Fats Waller was born Thomas Wright Waller on May 21, 1904 in New York City. He started playing the piano when he was six and graduated to the organ in his father’s church four years later. At the age of fourteen he was playing the organ at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem. Within twelve months he had composed his first rag, and recorded his first piano solos “Muscle Shoals Blues” and “Birmingham Blues” in 1922 when he was 18 years old.
The prize pupil, friend and colleague of stride pianist James P. Johnson, he became one of the most popular performers of his era, finding critical and commercial success at home and Europe. Waller was a prolific songwriter, composing hundreds with his closest collaborator Andy Razaf and many became standards such as Honeysuckle Rose, Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Squeeze Me. He recorded profusely for RCA, Victor and EMI and performed and recorded with Gene Austin, Billy Banks, Adelaide Hall, Erskine Tate, Bill Coleman, Al Casey, Rudy Powell and Jack Teagarden among others.
Waller was kidnapped in Chicago leaving a performance in 1926, taken to the Hawthorne Inn, and upon insistence at gunpoint became the surprise guest at Al Capone’s birthday. Rumored he played three nights but when he left he was drunk, tired and thousands of dollars richer. He appeared on one of the first BBC radio broadcasts, influenced many pre-bop pianists such as Count Basie and Erroll Garner and was first to play syncopated jazz compositions were performed on a full sized church organ.
He received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, Gennett Records Walk of Fame, Jazz At Lincoln Center: Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall Of Fame, Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Pianist, organist, composer, singer and comedic entertainer Fats Waller, passed away of pneumonia in Kansas City, Missouri on December 15, 1943.