A Conversation with Guitarist Al Casey

Fats’ ‘Rhythm’ Sideman Remembers Waller, Recording in the 1930s, and Going Electric

I was lucky enough to play with Al Casey, the legendary Fats Waller guitarist, who was a good friend. Below is transcript of my interview with him recorded two years before his death in 2005. From his mid-teens on, Al had an interesting career and an individual way of playing rhythm guitar. Surprisingly, Fats Waller heard him one afternoon in 1933, and hired him immediately; one year later, he played on Fats’ first Victor recording. After that Casey appeared on countless Waller discs.

Working with Fats was a challenge because the stride jazz pianist sometimes used passing chords that strayed from a song’s harmonic road map, or would play chords as written during the first chorus and then put in substitutions later on. Another hurdle: the band often had to record new or obscure tunes thrust upon it for the first time at the outset of a recording session.

Explore Upbeat Records

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1915, Casey moved to New York CIty with relatives of Fats Waller and attended DeWitt Clinton High School, as had Waller himself a decade earlier. Al was a child prodigy, playing violin first before switching to ukulele, then to guitar. After Waller’s death in 1943 he led his own trio, and in 1944 and 1945 was named the instrument’s top player in Esquire magazine’s annual jazz poll. He also worked with Louis Armstrong and with Teddy Wilson’s big band, Chu Berry, Coleman Hawkins, Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday, and Art Tatum. From 1957 on, he was in King Curtis’ R&B band. Later, in the 1970s, he did sessions with Helen Humes, Jay McShann and the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band.

In a 1940 piece on Al by Leonard Feather we learn that he used a “medium pick,” that he placed a B string in the 1st-string position, for more power, and used that string the most. “He mixes single string solos with subtle chordal effects . . . [and] has a beautiful way to ad lib indefinitely.” His many full solos, featured on so many Waller records, amounted to real compositions of his own.” At my request, the fine jazz guitarists Howard Alden and Nick Rossi kindly sent me these astute comments about Al:

Howard Alden [A legend performing half a century with other greats, including George Van Epps]: Al Casey had a relaxed, unpretentious and swinging way of playing chordal solos and riffs on the acoustic guitar, using mostly the highest four strings. His rhythm guitar playing in the ensemble similarly had a happy looseness. It was the perfect complement to Fats Waller’s precise and articulate stride on the piano, reminding me at times of a sax section quietly riffing behind a soloist to keep things moving along.

Listen to Angela Verbrugge: Love for Connoisseurs

Nick Rossi [Fine San Francisco based guitarist and historian]: Al was a contemporary of Charlie Christian and Oscar Moore, the younger guitarists of the Swing Era. It’s remarkable that recordings show his development from age 18 to Swing, thanks to the Victor Waller sessions. As a rhythm man, he had his own beat, much looser than John Trueheart, Lawrence Lucie, or Freddie Green, though not as loose as Bernard Addison. During the 1930s, Casey often favored a long-short stroke, giving the down beats a little more time, while snapping or choking the up beats, pushing the rhythm line forward slightly. Compare this to the evenly rolled out quarter notes of Freddie Green or the on-the-beat drive of Allan Reuss, who was a contemporary of Casey. Conversely, his playing was even on Teddy Wilson orchestra recordings of the late 1930s (when you can hear him!). [This shows his ability to adapt to the band he was performing with.]

Eddie Barefield and Al Casey at New York’s Café Society between 1946 and 1948. (photograph by William P. Gottlieb; courtesy Library of Congress)

His obligato playing is unique, mixing single-string notes with double-stops and chords, maybe influenced by Waller. Early on, his solos used simple three and four note chords, though we can hear his harmonic sense develop over the decade. It’s also chord soloing with a emphasis on chromaticism as compared to players from the George Van Eps school.

Due to the popularity of so many Waller records, Casey’s playing had a big impact on other players at the time, showing how the guitar worked in a small combo during the Swing Era. In the interview below, Al admits being very affected by Charlie Christian in 1939-1940, after Waller’s death,and changed his technique drastically in response to Christian.

What follows is the transcript of my 2002 interview with Al in his NYC West Side apartment, recorded three years before his death:

Mike Lipskin: How did you first get interested in music?

Al Casey: I was adopted, put with a musical family. Within that family they had a group called The Southern Singers, three uncles and an aunt. They came to Kentucky to get a break and worked in radio for a while, and they were very good. I used to listen to them all the time, see them rehearse. They had a son who was musically inclined, too, and he and I used to play on piano in F#. We called that playing “by head,” meaning by ear. The son was younger than me, but he knew it [music]. I could play in F#, but I couldn’t do that now. We’d get together and do things. There were blind musicians, on the street corners, They played the blues.. . . I loved to hear them.

