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April 2024
Vol. 23, No. 7

Recordially, Lou Curtiss

Fats Waller

by Lou CurtissJanuary 2020

Fats Waller

From the archives; first appeared in the October 2007 issue of the San Diego Troubadour)

It seems that September ain’t doing anything wrong when it comes to Fats Waller and his era, with two productions of Ain’t Misbehavin’ going on in town. Most notably the San Diego Rep will be doing the music revue through October 14, and by the time you read this I will have taken part in the Sam Woodhouse’s salon presentation that goes with each of their shows to share what I know about Fats and his era (and the Harlem Renaissance in general). In honor of the man and to promote the show at the Rep, I’ve also devoted two of my Jazz Roots radio shows to Fats and his music, so you’d think I’d be talked out about Fats Waller, but “one never know, do one?”

There was a time before the original production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ when most folks had forgotten about Fats. Back in the early ’60s I was poking around a thrift store in south Chula Vista when I came across an old Okeh 78 rpm record of this guy Fats Waller doing “Muscle Shoals Blues,” with “Birmingham Blues” on the other side. Well, I know about old blues but I didn’t think Fats Waller was a blues musician, so I took the record down to Ken Swerila’s record shop (called Vintage Records) on E Street downtown and he told me that the record I found in the thrift shop was Fat’s first record. I remember saying to him, “Well, now I need to get all the rest.” He laughed at me, saying it would be a pretty big task since there were some six or seven hundred of them, not including radio shows, transcription discs that played in elevators, which he did for the Musak Corporation (elevator music was a little more hip in those days), and the three movies he was in (he should have been in a lot more as he was a marvelous character). So I started collecting Fats. In the beginning I mostly found bunches of those Bluebird sides (he recorded over 400 sides for RCA Victor’s Bluebird budget label between 1934 and 1942), from which many of the tunes were picked for the show—the title tune, “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” of course, and “Honeysuckle Rose.” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” and other Waller top ten hits like “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie” (#1), “Truckin’” (#1), “All My Life” (#1), “Two Sleepy People” (#1), “Smarty” (#1), and “A Little Bit Independent” (#1). I soon became attracted to more of the novelty numbers like “You Run Your Mouth and I’ll run my Bizness,” “You’re Not the Only Oyster in the Stew,” “Abercrombie Had a Zombie,” and, of course, the double entendre songs “Hold Tight” and “If Youse a Viper,” which Fats somehow was allowed to sing on a radio transcription but not for the Bluebird people (I’d like to know which radio stations played that one). I also started to find out about the rarer side of collecting Fats Waller. Most notably, those mid Depression-era records (ranging from about 1927 up to the mid 1930s). In the ’20s Fats was often used as a side man who backed up blues singers like Alberta Hunter and Edith Wilson. He also worked as a side man with Clarence Williams, cornet player Tom Morris, and James P. Johnson’s Orchestra (playing piano duets with the leader). He sat in with McKinneys Cottonpickers and Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra, and in the early ’30s he began to get noticed by some of the white musicians. He did a session and some vocal work with Ted (“Is everybody Happy?”). Lewis and Eddie Condon teamed him up with Jack Teagarden, Henry “Red” Allen, Pee Wee Russell, and others for some remarkable all-star sessions that featured the best black and white jazzmen around. In 1934 George Gershwin invited Fats to play piano at one of his stylish parties in New York City and some of the Victor record people were there.

At that time Victor’s top black jazz artist was Jelly Roll Morton and all the variations of his Red Hot Peppers groups that had been top sellers throughout the Roaring ’20s. Jelly’s latest recordings weren’t selling as well anymore, so they were looking for something new and it seemed that Fats might be just the ticket. At that time during the early ’30s Fats had been doing some radio, starting with WLW in Cincinnati and then moving to New York and broadcasting on the CBS network. The show was called “The Fats Waller Rhythm Club,” so when he started recording for Bluebird and was using a studio group for backup, they just called it “Fats Waller and his Rhythm.” The studio guys he used eventually became a regular group and would also back him on gigs—most notably Gene Sedric on clarinet, alto, or tenor sax; Herman Autrey on trumpet; Al Casey on guitar; and Slick Jones on drums. Those were the best known players, but “the Rhythm” would also include Bill Coleman (trumpet), Floyd O’Brien (trombone), Billy Taylor (string bass), Rudy Powell (clarinet and alto sax), Harry Dial (drums), Charles Turner (string bass), Arnold Boling (drums), James Smith (guitar), Yank Porter (drums), Ceele Burke (steel guitar), Paul Campbell (trumpet), John Hamilton (trumpet), Cedric Wallace (string bass), Ray Hogan (trombone), Mezz Mezzrow (clarinet), and Zutty Singleton (drums) over the ten years or so of its existence. (Fats did European trips and recorded some sides for HMV (His Majesty’s Voice) that included a “Continental Rhythm” as well. Along with that were organized jam sessions that teamed him with Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Bud Freeman, and others. There was also a session with his “Rhythm Orchestra,” which, along with Sedric, Autrey, Casey, and the regular Rhythm, added Benny Carter, Joe Thomas, and others to the mix. Another session teamed the three kings of stride piano: Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, and Willie “the Lion” Smith. Fats also recorded duets with other vocalists like Una Mae Carlisle, Adelaide Hall, Billy Banks, and his songwriting partner Andy Razaf. That brings us back to the songs, most of which were created by this remarkable songwriting team, which, when it comes to output, can stand right up there with Rogers and Hart, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen and Yip Harberg, and all the greats, although they never made anywhere near the money those other illustrious gentlemen did (and through shady deals with music publishers, they probably lost as many songs as they had published). At the time Jerome Kern was making $10,000 a week for writing songs for one of the movie studios, Razaf was being paid 10 cents a song by the same studio even though Razaf produced more hit songs than Kern. No wonder one of Razaf’s great songs was “What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue?” He must have wondered.

Finally comes a story Slim Gailliard told me about Fats Waller sometime around 1962. When the California Pacific Expo that took place in San Diego during 1935-1936 was being planned, someone at Bluebird records got the idea that Fats should play the Spreckels’ Organ in Balboa Park during the festivities. The performance would come out as a record memorializing the Expo as well as “the World’s Largest Outdoor Organ,” including an appropriate song with maybe San Diego in the title. So the proposal was made and the City Fathers of San Diego replied that they “didn’t want no black man’s fingers to touch their organ.” So on his next trip to Europe Fats made a point to visit the world’s second largest outdoor organ in Tours, France. He arranged to be recorded playing that organ and the record jacket reads “Fats Waller playing the world’s second largest outdoor organ in Tours France.” Fats made sure that copies were sent to the mayor of San Diego and all relevant people involved. Slim also told me that sometime in the ’50s he’d suggested that he be recorded playing that same organ. He got the same answer.

The ’30s wasn’t a nice time to live in for a lot of people but they sure did have a way with a song that sort of made up for the egg that Wall Street laid. Go see the other productions at San Diego City College too. You can compare the two and send the your written critique to this publication (, which they’ll send to me. At any rate you’ll have done your part and can feel good about yourself.

Lou Curtiss

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