THE MILK TRAIN LEAVING WASHINGTON enroute to New York was jammed. The locked windows and the conglomerate odors of muscatel wine, unwashed bodies and garlic infested sandwiches made breathing a horrific experience. During the mad rush for a seat I became separated from the rest of the guys in the band and wandered through car after car looking for a place to park my body. Finally I found an empty space, threw my sax case on the rack above me and flopped down.
I was exhausted. I had just finished a college gig with the Vincent Lopez band. It had been a rugged day—and night—what with the ride to Washington, a miserable dinner of an overcooked hamburger, heartburn coffee and seven hours of non-stop playing. I hated the music business and fervently wished I was a ditchdigger. My crumpled tuxedo, starched dress shirt and collar felt grafted to my sweaty skin.
A laughing voice alongside of me said, “You have to admit you can't beat the happy times and jolly moments a musician's life has to offer, can you?” I wearily turned and gazed at an inflated belly, big pop eyes, thin mustache and a devastating smile. That was my introduction to Fats Waller. He had finished an engagement as featured organist at a Washington colored movie house and was going back to New York. He was warm, pleasant: we talked all the way to Penn Station about music and bands with time out for generous gulps of Fats’ jug of scotch. When I reached Penn Station and said goodbye to Fats I was seeing the world through an 86 proof, Highland mist.
Time went by and I was walking through a matinee crowd standing outside a New York theater when I spied Fats. I introduced myself. We laughed about our fetid milk train ride and then he told me he had written the music for “Hot Chocolates.” Would I like to see the afternoon performance? I nodded my head and with Waller taking my arm I was escorted to a box seat and watched a memorable show. This musical had wonderful dancing, Louis Armstrong in the pit playing his incomparable horn with a drive that made me tingle with joy and two show-stopping Waller tunes, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue.”
Years passed and as a result of a late evening radio program from WLW, Cincinnati, that blanketed the U.S.A., best selling Victor records and a slew of smash song hits, Fats was now a big name in show biz. I had put my sax in cold storage and was the featured vocalist with Richard Himber’s orchestra on the Studebaker Champions Hour via NBC and CBS. During a CBS rehearsal I was told somebody wanted to see me. It was Fats Waller. He looked at me, shook his head and said, “You’re the guy who does the singing with Himber? How about that.” He was a Himber-Nash fan and wanted me to hear a tune he had written with lyricist Andy Razaf, “How Can You Face Me?” We went into an empty studio with a piano and he demonstrated the song. I instantly liked it and sang “How Can You Face Me?” many times on the Studebaker Hour.
Our CBS meeting was the beginning of a long friendship. Day after day at 11 A.M. we would meet at the Brill Building, 1619 Broadway, the national headquarters for pop music publishers and the hub of activities for songwriters, singers and orchestra leaders. You could spend hours visiting publishing houses, listening to new tunes and collecting piano copies. Fats would be playing his newest melodic creations for music tycoons and I had to be there to learn upcoming song hits, an occupational must for a radio vocalist.
At 2 P.M. Fats and I would meet at Famous Music Company and enter a cubicle furnished with a spinet piano. He’d take the day’s piano copies I had picked up and start playing: he was keenly interested in hearing what the song publishers were buying. Fats loved to play the piano. It was his life, his way of expressing himself. He never had to be coaxed to make music. As I sang I couldn’t believe Fats was my accompanist: for me it was a dream world.
Many times when we dropped in at a music publisher’s office, bottles of bonded nectar appeared and an impromptu Waller recital began. All work stopped. Song pluggers, executives, secretaries, stock boys, visiting band leaders and singers gathered ‘round the piano. Music and merriment filled the air. Waller’s flying fingers projected a keyboard glow, a lilting beat (labeled in later years “stride”) outrageously infectious and euphoric. Fats didn’t need a drummer and a bass to make him swing. I can’t forget his lengthy renditions of Vincent Youmans’ “Tea for Two” and “Hallelujah.” Breathtaking improvisations, beautiful chord changes and pulsating rhythms never failed to astound everyone listening. Waller’s piano wizardry was supplemented by his laugh provoking comments and outrageous mugging.
