Everybody knows Fats Waller, the Derby-hatted mountain of jollity seated at the keyboard and spreading good cheer in all directions. And yet it was not until the final decade of his life that this particular Fats Waller was born. The other one - the pianist, composer and songwriter - had already been in existence for about fifteen years before that.
Born in 1904, by the age of twenty he was what we would nowadays call a session musician, working in radio and recording studios and theatres. In 1927, along with James P. Johnson, he wrote tunes for the show 'Keep Shufflin' and two years later the score of the Broadway hit 'Hot Chocolates'. Among the three hundred-odd tunes he composed, many with lyrics by his friend Andy Razaf, are some of the best-loved melodies in the American songbook.
The metamorphosis into popular entertainer is said to have occurred at a party given by George Gershwin, a great lover of Harlem's piano, a style characterised by an insistent 'oom-pah' left hand pattern. Having delighted and astonished the company with his virtuosity, and partaken of the liberal hospitality, Fats began singing and clowning around. Among those present was an executive of Victor Records, who recognised a born entertainer when he heard one and instantly fixed up for Fats to record some of his party pieces.
This was in May 1934. Between that date and his death, just over nine and a half years later, on 15 December 1943, Fats recorded several hundred vocal numbers for Victor and became loved around the world as a kind of jovial, mischievous genie. The twenty-five numbers in this collection all date from that last decade, and most of them came out under the heading of 'Fats Waller and his Rhythm'. The Rhythm was the little group of around half a dozen musicians who worked with him regularly and, for my money, it is one of the most underrated bands in the entire history of jazz.
Just listen to the very first piece, Everybody Loves My Baby, which starts off bursting with high spirits and gets hotter and hotter as first the guitar and then trumpet and clarinet join in. It all sounds gloriously off-the-cuff, and indeed this was one of seven numbers recorded at a single session, so there would not have been much time for reflection. Cheatin' On Me comes from another session which produced seven finished takes. Fats' method was to play through the song at the piano, to show everybody how it went, decide on who was to play solo or backing parts, run through it once and, provided there were no disasters, record it and move on to the next. Someone had probably left a vibraphone in the studio, which would account for the opening chimes.
Fats is famous for taking harmless sentimental songs and reducing them to rubble. He did not always do this, and he recorded many perfectly straightforward renditions. But once he got started on the silly voices and wisecracks there was no going back. He simply could not help it. It's A Sin To Tell A Lie starts out quite innocuously, until he reaches the word 'lie' which he delivers in an exaggerated pulpit voice, and after that it is genial lunacy all the way. But after the vocal and Gene Sedric's excellent clarinet solo, just listen to the piano, those twinkling right hand notes over the striding left. That is seriously brilliant playing. The same applies to the piano on When Somebody Thinks You're Wonderful, especially the opening chorus, with Sedric's clarinet crooning along in his best mock-genteel manner. This record was one of Fats' early successes and has probably never been completely out of print since 1935. You're Gonna Be Sorry, on the other hand, is one of the many overlooked gems in the Waller oeuvre. This is also true of Twenty-Four Robbers, Stop Pretending, Come Down To Earth My Angel, Old Grand Dad and a few others in this collection. Since he averaged fifty 78 rpm releases a year it is hardly surprising that some disappeared from view quite quickly. It is good to have them back in circulation again.
The Yacht Club was a 52nd Street nightclub with no known maritime connections. Fats and the Rhythm were great favourites there, and Yacht Club Swing was the tune they played to open and close each set. This spirited version of The Sheik Of Araby, apart from its opening vocal verse, is largely an instrumental showcase, featuring a superb extended clarinet solo by Sedric, and tight, muted trumpet by Hamilton.
James P. Johnson's Carolina Shout was the test-piece for all aspiring stride pianists. Fats learned to play it as a boy, with the aid of a pianola, fitting his fingers into the keys as they bobbed up and down. Later, Johnson became his teacher, and later still his partner in composition. Fats ultimately surpassed his teacher, and his version of Carolina Shout is looser and more swinging than Johnson's own. The other piano solo, African Ripples, is an ambitious composition by Fats, with dramatic tempo changes and expressive effects. This is the type of work that he would probably have liked to be remembered for.
Smoke Dreams of You, recorded in 1939 during Fats' second visit to Britain, finds him playing the pipe organ. He was very fond of this instrument, although much of his work on it is not to modern tastes. Another organ piece is Jitterbug Waltz, a charming melody which moves with a kind of elephantine grace. Fats is accompanied here by his short-lived big band.
I Wish I Were Twins comes from the very first session under the name of 'Fats Waller and his Rhythm' It was a new song in 1934 and if it had not been for Fats' jovial demolition job would probably have sunk into instant and well deserved obscurity. It is difficult to believe that it took the efforts of two men to compose the lyric, and even more difficult to believe that one of them was the twenty-four year old Frank Loesser. From the following year comes Got A Brand New Suit, notable among other things for a superb full-chord guitar solo by the nineteen year old Al Casey. He began playing with Fats as a schoolboy and remained a member of the Rhythm almost without interruption until Fats' death.
Gene & Honeybear's Sedric is an almost permanent presence on these tracks. His versatile clarinet and tenor saxophone were an indispensable part of the Rhythm. Who knows where Fats got the idea of featuring him on the old jazz standard Clarinet Marmalade? It was a happy thought, at any rate, and shows off Honeybear's technique to great advantage. It also proves that Fats could make the organ swing when he wanted to. Honeybear plays a typical leathery-toned tenor solo on Don't Let It Bother You, another attractive, forgotten tune.
This recording of Blue, Turning Grey Over You, a classic Waller-Razaf song, sounds like a jam session. There is no worked-out routine and, at nearly four and a half minutes, the performance would have been too long to fit onto a normal ten-inch 78rpm disc. There is some particularly tasty playing here by Herman Autrey, who worked a kind of trumpeters' job-share in the Rhythm with Hamilton.
Contrary to popular belief, Fats did not write My Very Good Friend The Milkman or Your Feet's Too Big, although they were enormous hits for him and he made them his own. The central piano solo in Milkman provides a superb example of Fat's mature style, full of humour and characteristically bravura touches, and another beauty lies embedded among the hokum of The Curse Of An Aching Heart. There was something about very sentimental songs that incited Fats to mischief, and this is a prime example.
But the record in which Fats and the Rhythm raise mayhem and disorderliness to a truly sublime level is Shortnin's Bread, in particular the last chorus, with Hamilton and Sedric skidding wildly round the curve into the final straight and Fats bawling encouragement. Those few brief moments explode with the pure, mad, orgiastic joy that jazz was able to sum up in the days of its innocence.
The final selection, a version of Fats' most famous composition, Ain't Misbehavin', comes from the soundtrack of the 1943 film 'Stormy Weather', starring Lena Horne. This is not the regular Rhythm, but a group formed specially from the ranks of West Coast jazz musicians. This is the band seen in the film, including Benny Carter on trumpet (instead of his more customary alto saxophone) and Louis Armstrong's boyhood friend Zutty Singleton on drums. Fats scored a great success with his small speaking part and would almost certainly have gone on to bigger things had he lived. As it turned out, this was almost the last session he recorded.
Fats' ability to transform even the most trite popular song into gold led to hundreds of classic recordings, his larger-than-life character and irrepressible humour bursting through, perfectly complimenting the brilliance of the musical performance, creating that unique sound that was Fats Waller.
DAVE GELLY 1995