Delighted to welcome back William Price King who has had a very busy few months. William will be moving to every two weeks and so pleased that we can get back to enjoying his expertise and interesting posts.
This week William shares the life and music of the legendary Fats Waller with some of his music that showcases his extraordinary talent.
Image courtesy of Biography.com
Thomas Fats Waller, the youngest of 11 children, was born to Adeline Locket Waller, a musician, and the Reverend Edward Martin Waller May 21, 1904 in Harlem, New York. Waller came from a very musical family—his grandfather was an accomplished violinist and his mother was the organist of his family’s church. His first exposure to music was in the form of church hymns and organ music, an instrument he was taught to play by his mother and the church musical director. When he was six years old his mother hired a piano tutor and he learned how to read and write music. She paid for these lessons by working in a grocery store. Four years later he was playing the organ at this father’s church. His father hoped that he would follow a religious calling rather than a career in jazz, but his love of jazz proved too great. Waller attended high school for one semester, but left school at 15 to work as an organist at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem, where he earned $32 a week. Within 12 months he had composed his first rag.*
* rag or ragtime is a musical style that enjoyed its peak popularity between 1895 and 1918. Its cardinal trait is its syncopated or “ragged” rhythm.
In 1920 his mother passed away and Waller moved in with the family of his piano tutor, Russell Brooks. While living with Brooks, Waller met James P. Johnson and Willie Smith, two of the greatest stride pianists of the era. Both men saw Waller’s potential as a born showman. Johnson decided to take Waller under his wing and taught him the stride* style of piano playing, greatly advancing his level of musical education.
* stride is a jazz piano style that was developed in the large cities of the East Coast of the United States, mainly New York City, during the 1920s and 1930s.
Waller’s first recordings, “Muscle Shoals Blues” and “Birmingham Blues“, were made in October 1922 for Okey Records. That year, he also made his first player piano roll.*
*A piano roll is a music storage medium – a continuous roll of paper with perforations (holes) punched into it. The perforations represent note control data. The roll moves over a reading system known as a ‘tracker bar’ and the playing cycle for each musical note is triggered when a perforation crosses the bar and is read.
Waller’s other accomplishments include vaudeville appearances with the famous blues singer Bessie Smith, soon after which he wrote the music to the show Keep Shufflin’ . Waller’s first published composition, “Squeeze Me,” was published in 1924.
“Squeeze me” is a 1925 jazz standard based on an old blues song called “The Boy in the Boat “. The lyrics were credited to publisher Clarence Williams, although Andy Razaf has claimed to have actually written the lyrics. The song has been recorded by numerous artists, including Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Bessie Smith, and Dinah Washington.
Between 1926 and the end of 1927, Waller recorded a series of pipe organ solo records. These represent the first time syncopated jazz compositions were performed on a full-sized church organ
In 1927, Waller met the poet and lyricist Andy Razaf and the two collaborated on several musicals, the most of popular of which, Connie’s Hot Chocolates would bring them great critical and commercial success.
“Honeysuckle Rose” is a 1929 song composed by Fats Waller with lyrics by Andy Razaf. It was introduced in the 1929 Off-Broadway revue Load of Coal at Connie’s Inn as a soft-shoe dance number. Waller’s 1934 recording was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
“(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” is a 1929 jazz standard composed by Fats Waller with lyrics by Harry Brooks and Andy Razaf, from the Broadway musical Broadway musical comedy play Connie’s Hot Chocolates.). Blues singer Ethel Waters’ 1930 version of the song became a hit, and the song has been recorded by many artists since then. The song is also featured in the prologue of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man (1952) as its protagonist, while hiding underground, listens to the song being played very loudly and descends into a dream regarding “the blackness of Blackness,” all after smoking a marijuana cigarette.
“ Ain’t Misbehavin’” is a 1929 stride jazz/early swing song. Andy Razaf wrote the lyrics to a score by Thomas “Fats” Waller and Harry Brooks for Connie’s Hot Chocolates. It has a thirty-two measure form (AABA) at a slow-to-moderate tempo. Waller said the song was written while “lodging” in prison (for an alimony violation), and that is why he was not misbehaving. It also became a huge hit for Louis Armstrong.
Waller became one of the most popular performers of his era, finding critical and commercial success in the United States and Europe. Fellow pianist and composer Oscar Levant dubbed Waller “the black Horowitz” Waller is believed to have composed many novelty tunes in the 1920s and 1930s and sold them for small sums, attributed to another composer and lyricist.
On one occasion his playing seemed to have put him at risk of injury. Waller was kidnapped in Chicago leaving a performance in 1926. Four men bundled him into a car and took him to the Hawthorne Inn, owned by Al Capone. Waller was ordered inside the building, and found a party in full swing. Gun to his back, he was pushed towards a piano, and told to play. A terrified Waller realized he was the “surprise guest” at Capone’s birthday party, and took comfort that the gangsters did not intend to kill him!
In 1926, Waller began his recording association with the Victor Talking Machine Company/RCA Victor, his principal record company for the rest of his life, with the organ solos “St. Louis Blues” and his own composition, “Lenox Avenue Blues”. Although he recorded with various groups, including Morris’s Hot Babes (1927), Fats Waller’s Buddies (1929) (one of the earliest multiracial groups to record), and McKinney’s Cotton Pickers (1929), his most important contribution to the Harlem stride piano tradition was a series of solo recordings of his own compositions: “Handful of Keys”, “Smashing Thirds”, “Numb Fumblin’, and “Valentine Stomp” (1929).