Our musical activities over, we would wait for Waller’s Lincoln limousine to pick us up. Fats didn’t believe in parking cars in garages, so his Lincoln, chauffered by a “cousin” or “nephew” (there were quite a few on his payroll), would continually cruise a circuitous route: Broadway to 49th Street, west to Eighth Avenue, east on 50th Street, back to Broadway, passing the Brill Building. This nonstop circumnavigation ended hours later when we were sighted in front of the Brill Building. Our destination was Charlie’s Tavern, a well-known oasis patronized by musicians or the Roxy Grill, a saloon adjacent to Loew’s State stage door. Both pubs were a three-block walk but Waller wouldn’t budge. Fats didn’t believe in walking; such ambulatory activities were for peasants and physical culture enthusiasts.
Seated in a booth, the talk was lengthy and varied. He was contemptuous of boogie woogie and greatly admired the piano stylings of Art Tatum and Arthur Schutt, a keyboard artist featured on many commercial radio shows and recordings. Fats had no love for lawyers, judges and New York State’s divorce laws. He never forgot his wasted life in alimony jail, the vain pleadings with intractable barristers, the harsh treatment given him by judges who kept him incarcerated. He vividly remembered his days as an alimony jumper, forced to stay away from New York, the fear of being collared by the law and slammed back in the pokey; selling songs for paltry sums to meet alimony payments and legal fees.
I learned Fats, as a youngster, practiced the piano hours every day. His dad, a minister, was a disciplinarian and wouldn’t hesitate to thrash him for skipping his keyboard chores. He also had lengthy sessions at the church organ. Adolescent Waller thought his father a martinet but in later years was thankful for the rigorous musical schedule.
When you were with Fats it was impossible to pick up a bar or restaurant tab. Your money was counterfeit; he’d elbow you aside when nearing a cash register.
We idolized Josh Gibson, the star slugger and catcher for the Homestead Grays of the National Negro League and talked and talked about his devastating hitting power and how shameful it was Gibson couldn’t play in major league baseball. He thought it amazing that on many a Sunday afternoon I’d travel tong distances to see Gibson in action. The next time we’d meet, Walter had to know how many hits or homers Gibson had for the day.
Waller told me of the life he and his band lived when touring the South. He thought it crazy white folks down in Dixie paid top prices to see him and his crew perform, clamored for his autograph, went wild over the band; while he and his group were segregated; eating in the bus, served food on paper plates and welcomed only in colored boarding houses and hotels. Fats sagely remarked that many a colored combo went south by Greyhound and returned by bloodhound.
I never tired of hearing about his three trips to Europe, visiting England, Scotland, France, Sweden, Norway and Denmark. These countries honored him as a distinguished concert artist, cordially received in the finest restaurants and hotels. Fats was especially proud he was given permission to play the world-famous Notre Dame church organ while in Paris.
Visiting Waller’s dressing room when he was playing a vaudeville or movie house was an experience. Hanging from several overhead clothes lines, rigged up by his valet, a “cousin” dressed in a white mess jacket, were the custom-made suits tailored by a Toronto clothier and varied shirts and ties he was going to wear for his performances that afternoon and evening, different attire for every show. A table displayed buckets of ice, glistening glasses and a varied assortment of liquor bottles. Fats knew his guests’ drinking preferences and told the valet, “This fellow rides a White Horse”; “He loves flowers, serve him Four Roses”; “The lady is kind to grandpappy so pour her a splash of Old Grandad”; “The gent near the door is an old time sailor and would like to sip some Cutty Sark.” A buffet table displaying spare ribs, Chinese dishes and other foods was constantly replenished.
I sang at a number of charity affairs at the Lafayette theater in Harlem with Fats at the piano. His accompaniment was inspirational; he gave your voice and songs warmth and sensuous beauty you never heard before. Waller’s musical intelligence clearly showed as he followed your phrasing, ad libs and tempo changes. Later we’d visit barbecued rib restaurants, drop in at Small’s Paradise, Savoy Ballroom, hear Gladys Bently’s ribald songs. Everywhere, people would rush up to Fats and greet him with enthusiasm.
