Though you may not know him by name, you’ve definitely heard a song by Fats Waller. In addition to being a great organist and stride pianist, Waller was the most prolific composer of his time. Though he died too young, at the age of 39 in 1943, Waller accomplished so much in his short life. His stride style of playing set the scene for the swing craze of the ‘40s.
He was born Thomas Wright Waller on May 21, 1904 in Harlem, New York, right on the cusp of the Harlem Renaissance, when jazz would flourish. The son of a preacher, he played the reed organ during his father’s sermons. He eventually parlayed this into a gig as the resident organist at Harlem’s Lincoln Theatre. In the early ‘20s, he met James P. Johnson, a stride pianist who would become a great mentor to Waller, and who encouraged him to compose his own songs. This led to Waller’s first published song, “Got to Cool My Doggies Now,” written in 1922. Later that year, he also made his recording debut -- “Muscle Shoals Blues,” recorded as a soloist for Okeh records.
Though he spent much of his early career playing as an accompanist for other jazz and blues musicians, he had been recognized for his compositional skills by the early ‘20s. In fact, Waller would come to be known as a great composer for other musicians. It all started in 1923, when he collaborated with Clarence Williams to record “Wild Cat Blues.” From there on, his fame slowly grew. He became a featured soloist for the radio station WHN, and ran the shows Fats Waller's Rhythm Club and Moon River for much of the rest of his career.
Waller’s big break came in 1927, when he recorded “Whiteman Stomp” with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. The Fletcher Henderson Orchestra was the biggest jazz group of the time, and Waller’s collaboration with them led to an invitation to play Carnegie Hall in 1928. (Henderson would continue to play Waller compositions throughout the ‘20s, including “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Crazy ‘Bout My Baby.”)
The late ‘20s also saw some of Waller’s most influential stride compositions, such as “Smashing Thirds” and “Valentine Stomp.” In 1934, he finally formed his own band, Fats Waller and His Rhythm, who he would record with for the rest of his life. He also began touring, leading to a famous incident in Chicago where he was forced to play a late-night concert for Al Capone.
By the mid-’30s, Waller was in high demand all over the world. He played at the newly opened West Coast Cotton Club in L.A. in 1935. He and His Rhythm cut their first full-length record, I Got Rhythm, featuring an innovative piano-playing contest between him and his fellow bandmates later that year. In 1938, they began a European tour, during which he wrote White Chapel, his longest composition that hinted toward a more classical style. In 1943, he returned to the West Coast once again to film the hit movie Stormy Weather with Lena Horne.
Such a grueling schedule took its toll on Waller, and he contracted pneumonia in late 1943. He died on December 15. It’s estimated that Waller wrote and copyrighted over 400 songs over the course of his career, many of which were performed by the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, Louis Armstrong, and other jazz players who would become the greatest musicians of their time. Though his life and career were short, Fats Waller was a great friend and a great influence to jazz musicians across the world, and his compositions would become swing and early-jazz standards in the years that followed.