The Singer-Pianists – Take 1

October 20, 2013

From the earliest days of jazz, a cornerstone has been the singer-pianist. Compiling a list of these artists would be thankless, very nearly endless, and largely pointless. Even so, this is a very rich lode and in choosing to mine it I admit to self-indulgence; the artists touched upon in these pieces are not being rated – they are simply some of those singer-pianists whose work I admire and enjoy.

First though, a few general comments: some singing pianists are good singers who play a bit; some are good pianists who sing a bit; then there those who are good at both these not always compatible musical talents. It is from this last group that I have drawn the artists appearing here: excellent singers when away from the piano; fine pianists when they choose not to sing – and when they do both they are quite extraordinary.

Jazz trio painting

Perhaps I have not made the right word choice with ‘compatible’. What I am thinking here is that when a singer is accompanied by a wholly sympathetic pianist a kind of magic happens. For example, when Ella Fitzgerald sang with Tommy Flanagan it was as if two minds, two spirits, two souls, had blended. At first thought it might be assumed that when one person is carrying out both the singing and the accompaniment the result will be an even closer musical bond. However, a little more thought suggests that this is not necessarily the result. The art of singing is very different from the art of piano playing. Voice and piano require special but different instrumental skills; more to the point, a singer must, I think, have different psychological characteristics from those of an accompanist. To make a (hopefully not too clumsy) musical analogy, a leading sideman might not be an exceptional soloist, while an outstanding soloist might well sit awkwardly in a supporting role. Those instrumentalists who bring excellence to both roles are uncommon.

Not surprisingly, then, a singer-pianist whose vocal and instrumental qualities are both of the very highest order are rare. It occurs to me that I might appear to be suggesting that good singing pianists are split personalities; this is certainly not my intention but this thought does focus attention on the inherent difficulties faced by artists seeking to excel at the difficult task of singing to their own accompaniment.

fats portrait

So, where to begin?

Well, first of all with a change of plan. It was my intention to write about three musicians in each of these pieces; it was also my intention that Fats Waller would be one of the trio featured on The Singing-Pianists – Take 1. It didn’t take many moments of thought to realize that Fats was in a class of his own and deserves to have all this space to himself. And why not? Although, tragically, he was around for only a few years he was larger than life, figuratively and literally, and, perhaps surprisingly, he still is.

Simply naming some of the songs he made his own brings instantly to mind his infectious sense of fun, his unbridled joy in performing, and his astonishing musical skills. Consider It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie, Keepin’ Out Of Mischief Now, The Joint Is Jumpin’ , My Very Good Friend The Milkman, Your Feet’s Too Big, Blue Turning Gray Over You, I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter, (What Did I Do To Be So) Black, And Blue?, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Honeysuckle Rose. All familiar, all bringing him immediately to mind. Add another thought: Fats was composer of seven of these ten songs. That makes him very special indeed.

Born on 21 May 1904 in Waverley, New York, Thomas Wright Waller started out as a pianist and organist and was a precociously talented child. At age 10 he played piano at school concerts and organ at the church where his father was pastor; at age 14 he played organ at the Lincoln Theater so impressively that he was offered a permanent job playing a Wurlitzer Grand. At age 15 he won a talent contest and met and was mentored by James P. Johnson.

James P. Johnson

James P. Johnson

Through this connection with Johnson, who was only ten years his senior, the youngster swiftly developed a close affinity with the Harlem stride style of piano playing. Around this same time, he was hired to play with a traveling vaudeville troupe and added another facet to his talent, that of composer. The first of his more than 300 compositions came in 1922 and three years later, with a Clarence Williams lyric added, it was re-titled Squeeze Me, and became a timeless classic.

