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February 16, 2006

Zenga Longmore on Fats Waller: If you're fat and funny your genius goes unappreciated

Posted by Zenga Longmore
Ah, baby, don't make a fat man blue.
This is the poignant way in which Fats Waller begins the song, Blue Over You. The problem Fats Waller found with being fat and funny is that nobody realised what an extraordinary genius he was. I'll be the first to admit that being chubby and jolly has many advantages - how would Laurel and Hardy have fared had they both been thin? But when it comes to being considered a genius you need to adopt a lean and hungry look. Pick an established genius out of a hat - Einstein, Mozart, Inigo Jones, Shakespeare - and you will discover they are gaunt one and all.

For the large-girthed, the best you can hope to be considered is a comic genius. And if, like Fats Waller, you are a comic genius, but secretly harbour a wish to be universally acknowledged as a "classical music genius", then you are slightly stymied. The refusal of the public to accept him as a master craftsman of classical piano recitals and spirituals led Fats Waller into a secret life, as Rudi Blesh commented, of:

quiet back room sessions where the gin and creative inspiration flowed.
These backroom sessions involved the playing of his much beloved baroque music in which he had been formally trained.

Fats Waller's "liquid ham and eggs" breakfasts consisting of enormous quantities of bourbon or gin were perhaps the result of his frustrated ambitions. But his public did not want to hear Waller playing Bach. They paid to hear fifty thousand killer watts of jive. And they craved his wit.

People talk about "Jewish humour" meaning quick-fire one liners. Waller proves that such humour is a special brand of drollness employed by native New Yorkers of every creed. His spontaneous interjections during his songs are hilarious. A song which would be rendered dreary in the hands of any normal singer becomes a comic masterpiece when given the Fats treatment.

A rather dull song featured in a Deanna Durbin film, You went to My Head was transformed into a work of art when Waller hammed it up in 1938. Instead of "you went to my head" he states:

you grabbed my knowledge bump,

[and] you went to my cranium.

For "you went to my feet", we discover that:
you latched onto my dogs.
We are all familiar with Your Feet's Too Big, in which Waller explains that:
in fact your pedal extremities are a bit obnoxious. Where did you get 'em? One never knows, do one.
Reefer man, a song referring to vipers - consumers of marijuana - begins with Fats's conspiratorial whisper:
Hey cats, it's 4 o clock in the morning. Here we are in Harlem. Everybody's here but the police, and they'll be here any minute. It's hi-i-gh time! So catch this song. Here it is.
Then, speaking over a magnificently felicitous piano flourish Fats flirts heavily with an imaginary "honey":
Better next time on the side-lines, baby, my wife's in here tonight. And she don't vipe, either. Get away! Get away!
And of course, there is the famous risqué aside made during a recording of The Sheik of Araby. Referring to the reputation Arabs have for delighting in the love that dares not speak its name, Fats suddenly yells:
What was that, baby? Get on a camel? You know I don't ride between humps.
Waller's father, a Baptist minister, paid for his son Thomas (the future Fats) to be trained as a classical pianist. Waller played the organ in his father's church from the age of ten. By the time he was 14, he was performing regularly at the Lincoln Theatre, 135th Street, New York. Fats was a deeply religious man and would often refer to jazz playing as "the devil's workshop".

During his early teens, Fats studied Harlem stride piano with the god-father of stride, James P. Johnson. Stride is a mixture of boogie woogie and ragtime, which in the innovative hands of Fats Waller, took on a life of its own. By the early 'twenties, Waller had really got into his Harlem stride. Between 1922 and 1943, he cut over 500 titles, starred in over a dozen films, toured around Europe, and wrote the score for many musicals, including Shuffle Along which starred Josephine Baker. In between he composed a number of sensational hits, including Honeysuckle Rose, Ain't Misbehavin' and The Joint is jumping. For three whole days he is purported to have entertained at a party thrown by Al Capone. Very old people in Paris may still remember a young Fats playing classical organ in Notre Dame in 1932.

Fats Waller's massive energy was astonishing considering he weighed over 25 stone, consumed deadly amounts of alcohol and food (twelve bottles of beer and six hamburgers were regarded as a light snack), and had a stream of mistresses as well as a beleaguered spouse.

My favourite of all Waller's recordings is Lulu's Back In Town, recorded in New York in 1935. It is just so joyous. The six piece band play with an abandoned revelry as if displaying a contemptuous disregard for the terrors of the world around them - like so many Neros fiddling while Rome burned. 1935! Stalin had begun his purges in Russia. Hitler had become head of state in Germany. Mussolini was flexing his muscles and missiles in Ethiopia. Closer to home, lynchings were escalating in the Deep South. But in a Harlem studio, bourbon and jokes at the ready, six black men made musical hay while the sun shone.

Darkness fell in 1943 when, exhausted after a surfeit of women, drink, hamburgers, reefers and perhaps a too-heavy outpouring of creative genius, Fats Waller died of pneumonia aged 39. Maybe he died a disappointed man. No one wanted to hear his renditions of Bach's piano recitals; they preferred to hear the fat man play Harlem stride piano. Thank goodness for that.

Zenga Longmore writes for The Spectator, The Oldie, and The Daily Telegraph. She is an actress and blues singer and the author of Tap-taps To Trinidad. To read her previous pieces on jazz for the Social Affairs Unit, see Jazz.


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Thomas Waller’s history (he didn’t like to be called ‘Fats’) rather parallels that of Sir Arthur Sullivan. Sullivan wanted to be accepted as a ‘serious’ composer, and in that case he might well have produced symphonies that would have been forgotten without the effort of the Hyperion label, rather than being a true icon of Englishness (though I haven’t even bothered to look at the government website to see if G&S is there). In retrospect, isn’t it better that Waller is known for his own unique creativity, rather than as just one more exponent of Baroque music?

It is also sad that Waller’s life suffered from the competing demands of his church background and the world of popular music. This is another example of the church getting hung up on matters non-essential to the Christian faith. The Catholic theologian Peter Kreeft, in The Snakebite Letters, portrays this particular antithesis as a strategy of Hell itself.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at February 17, 2006 06:44 PM
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Yes Fats Waller was a true genius like Mozart Or Shakespeare.
His skill on piano is timeless and never forgot by people
who love really good music.nowadays music is not music
when you compare with Waller.Rest in peace Waller.

Posted by: Peyote at June 3, 2009 06:29 PM
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