Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller (May 21, 1904 – December 15, 1943) was an American jazz pianist, organist, composer, violinist, singer, and comedic entertainer. His innovations in the Harlem stride style laid the groundwork for modern jazz piano. His best-known compositions, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Honeysuckle Rose“, were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1984 and 1999. Waller copyrighted over 400 songs, many of them co-written with his closest collaborator, Andy Razaf. Razaf described his partner as “the soul of melody… a man who made the piano sing… both big in body and in mind… known for his generosity… a bubbling bundle of joy”. It’s possible he composed many more popular songs and sold them to other performers when times were tough.
Waller started playing the piano at the age of six, and became a professional organist aged 15. By the age of 18 he was a recording artist. Waller’s first recordings, “Muscle Shoals Blues” and “Birmingham Blues”, were made in October 1922 for Okeh Records. That year, he also made his first player piano roll, “Got to Cool My Doggies Now”.Waller’s first published composition, “Squeeze Me”, was published in 1924. He became one of the most popular performers of his era, touring internationally and achieving critical and commercial success in the United States and Europe. He died from pneumonia, aged 39.
Waller was the seventh child of 11 (five of whom survived childhood) born to Adeline Locket Waller, a musician, and Reverend Edward Martin Waller, a trucker and pastor in New York City. He started playing the piano when he was six and graduated to playing the organ at his father’s church four years later. His mother instructed him in his youth, and he attended other music lessons, paying for them by working in a grocery store. Waller attended DeWitt Clinton 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. He was the prize pupil and later the friend and colleague of the stride pianist James P. Johnson. His mother died on November 10, 1920 from a stroke due to diabetes