Despite his youth, Waller’s services were in demand and he played at rent-parties, bootleg joints, in cabaret, as well as the vaudeville theaters where he had already begun to make a mark. It was heady stuff for the young man who found himself mixing not only with the cream of the jazz and blues worlds but also with gangsters. Reputedly, Al Capone admired him and tipped accordingly – although from the start tales about Waller tended towards exaggeration. What is undeniably true is that he worked and sometimes recorded with leading blues singers, including Sara Martin and Bessie Smith. His own-name recording career was soon under way and these included piano solos and pipe organ selections. He also pursued his desire to compose more music, studying with classicists, and in 1928 he teamed up with James P. Johnson and Clarence Todd on the score for Keep Shufflin’, a revue cashing in on the popularity a half-dozen year before of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s Shuffle Along. During the run of Keep Shufflin’, staged first at Connie’s Inn before moving to Broadway, Waller and Johnson played intermission duets in the pit, gaining considerable public acclaim, but the most important aspect of his time with the show was that the lyricists were Henry Creamer and Andy Razaf.


Andy Razaf

Andy Razaf

Waller and Razaf hit it off and the following year the brilliance of their collaboration was presented in Hot Chocolates, another revue again staged at Connie’s Inn before exploding on Broadway. Although the show’s success was helped in no small measure by the presence in the pit band of Louis Armstrong, it was the music that was to become a part of Waller’s enduring legacy, including as it did (What Did I Do To Be So) Black, And Blue? and Ain’t Misbehavin’. Soon, Waller and Razaf created other marvelous songs: Honeysuckle Rose, Blue, Turning Grey Over You and Keepin’ Out Of Mischief Now. Music flowed from Waller and he collaborated with other lyricists, among them Billy Rose and Harry Link, I’ve Got A Feeling I’m Falling, and Alexander Hill, I’m Crazy ’Bout My Baby. Thanks to the huge popularity of songs like these, Fats Waller’s fame spread far and in 1932 he and fellow composer Spencer Williams toured Europe, appearing at London’s Kit Kat Club and the Moulin Rouge in Paris.

King Jazz Records

King Jazz Records


King Jazz Records

King Jazz Records

Back in the USA, Waller formed a small band; this was early in 1934 and the group promptly began a decade of recording for Victor that ensured his eternal fame.



The band was named Fats Waller And His Rhythm and its remarkably stable personnel included at one time or another Herman Autrey, trumpet, Al Casey, guitar, and reed player Gene Sedric.

Al Casey

Mostly, Fats was in the studio with the small group, but he also made occasional solo sides and even a few with a big band. The records Fats made were notable for the very high standard of musicianship; this despite the fact that from 1934 until his death he averaged more than a record a month. Among the titles are those ten of his own songs listed earlier as well as Don’t Let It Bother You, Sweetie Pie, Lulu’s Back In Town, Truckin’, A Little Bit Independent, You’re Not The Kind, Until The Real Thing Comes Along, The Sheik Of Araby, The Curse Of An Aching Heart, Dinah, ’S’posin’, Smarty, Hold Tight, I Love To Whistle, When Somebody Thinks You’re Wonderful, Two Sleepy People, Then I’ll Be Tired Of You.

All of these recordings are filled with examples of Waller’s astonishing keyboard skill, while his exhilarating vocals, interspersed with witty asides, meant that a strikingly high number became so closely associated with him that even now, seventy-something years later, other singers have a hard time edging him aside.

Earlier I skirted cautiously around the ability of the best singer-pianists to combine distinctly different elements into one exceptional whole. This hint at the co-existence of two different personalities often occurs in the music Fats Waller. As an example, consider a 1936 record that might appear at first glance to be doomed to disaster. This was Jingle Bells, composed in mid-nineteenth century by James Lord Pierpont and intended as a song for Thanksgiving. By the time that Fats laid hands on it, the song was irreversibly linked to Christmas and dozens of artists played it and continued to do so, although usually it was taken seriously. At first or even second glance this song might appear to be quite unsuitable for Fats and why a boisterous, hard-living Harlem-stride master should choose to record it is anyone’s guess. Given the fact that the record was made in November and was thus out in time for Christmas, my guess is that the record company wanted it for its commercial possibilities. Whatever the reason, Fats chose to perform the song in a wholly irreverent manner. Arranger credit is given to one John Hancock, which might well be a pseudonym, and the title is tweaked a little to Swingin’ Them Jingle Bells. There is much more than mere tweaking though. The record starts with Fats singing in childlike falsetto, but while he might be making gleeful fun of the lyric, playing badly is something he would never do. Beneath the vocal line, Fats thunders out a superb stride piano demonstration and his undoubted and unbridled enthusiasm for making music is conveyed to his sidemen who swing fiercely. It is an example of how magic can happen even in the most unlikely circumstances.

