Wednesday, June 3, 2009

You’ve All Heard His Name

A long list of names from music’s pioneer era still shows up in print or in conversation. Many readers will have heard of such people as Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Al Jolson, yet a decent percentage of this crowd will never have actually heard their recordings. I attribute this fact primarily to the disappearance of their recording catalogs from the shelves as far back as the vinyl days. Though such a creature probably exists, I have never seen a two-LP set of Paul Whiteman’s Greatest Hits.

Thanks to the sad state of pre-1955 reissues, a vast array of artists who once were the last word in music may never cross your eardrums. Think about it: Vanilla Ice is long gone as a hot commodity, but you can still buy his musical output. Much deeper digging, and greater motivation, are required to make the music of Thomas Waller part of your world.

They called him “Fats,” and apart from the iconic name, there are plenty of iconic song titles to his credit, including “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Honeysuckle Rose.” The titles are most likely familiar, especially since a 1970s Broadway musical celebrating the Waller legacy put him on the map for a new generation. You may have heard these two songs, but probably by other artists. Today, you can hear the Fats Waller versions of these and a couple of other tunes.

Thomas Waller was born in New York in 1904. He began to study the piano when he was six years old, and when he was 14, he went to live with pianist Russell Brooks after Fats’s mother died. He polished his stride piano technique under the tutelage of James P. Johnson, the master of the form, which involves rapid left-hand octaves as the rhythmic base for the right-hand melody. (I simplify.)

Apart from his considerable jazz knowledge, Fats studied the classical repertoire with significant tutors, including the Austrian conductor Karl Böhm. It’s his classical training that took Fats to the next level: in his recordings, you hear structures that you hear in recordings by acclaimed classical pianists who are playing masterful compositions. With apologies, Fats was known as the “black Vladimir Horowitz.”

Fats was a powerful artist with as light and agile a touch as any pianist’s, when he needed it. It should not be surprising that his compositions display inventiveness and nuance so understated that his listeners may not even have known why they found him so impressive.

Something that frustrated Fats was the failure of this audience to give him the respect due a Horowitz. His vocals were playful, especially when he had been told to record a Tin Pan Alley tune that he considered to be garbage. By laughing in the face of such songs, he made them work and made them his own. This frivolity, though, paired with the ease with which he flowed through the notes, made him seem perhaps less serious than a pianist who would appear in a tux, bow to the audience, play with a permanent frown on his face, break a sweat, and bow to much applause, the first noise from the audience, at the end of the performance.

Fats, then, probably never received his due, and there’s no question that race contributed to the nation’s perception of his work. He was notable enough as a pop-culture phenomenon to appear in caricature in a Merrie Melodies short, “Tin Pan Alley Cats.” (You can find it at YouTube; it is one of the Censored Eleven Warner Brothers cartoons.) Whether that nod in his direction was really an honor is debatable, but I’m certain that no similar Horowitz send-up was considered. Liberace got the treatment, but he was no Horowitz.

Okeh Records first recorded Fats when he was 18 years old, and soon he was in demand as a composer. With lyricist Andy Razaf, he composed the songs for three Broadway musicals before the end of the 1920s. “Ain’t Misbehavin’” came from the show Hot Chocolates.

Once Fats started recording for Victor around 1929, his group, billed as Fats Waller & His Rhythm, produced 63 Top 25 hits, including 6 that topped the charts. In the manner of George Gershwin, Fats composed a major work, “London Suite,” and he recorded it in London in early 1939. He was scheduled to tour Europe that spring, but Hitler made things hard for him.

Fats came by his nickname honestly, and he ate and drank with abandon. He was experiencing strain from his multiple pursuits, including a fairly successful film career and the writing of more musicals. After a Hollywood engagement in December, 1943, he contracted pneumonia, and he took a train back to New York. He only made it to Kansas City, where he died on December 15, 1943.

The works of Fats Waller are, unlike those of many artists of his era, mostly available these days. Several hundred of his recordings can be found for download. To make the task of collecting Fats easier for you, I’ll post five tunes.

Now that I have bought myself a 1-terabyte music-storage drive, I’m going to work on acquiring bunches of Fats Waller recordings. Many are available on eMusic, where they cost about a quarter each. As amazing as his songs are, the songs are a bargain at a much higher price.

There you have it. The music of Fats Waller, available for listening to those of you who know the name, but not the sounds. Enjoy!

Saturday, it’s Week Twenty-Three of the 1950s Chart Meltdown. See you then!

Fats Waller, Ain't Misbehavin'

Fats Waller, Honeysuckle Rose

Fats Waller, I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter

Fats Waller, Truckin'

Fats Waller, Your Feet's Too Big