Thomas Wright Waller, forever known to us as “Fats,” was born in New York City on May 21, 1904. The youngest child of a clergyman, Thomas started on piano at age six. At ten, he was proficient enough on keys to become organist at his father’s church. By his teens, he had gone secular and was accompanying silent movies at Harlem’s Lincoln Theater.
Waller thereafter became a protégé and friend of James P. Johnson, and soon rivaled his teacher as a formidable pianist in the stride style. He wrote songs: “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling,” and “Keeping Out of Mischief Now” were among hundreds of attributed Waller compositions—and then there were tunes that he would dash off and sell when he needed a few dollars. He was a limitless natural resource of musical invention, but sometimes those other songs were hits—for other songwriters.
Thomas Waller, as “Fats,” is both instantly accessible and permanently inscrutable. He would clown at the keyboard while creating incredible jazz. He professed a love for (and could play) Johann Sebastian Bach. There is simultaneously hilarity and heartbreak in his performances, which his image-besotted audiences may not detect. A particularly egregious 2009 BBC Radio Four “celebration” of Waller featured presenter Ken Clarke and jazz chanteuse Gwyneth Herbert giggling and joking over his organ classic “Stompin’ the Bug.” I doubt that Thomas would laugh along with them.
Was Waller doomed by his nickname? Once you’ve acquired a reputation for being Larger Than Life, it’s hard to back down. When he died on December 15, 1943 at age 39, it was as much as of being Fats as it was of pneumonia.
As long as there is a human ear to hear it, the music of Thomas “Fats” Waller will be a source of joy—and mystery. What were all those classic Waller songs sold and attributed to others? And just who was “Queenie Ada Rubin” who played exactly like our hero? “One never knows, do one?”