I was just starting the change years. and my people bought me a violin. But the sound, you know, the screechI couldn’t stand that, so then I picked up the ukulele, to impress the girls. Uke is easier to learn than guitar, but it depends on how you want to play it. I played simple songs of the day, Swing songs like “Nagasaki.” This was before “Honeysuckle Rose.” I learned some of them from records. After that this cousin of mine picked up the guitar by ear.

If you were born in 1915, that means you were thirteen or older when you played “Nagasaki.” [“Nagasaki” was written in 1928 by Harry Warren and Mort Dixon.]

What about blues, the blues progression?

That’s the first thing I learned. It’s a three-chord thing, though you can play modern chords on it, too. But I didn’t know how.

The Southern Singers worked with Fats in Cincinnati, on WLW radio—a station with a signal so powerful, you could even pick it up here—on a program called “Moon River,” which shows they weren’t bad at all. After Fats moved to New York and was on WJZ, the quartet followed him. They liked me, and took me to Fats’ house one day. They said, “He plays guitar,” and Fats said “Well, bring him back again and have him bring his guitar, let me hear him.” And it happened—I just played little blues things, by ear, and he said, “Would you like to make a recording date?”

That was in 1933. The next year, 1934, I recorded with him on his first ensemble date for RCA Victor, and it seemed to work. But I was just a kid, and scared to death.”

Do you remember what Fats was like when you first met him?

He was just a nice cat. Lets put it this way, he was like a second father.

Do you remember people like Slick Jones, (drums) Gene Sedric, (reeds) and Cedric Wallace, bass? [Jones, Sedric, and Wallace were sidemen on the first Victor session and hundreds thereafter.]

Sure. Gene Sedric was a friend. Herman Autrey was a great guy, a great trumpet player with his own style. He played with bands in the Midwest and down South. John Hamilton, who took his place, was my drinking buddy. He had a different sound than Herman, a louder sound, but it worked.

The band was not in the movies with Fats?

We couldn’t, it was the union law. When he went to California he had to use California musicians. When he went to England we couldn’t go there either, because of the union thing.

How did you learn the tunes, to play the right chords with them?

Frankly, I did it by ear. But then Fats made me go to music school. And while I was going to school we recorded again.

What did you learn in the school?

Reading chords, playing some classical stuff and jazz. That’s what they taught me, which was great. This was in the mid ’30s. And I learned a little harmony and theory.

I was still in high school, but I was doing records with Fats off and on.

Did he use other guitar players?

There were other guitar players there before me, John Smith was one.

Slick [Slick Jones, drummer] and them worked with all the guys.

Do you remember how he would choose tunes at the sessions?

It was the easiest thing. He had a system. During that time the music publishers used to give you all these music sheets. We’d go to a recording session, and he’d have a stack like this [moves hands to show approximately 20 song sheets supplied by the “A&R man,” the session director]. He would look at the sheet music of the songs, comment “I can do something with this . . . I can’t do anything with that. . . .” [This contradicts the assumption of some jazz commentators, who’ve assumed Fats was “forced” to play songs he didn’t want to.]

Albert Casey with Thomas “Fats” Waller. (courtesy Mike Lipskin)

Didn’t you tell me that sometimes that would be the first time he’d seen a song?

That’s what I’m talking about. He was a good musician! He’d play it down for us and then he’d say, “Let’s do it.”

Did they ever push him to do a tune he did not want to record?

Rarely. They gave us all kind of pop tunes; and and the ones that he didn’t like, made it. Little pop tune, stupid ass tunes. [Before Rock and singer-songwriters, music publishers were the ones promoted recordings of songs they owned. Many jazz and pop artists cut material presented to them by publishers, because they knew if one of the pushed songs became a hit, such would be a boost to their career.]

He’d pick out my part, then the tenor part—he’d read us the parts. Sometimes he knew them before he got there [meaning songs other than the ones supplied by the music director or the A&R man].

Did that scare you?

Are you kidding? At that time I wasn’t playing solos, only rhythm behind the solos. He’d decide the solos—using Herman [Autrey] and Gene Honey Bear would probably take the first chorus and Herman would take the last, then on other songs it would be the other way around. He’d try and make an ending, and sing behind them. We never did songs more than three times [takes]. Which would be impossible nowadays.

Would he decide the solos, and then quickly record a take?

Yes.

When you were learning a tune with Fats, would he ever say, “That’s the right chord,” or “That’s a C7” or “an Eb”?

Once in a while. Sometimes, I’d play a chord and he wanted another one, so I learned his way. I can’t do what I want now [meaning certain phrases or chords].

