Remembering Fats Waller, born Thomas Wright Waller, on the anniversary of his death 68 years ago.
Though Waller played thousands of engagements in his too-short career, presumably none was more memorable than one in Illinois in the late 1920s. Waller was the guest of honor at the birthday party for the gangster who had almost everything, according to the independent.co.uk, invited by Al Capone’s men at the point of a gun.
According to the independent’s account, Waller “found himself bullied into a black limousine, heard the driver ordered to East Cicero. Sweat pouring down his body, Fats foresaw a premature end to his career, but on arrival at a fancy saloon, he was merely pushed toward a piano and told to play. He played. Loudest in applause was a beefy man with an unmistakable scar: Al Capone was having a birthday, and he, Fats, was a present . . .”
The party lasted three days, according to the website, which is a lot of encores. And tips. It was a tough crowd, perhaps, but a good time was had by all; we can be sure Waller wasn’t misbehavin’ with that audience.
From the Independent: “By the time the black limousine headed back . . . Fats had acquired several thousand dollars in cash and a decided taste for vintage champagne.”
Fitting since, Waller’s tastes and appetites for life, like baseball’s Babe Ruth of the same era, were reportedly as large as he was. He died in 1943 just months before he was to turn 40; history says his lifestyle contributed to his early passing, which in turn, enhanced his “larger-than-life” reputation.
“Lighting up, lest all our hearts should break,
His fiftieth cigarette of the day . . .”
wrote Michael Longley in his poem Elegy For Fats Waller.
“He plays for hours on end and though there be
Oases one part water, two parts gin,
He tumbles past to reign, wise and thirsty . . .”
Like Ruth, Waller yearned to be taken more seriously; the Yankees never made Ruth manager, and it’s largely — no pun intended — after Waller’s death that appreciation for his musical talents outweighed (ibid) his comedic ones. Richard S. Ginell on allmusic.com: “Waller did have so-called serious musical pretensions, longing to follow in George Gershwin’s footsteps and compose concert music (but) it probably was not in the cards anyway due to the racial barriers of the first half of the 20th century. Besides, given the fact that Waller influenced a long line of pianists of and after his time . . . his impact has been truly profound.”
From Orrin Keepnews’ liner notes on the compilation album Young Fats Waller: Rediscovered Early Solos: ”Surely it must be no longer ago than yesterday that he crowded his bulk onto a piano bench and began to cut the inflated lyrics of some insipid pop song down to size with the robust irony of his voice, or to extract every possible ounce of strength and of jazz out of whatever music was at hand.”
sources: wikipedia.org, bittersuiteband.com, independent.co.uk, allmusic.com