Craze Productions

Craze Productions


Aside from his recording studio work, in 1938 and 1939 Fats Waller found time to tour Europe again, including visits to the UK where he made one of the first television broadcasts, and another Parisian visit where he was allowed to play the organ at Notre Dame. In the USA, he toured, went to Hollywood, making appearances in feature films, and co-composed, with George Marion, the score for the Broadway musical Early To Bed.

By this time, 1943, Fats Waller had international fame but not the fortune that might be expected. During the preceding dozen or so years he had lived extravagantly, going without sleep, drinking too much, and eating prodigious amounts of food that gave him a body weight of around 300 lbs. Careless with money, he was often broke and there are many stories of how he would raise a few dollars by selling the same song to more than one music publisher and also selling songs to other composers. Most commonly referred to in this regard are On The Sunny Side Of The Street and I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, both credited to Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields but strongly believed to be his work. His son, Maurice Waller is one who made this claim.

As he approached his 43rd birthday Fats was in Hollywood for an appearance in Stormy Weather, Stormy Weather posterin which he sang That Ain’t Right with Ada Brown; also, and outstandingly, he performed an extended version of Ain’t Misbehavin’’ with an all-star group, including Benny Carter and Zutty Singleton. The record of this last-named song was backed by an instrumental number, Moppin’ And Boppin’, that appears to have been left on the cutting-room floor. Fats played the Zanzibar Club in Los Angeles after the film was finished, and a few days later boarded the Santa Fe Chief to return home. While in Hollywood he had been unwell, indeed, even before the trip there were warning signs – signs that he chose to ignore. During the journey back to New York his condition worsened. And while the train was in Kansas City a doctor was called. It was to no avail; Fats Waller was dead. It was 15 December 1943; he was a few months short of his fortieth birthday.

It is nothing more than speculation to ponder on what might have happened had he lived another thirty or forty years but it is hard to believe that he would have been anything less than an international superstar even if that term was not in everyday use back then. All any doubter need do is consider the case of Louis Armstrong. In terms of general public recognition, the two men were at a similar level in the early 1940s, their international reputation resting largely on records, a handful of films and a few overseas trips. For Armstrong, three years older than Fats, it was his career from the late 1950s onwards until his death in 1971 that made him a household name on four continents. Armstrong was, of course, a seminal figure in jazz, contributing significantly to the rise of the star soloist; and in his early years he was a masterly improviser.

Listening to records by Fats today, the glories of his piano playing are undeniable; he is even ahead of his early mentor, James P. Johnson, who heaven knows was himself a tower in the world of jazz piano. As a singer, whether of plaintive bluesy ballads or engaging light-hearted romps, Fats was a masterly entertainer, surely already on par back then with how Armstrong was yet to become. And then there was his astonishing work as a composer, an area of music in which he far exceeded Armstrong.

We need only to try imagining the story of jazz during the past seventy years without songs such as Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Honeysuckle Rose, or hear him singing and playing very nearly anything, for it to become vividly clear how important was the music of Fats Waller and how irreplaceable and inimitable he was.

To recommend a record by Fats Waller is easy – stick a pin into his discography and you’d be hard pressed to miss a good one. Those albums depicted above will do for a start, while a 3-CD set released a few years ago offers an excellent selection of his work. One CD contains his own compositions, the second has only instrumentals, thus allowing the full glory of his keyboard skill to shine, while the third has Fats playing and singing his way through some of Tin Pan Alley’s gems.

RCA Victor Records Bluebird Legacy

RCA Victor Records
Bluebird Legacy


As always, these CDs can be found at Amazon, and take a look too at YouTube for numerous video clips from his films as well as an excellent 4-part film documentary.


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