My colossal blunder was not accepting his invitation of going to Hollywood with him when he was making “The King of Burlesque,” co-starring Bill Robinson. I had quit the Himber band, the Studebaker radio shows and Victor recordings. Worn out, distraught and disgusted with the constant squabbles with Himber, I left it all when the chance came to break my contract. Free of legal entanglements, Fats suggested I come along as he traveled cross-country in his commodious Lincoln limousine and be a house guest at the estate he had rented in the Hollywood Hills. Because of my radio and recording background, Waller sincerely believed I’d be a good bet for musical movies and west coast radio shows. I was assured of meeting all the important Hollywood people he knew; he’d even play the piano for auditions. Fats talked to my mother about the trip and what it could possibly mean for me and urged her to make me go. I wasn’t a gambler; traveling 3,000 miles on speculation, without a contract, didn’t appeal to me. Looking back, I was stupid not to listen to Fats. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Waller’s kindness and sincere interest in my singing career touched me.
Fats wrote the score for the musical “Early to Bed” and the Dick Kollmar production opened in Boston at the Shubert Theatre, prior to its Broadway premiere. I was appearing at the Hotel Touraine and I met him the first day he was in town. I so wanted to hear his “Early to Bed” tunes. Rehearsals were going on at the Shubert; the piano was not available. Was there a piano in the area? I discovered a pub down the street where a dour bartender gave Fats permission to use the instrument, horribly out of tune; the white keys were scarred with cigarette and cigar burns, many of the black keys were broken and hors de combat. A junk dealer wouldn’t have bought the piano for kindling wood.
Walter threw his coat and tie on a chair, rolled up his sleeves, unearthed the “Early to Bed” score from a bulging briefcase and started to play. This never-to-be-forgotten two-hour recital was the greatest display of piano artistry I’ve ever heard. Walter’s touch, emotional intensity, ethereal interpretations gave the old box the sonority and majestic tone of a concert grand. The haunting melodies transformed the dreary back room into a temple of art. The show had a successful run on Broadway but I can’t understand why Waller’s beautiful tunes aren’t heard today. The Beguine closing the first act was a standout.
During World War II Fats and I entertained many times at the Receiving Barracks of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The sailors went wild over his playing and wouldn’t let him off the stage. After one show, Rear Admiral McElduff asked Waller if he’d do a number or two for the brass in a private dining room on the seventh floor. The room didn’t have a piano but the Admiral said a crew of muscled sailors would carry a baby grand up the seven flights.
When Fats asked the Admiral what he’d like to hear, the request was “My Wild Irish Rose.” Waller had me sing the first chorus and then he bounced “My Wild Irish Rose” round for a good ten minutes; swinging it, chirping the lyrics with a thick Irish accent, imitating an old piano roll, interpolating his own Honeysuckle Rose and finishing his dazzling, impromptu performance with an all-out, rousing, faster and faster one-to-the-bar chorus.
That was the last time I was to see and hear Fats Waller. On December 15, 1943, a radio flash told me of his passing. He was 39 years old. Thousands of mourners crowded Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church to pay their respects. Adam Clayton Powell delivered a moving eulogy.
His versatile virtuosity was remarkable: Incomparable pianist, organist, composer of many all-time hit songs, band leader, and show-stopping entertainer. Fats left a legacy of recordings that will never let his artistry be forgotten. In recent years I have seen blowup photographs of his face in record shops in Sao Paulo, Bremerhaven, Port of Spain, Majorca. Major TV shows never tire of paying tribute to Fats. Countless disc jockeys in the U.S.A. and on short wave stations ‘round the world continue to devote hours to playing his tunes and albums.
Fats wasn’t pretentious. He was earthy. He never employed press agents to splatter technicolor verbiage about himself. A jazz immortal, Fats avoided spouting “art form” or “creative process” hyperbole. I consider myself a lucky person to have known him. He was a beautiful guy.
– Joey Nash, from "The Complete Fats Waller, Volume I" (RCA Bluebird LP Set)