Do you remember any talking from the control room?

Once in a while they would say something. “You’re a little loud, come down a bit.” Not Fats—one of us. “The bass is a little ooh ooh.” Then they’d get it just right.

Did the engineers ever come out and adjust microphones and equipment?

Once in a while. He [Fats] would say, “There’s something missing,” so they’d adjust the mic in the middle, the one for Gene, Herman, and the bass [one mic for all three], maybe move the bass part a little bit or put another [instrument] further away.

They’d play it back one time, and if Fats was satisfied, it was OK. [By the mid-1930s, studios used acetate studio reference discs and masters, which, unlike the earlier wax masters, could be played back immediately after recording. – Ed.]

So Fats really ran the sessions. Not the guy in the control room?

Oh yes, if Fats liked it, that was it. The most important parts were his piano and vocals.

In the recording sessions, did he ever get into arguments with the A&R man?

I never heard him get into an argument. He’d just tell him [the A&R man] what he wanted, and they would try to accommodate him.

You know how many mics they use nowadays?

Too many?

[Back then there was] one in the middle of the band, and he had one by the piano. [A ribbon 44 which could pick up sound on both sides, in this instance Waller’s vocal and piano.] After a while, they started giving me a mic too. And the balance came out fairly well.

[A 1936 engineer’s sketch shows one RCA 44 ribbon mic for Casey and the drummer, and another for the bass, trumpet, and sax. Plus one more 44 for Waller at the piano, which picked up his piano and vocal. Listening to most of the Waller band sides you can hear the engineer dropping the piano/vocal mic fader when the clarinet or guitar was soloing. This is was done not only for better fidelity, but so the piano would not overpower the soloist. Until the end of the 1940s, all recordings were mono on wax or acetate masters, with no ability to edit or mix balance once completed. Contrast this with the era of 4 to 24 track tape, which allowed changing balance between instruments/vocalists, and editing to use better choruses, and overdubbing various parts.]

Some of the songs were not simple, and some had interesting chord progressions. Did you have to rehearse those more?

[Only] maybe once or twice—Fats, the bass player, and myself —so there wouldn’t be any confusion. I was still not doing solos, just rhythm and chords backup. He was so great. One day he’d say, “Try laying out,” and if you listen to those records, you hear that on his solos it’s just him plus bass and drums. And it worked. The happiest days of my life.

What type of guitar did you use in those days?

A Gibson L-7. [According to Nick Rossi, every photograph of Casey taken in the 1930s he’s playing what looks a 16” D’Angelico arch-top; a Gibson L-l5 “copy” made by John D’Angelico, who had a small stringed-instrument shop in Little Italy.]

Did you use heavy strings?

No. They had strings in three sizes, and they weren’t very thick, just thick enough so I could play rhythm. Now it’s gotten messed up with all kinds of different-sized strings.

You had a good powerful sound.

I don’t know what I did. It just came to me.

How many times did you have to re-tune during a session?

Once in a while, ’cause some of the strings slip.

Was that up to you, or did Fats say something?

He might have a couple of times, but I don’t remember—I could hear it myself.

Would he coach you or say, “I’d like you to play this sort of solo.”

No, he never did. For solos you were on your own.

With some of the routines and jokes, would he rehearse beforehand, or did they just come out?

You never knew what he was going to holler out.

I notice that some of the sessions started in the morning. Was that tough for you guys to do a 10 a.m.?

It seemed so at the time, but we had so much fun that once you got there you woke up pretty quickly.

You started off with sauce in the morning?

I never wanted to. That’s when I learned how to drink.

During that time, did you work with anybody else?

Al Casey in later years. (photo by Kathy Gardner; courtesy Herb Gardner via Facebook

After I’d been with him a few years I had an offer to go with Teddy Wilson, who was forming a big band. And I thought, “I’m still beholden to my second father.” So I went back to tell Fats, and Fats says, “Great, go try it.”

I’d been doing outside stuff with Teddy’s [Wilson] small band, and making recordings behind Billie Holiday once in a while. Teddy approached me and said, “I’m forming a big band and I’d like to use you in the rhythm section.” I stayed with Teddy Wilson’s band for over a year, before he broke up again. I enjoyed it, ’cause I learned something new—music, a different kind of music—big band music.

Fats was not upset that you mentioned going with another band?

“But if anything ever happens, come on back to me.” That’s how lucky I’ve been in my life, man. He was the most beautiful man in the world to me. Like I said, he was a second father.

Remember anything about the sessions with Billie Holiday?

I used to love them. They’d do two or three takes.

Was John Hammond at those sessions?

Yes, He did a lot for me and my trio.

