Fats Waller, the Derby-hatted mountain of jollity is seated at the keyboard and spreading good cheer in all directions. His 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 complementing the brilliance of the musical performance, creating that unique sound that was Fats Waller.
“It’s allowed me to more than re-live the past. I actually play duets along with Fats Waller in my own home!” Fred Mitchell, Dorset
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.