(May 21, 1904 – December 15, 1943)
At 10 years old Thomas Wright Waller was already playin’ the organ in his father’s church. At 15Waller won a talent contest with a song he’d learned from watching a player piano. Even though his preacher dad didn’t like it, his son could really rag on those keys. Soon after that talent show, Thomas went pro. So Thomas Wright became Fats. A killer stride piano player with a sweet sense of humor. That’s one thing that’s so great about Fats Waller, even the sentimental stuff’s got a silver lining of laughter.
I got a track that’ll make you laugh. Maybe you know the feeling. You fall for a lady—she’s beautiful, sexy, fun and then she takes off her shoes…uh oh! Honey, “Your Feet’s Too Big.”
Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller was born May 21, 1904 in New York City. He began to play the piano at age six under the instruction of his mother, and at ten had graduated to the organ in his father’s church. By the age of fourteen he was playing the keys at Harlem’s Lincoln Theater, and by fifteen he’d composed his first rag. It was then that he began a career as a professional pianist, despite opposition from his clergyman dad. At 18 his stride piano mastery was ready for wax, and he made it into the studio, where his first piano solos, “Muscle Shoals Blues” and “Birmingham Blues” were recorded.
In time, Waller became one of the most popular pianists and songwriters of his era. And songs like “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’” are still popular on Oldies Hits stations around the country.
Waller’s talent brought him some wild opportunities. One Chicago night in 1926, Waller was kidnapped following a performance at a local club. He was thrown into a car and driven to the Hawthorne Inn, a gangster hangout owned by Al Capone. He was ordered at gunpoint into the building, where he found a raucous party. With a gun to his back, he was prodded toward a piano and asked to play. Turns out he was the surprise guest at Al Capone’s birthday party. They didn’t want to kill him at all, they wanted to hear him stride. Rumor has it that he left three days later, drunk and rolling in cash.
Fats Waller died in 1943 of pneumonia, following a cross country tour.