he put his talent to the test, traveling to England in 1938, where he recorded the landmark “London Suite.” He made the most of his time in Britain, recording tracks for EMI at the famous Abbey Road Studios.
That year also saw Fats among the first African Americans to purchase a home in the segregated neighborhood of Addisleigh Park in Queens, New York City. After overcoming litigation in the state court over his housing purchase, many notable African Americans followed Waller’s lead, including jazz greats such as Count Basie (another Freemason), Lena Horne, and Ella Fitzgerald.
By the 1940s, Waller was nearly 25 years into a prodigious career despite being younger than 40. At the start of 1943, Waller journeyed to Hollywood for the movie Stormy Weather with Lena Horne and Bill Robinson. Upon returning to New York City, Fats continued his record of breaking racial barriers by becoming the first African American songwriter to compose a hit Broadway musical that was seen by a primarily white audience. He had been commissioned that year by producer Richard Kollmar’s hired Waller to write the play Early to Bed, which enjoyed a significant run on Broadway.
Eventually, Waller’s intense schedule caught up with him. Not only had he worked relentlessly for a year, composing hundreds of songs, but he traveled often. Unfortunately, his health declined, and Waller contracted pneumonia while traveling on a train from Los Angeles to Chicago. The great pianist and influential composer passed away on December 15, 1943.
The loss of Fats Waller at such a young age was a profound loss for his community and the music world at large. Over 4,000 people attended his funeral at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.
Although it is known Fats Waller was a Prince Hall Freemason, there is little record of his tenure in the fraternity. Waller, like many great jazz musicians of the time, enjoyed the camaraderie found through the craft. Not long after Fats passed away, a Prince Hall lodge in California was named in his honor, Thomas Waller Lodge No. 49 – which has boasted such members as Nat King Cole.
Fats Waller was a unique talent; not only does he stand out for being among the finest jazz pianists of all, he was a tremendous singer and composer with a fiercely funny and naturally entertaining flare that was all his own.