I worked with Fats on the road with a big band too, seventeen pieces. Every spring we’d augment the band and play dances down South. Also with a small band. We had long tours [with seven pieces].

[On the road] Fats would be giving me hell all the time about small things. “Don’t do this. . . . leave her alone.”

About women.

And good advice it was too, believe me it was. I was taught well.

Did you take a band bus down there?

I’ll never forget this bus out of New Jersey. Owned by Charlie Nerf. He had all these old broken-down buses. Every spring I loved getting away from home.

Why did you like getting away from home?

I loved the music.

Did the bookers make arrangements for lodging down South, because of segrgation?

A lot of times we had to stay in people’s homes, spread out, with two people here, me here. Kinda rough, but it worked. I don’t like to think about that anymore.

I heard that he gave tunes away to people who were poor. Is that true?

Yes

Sometimes you would see another name on a song as composer.

Yeah, he would let them put their name on a song. You could say he was taken advantage of, which was a shame. He should have been damn near a billionaire when he died—he knew business, but not quite well enough, he was like me in that way.

I’ve heard Andy [Razaf, Waller’s usual lyricist] could write lyrics very quickly.

He and Andy Razaf could write a song in half an hour, believe it or not. As fast as Fats could write a melody he could write words to fit it. They were both geniuses.

I used to hang out with them as a kid. He lived in Harlem, and I lived in Harlem. I used to babysit his two boys.

Did he drink like Fats?

He’d have a taste now and then. He knew so many people, like James P. [James P. Johnson], the Lion [Willie “the Lion” Smith] . . . .

Did you know James P. pretty well?

Yes.

What sort of person was he?

Great. He was an older man than Fats. He drank with Fats, who drank a lot at times but was never out of his head. A lot of people had the wrong perception of Fats. He was a genius all over, he knew the classics. He played classics at home, without reading. He made a semi-classical album in England. It was not released over here until later—it was semi-classical [probably the “London Suite”].

Early on, you started using what could be called modern chords. Where did you pick those up?

Listening to other people. I wanted to keep up with the times, something like that. I worked on the street after he died, and heard these bop changes—I’m still trying to learn them! I didn’t know much about playing single-string notes until I left Fats.

Did you get that idea from Charlie Christian?

Christian and a few other people. Teddy Bunn with his thumb, which is a different style. Right now I play a lot of background chords with my thumb. It’s one of those things where you say “You never learn it all”—you listen, you take things from this one and this one, and then do it your way. Maybe it will work—you hope.

When did you first start using amplifiers?

That’s another story. I recorded with Fats using acoustic, and they used to give me a mic. We played a theater in Chicago—uptown. One day he said, “You won’t be heard with the big band.” We went to a big store, and he bought me a Gibson amp. I’ve been using that thing ever since, that way I didn’t need a microphone. I could sit in the back of the big band, with the bass and drums. I always liked the sound of the acoustic guitar, even amplified.

It’s better for rhythm, anyway.

Oh yeah, because you don’t get those “oh oh oh” overtones. I’m not using acoustic guitar now, for small groups. I haven’t used an acoustic guitar for so long its harder than ever.

[About Fats’ death] Before he died he looked fine. That’s what broke me up. He died on a train coming home from Kansas City. His manager, Ed Kirkeby, would travel with him [Fats] and stay with him when he was asleep. He’d get him off his back, to on his side, so he could sleep and breathe. Even in hotels he’d do that for Fats. Ed told me he left Fats alone on the Eastbound train, after making the film “Stormy Weather,” and when he came back to Fats’ bed, he was dead.

What did you think of Kirkeby? He’s gone now so you can say anything.

He was all right to me, but very slick. Fats signed most of the shit to him. Anita kind of suffered, and she died not too long after he did.

You know where Fats’s stuff came from?

James P. Johnson.

Fats got his stride from James P. and his right hand from the Lion. The three of them were so close—Fats, James P., and the Lion—they drank together. . . . They called them cutting contests, and they’d go on for hours. I was lucky enough to go sit and listen, you never heard so much piano in your life. They used to play on 133rd Street, and I’d sit in the corner and listen. They called them “battles”—him and James P. and Tatum. All these places [clubs] had a house pianist, couldn’t read but copied everything they played. I call them house pianists because they were always there.

Did you know Willie Gant?

I knew of him, and heard him once somewhere.

After Fats died who did you go with?

I didn’t. I formed a trio with Will Shire, piano, and a bass player, Al Mathews [unknown].

Mike Lipskin is a stride jazz pianist and a protégé of Willie “the Lion” Smith. Visit him online at (mikelipskinjazz.com). Special thanks to Dan Kassell for supplied photos and background data.

Or look at our Subscription Options.