After sessions with Ted Lewis (1931), Jack Teagarden (1931) and Billy Banks (1932), he began in May 1934 the voluminous series of recordings with a small band known as Fats Waller and his Rhythm. This six-piece group usually included Herman Autrey (sometimes replaced by Bill Coleman or John ‘ Bugs’ Hamilton), Gene Sedric or Rudy Powell, and Al Casey.
When Waller composed “Jitterbug Waltz” he was 38 years old and at the high point of his career as a veteran recording artist for RCA Victor. It is notable for being one of the first jazz records recorded with a Hammond organ, an instrument that gained popularity in the genre soon after.
He enjoyed success touring the United Kingdom and Ireland in the 1930s, appearing on one of the first BBC television broadcasts on September 30, 1938. While in Britain, Waller also recorded a number of songs for EMI on their Compton Theatre organ located in their Abbey Road Studios in St. John’s Wood.
By the early 1940s Waller was earning a comfortable living as an entertainer. He wrote the first non-black musical for Broadway by an African American, ‘Early to Bed‘ and took a role in the film ‘Stormy Weather’ starring Lena Horne in 1943, which was released just months before his death. He also appeared regularly on radio.
Waller performed Bach organ pieces for small groups on occasion. He also influenced many pre-bebop jazz pianists; Count Basie and Erroll Garner have both reanimated his hit songs. His technique and attention to decorative detail influenced countless jazz pianists including Art Tatum, Count Basie, and Thelonious Monk. In addition to his playing, Waller was known for his many quips during his performances.
While traveling cross-country following performances on the West Coast, Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller died of pneumonia in Kansas City, Missouri’s Union Station train depot on December 15, 1943 at the age of 39.
The musical ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ opened on Broadway in 1978 as a tribute to the black musicians of the 1920s and 1930s who were part of the Harlem Renaissance, an era of growing creativity, cultural awareness, and ethnic pride. The title comes from the 1929 Waller song “Ain’t Misbehavin’. “ It was a time when Manhattan nightclubs like the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom were the playgrounds of high society and Lenox Avenue dives were filled with piano players banging out the new beat known as swing. Five performers presented an evening of rowdy, raunchy, and humorous songs that encapsulate the various moods of the era and reflect Waller’s view of life as a journey meant for pleasure and play. The West End production opened on March 22, 1979, at Her Majesty’s Theatre.
“Your Feet’s Too Big” is a song composed in 1936 by Fred Fisher with lyrics by Ada Benson. The song became associated with Waller who ad-libbed his own lyrics such as “Your pedal extremities are colossal, to me you look just like a fossil” and his catchphrase, “One never knows, do one?” It was performed in the 1978 Broadway musical, Ain’t Misbehavin’.
Sources and more information
Buy Fats Waller albums: https://www.amazon.com/Fats-Waller/e/B000AQ09K0
About William Price King
William Price King is an American jazz singer, crooner, and composer.
His interest in music began at an early age when he studied piano and clarinet in high school. At Morehouse College in Atlanta where he grew up, he sang in the Glee Club and studied classical music. After graduation he went off to the Yale School of Music where he earned a Masters degree. From there he journeyed to New York where he created a jazz trio ‘Au Naturel’ which performed in some of the hottest venues in Manhattan including gigs on Broadway and the famous ‘Rainbow Room.’ These gigs opened doors for performances in Montreal and a European tour.
While touring Europe he met a lovely French lady, Jeanne Maïstre, who, a year later became his wife. King left the group ‘Au Naturel’ and settled in the south of France where he started a new life on the French Riviera, opening his own music school – the “Price King Ecole Internationale de Chant.” He has had the pleasure over the years of seeing many of his students excel as singers on a professional level, and some going on to become national celebrities. He continues to coach young singers today, in his spare time.
His debut jazz album was entitled “Home,” and was a collection of contemporary compositions he composed, with lyrics written by his wife Jeanne King. His second album was a Duo (Voice and Guitar) with Eric Sempé on the guitar. This album included original songs as well as well known standards from contemporary jazz and pop artists. The “King-Sempé” duo toured France and thrilled audiences for more than three years before going their separate ways. King has formed a new duo with French/Greek guitarist Manolis, and is now exploring new ideas, in a smooth jazz/soul/folk direction.
In addition to singing and composing, King has been collaborating with author Sally Cronin over the past few years on her blog “Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life,” with the series “A Man And His Music – Jazz, Contemporary, Classical, and Legends” and now, the “William Price King Music Column.” Working with author Sally Cronin has been an exhilarating experience in many ways and has brought a new dimension to King’s creative life. King has also created a micro blog, “Improvisation,” which features and introduces mostly jazz artists from across the jazz spectrum who have made considerable contributions in the world of jazz; and also artwork from painters who have made their mark in the world of art. This micro blog can be found on Tumblr.
His vocal mentors are two of the greatest giants in jazz, Nat King Cole and Mel Tormé. King has a distinctive wide-ranging voice which displays a remarkable technical facility and emotional depth.
William Price King on Tumblr – IMPROVISATION – https://williampriceking.tumblr.com
Connect with William
Website – http://www.williampriceking.com/
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/WilliamPriceKing
Twitter – https://twitter.com/wpkofficial
Regular Venue – http://cave-wilson.com/
You can find all of the Music Column series in this directory: https://smorgasbordinvitation.wordpress.com/william-price-king-music-column/
Thank you for dropping in and hope you will tune in again in two weeks for another post in the series Jazz instrumentalists.
There will be another Music Column post on Thursday.. it is 1988 and we settle into life in London… music and requests