Rudiments of Ragtime Installment 15: Thomas “Fats” Waller (1904-1939)

By the age of 10, Thomas Waller was playing piano and organ proficiently and beginning to compose in syncopation. In fact, by the end of his short lifetime he created over 400 known compositions, (and likely many more he sold to others who took credit for them.)

Fats Waller and his Rhythm – 1938 left to right: Slick Jones, Herman Autrey, Fats Waller, Cedric Wallace, Albert Casey, Eugene Sedric.

Like his famous teacher, James P. Johnson, Waller was a transitional composer between the ragtime of his childhood and the Harlem stride style Johnson had begun to play. By the time of his death, “Fats” Waller had taken up the swing style of the 1930s, he had written for Broadway musicals and was the first African American to have his own Broadway musical that was seen by a mostly white audience, Early to Bed. He was one of the first to play syncopated jazz on a theater organ when he wasn’t lapsing into improvisations on Bach.

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Waller was known for his joyful performance style and his ability to blend the syncopation of ragtime to the evolving styles of music in the post-World War I era. His many innovative recordings and even his movie appearances made him a popular celebrity and spread his musical reputation. Among his most famous compositions are, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Honeysuckle Rose.” “Fats” Waller died of pneumonia in Kansas City during World War II. He was only 39 years old.


Vance, Joel; Fats Waller: His Life and Times; McGraw Hill; 1977.
Waller, Maurice and Calabrese, Anthony; Fats Waller; Schirmer; 2017.

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Larry Melton was a founder of the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in 1974 and the Sedalia Ragtime Archive in 1976. He was a Sedalia Chamber of Commerce manager before moving on to Union, Missouri where he is currently helping to conserve the Ragtime collection of the Sedalia Heritage Foundation. Write him at [email protected].

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