Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Fats Waller and his Rhythm-An Affectionate Overview

Without a doubt Thomas "Fats" Waller (1904-43) was one of the greatest of jazzmen. His huge talents rivaled his size and included amazing virtuosity on piano and organ. He was a vocalist of great flair and style and an inspired bandleader and composer of some of America's best loved standards and jazz favorites, many written with his longtime lyricist, Andy Razaf. This post will give a personal tribute to the wonderful and prolific series of small band sides known as Fats Waller and his Rhythm. In the future we will visit standout recording sessions. For now we'll highlight the series and its effect on this jazz musician and fan.

In 1934 at age 30, Fats was already a veteran jazzman. His first records were cut in 1922. His credits included solo piano--he was a master of the stride style--organ and band recordings and much freelance work with bands such as Fletcher Henderson, McKinney's Cotton Pickers, Ted Lewis, Jack Teagarden and his mentor, James P. Johnson. He had also become a noted composer of jazz tunes and Harlem revues. By the 30s Fats had become better known through his radio work. His program was on Cincinatti's WLW. It had a very strong signal.

In May of 1934 Fats' manager, Phil Ponce, secured him a contract with Victor records. The format was simple: Fats, his piano, vocals and comic personality backed by a swinging 5-piece combo known as his Rhythm. The series would be one of the most successful in the history of small band jazz. From 1934-42 he produced over 400 sides!

That first session in May 1934 featured some of the core players of the Rhythm including trumpeter Herman Autrey, a fiery sometimes erratic player of the Louis Armstrong school who had many moments of brilliance in Fats' company. Guitarist Al Casey, who Fats had discovered in Cincinatti, would also be a mainstay. His strong rhythm and chord solos were trademarks of the Rhythm sound. Bassist Billy Taylor (a future Ellingtonian) and drummer Harry Dial (formerly with Fate Marable and Louis Armstrong) were solid rhythm mates. Reedman Ben Whittet, a competent player but not a jazzman, was only aboard for the initial session.

The tunes recorded at the first session were James P. Johnson's Porter's Love Song and 3 pop tunes of the day; I Wish that I Were Twins, Do Me a Favor and Armful of Sweetness. Many of these tunes were at best average pops but Fat's swinging piano, vocals and little band combined with his great comic ability--he kidded a lot of the weaker material--made these obscure tunes jazz classics. Many of them have remained in the jazz repertoire as a result of Fats' influence and style. Along with Fats' great presence, Autrey, Casey and the soon-to-arrive Gene Sedric were the primary soloists.

Gene Sedric's arrival in August of '34 gave the group it's missing ingredient. He was a gifted tenor man and clarinetist with experience in the bands of Fate Marable, Sam Wooding and Fletcher Henderson. (He hailed from St.Louis, a great jazz town). Sedric's mellow but full-toned tenor and light, limpid clarinet (with a bit of a New Orleans sound) complemented Autrey and the rest of the band perfectly. Except for a few sabbaticals,
he would stay with Fats to the end.

Before the personnel settled in for a long stretch, some interesting "guest" musicians came aboard. Chicagoans Floyd O'Brien (trombone) and Mezz Mezzrow (clarinet) livened up the session of Sept. 28,1934, which featured such classics as Serenade to a Wealthy Widow, Mandy and Fats' own How Can You Face Me? The sessions of 11/7/34 and 1/5/35 had the wonderful trumpeter Bill Coleman filling in for Autrey who would soon move to Paris. His light, airy and melodic take on Louis are featured on such landmark sides as Baby Brown, Dream Man, Breakin' the Ice and I Believe in Miracles. Fats also played some organ on these sides. He was a virtouso on the instrument. Victor also started issuing non-vocal takes for domestic issue and it's interesting to hear the band's instrumental side. Another musical plus was Fats' interludes on celeste, a lovely change of pace.

From March through August 1935 veteran reedman Rudy Powell filled in for Sedric, formerly with Elmer Snowden, Sam Wooding and Rex Stewart. He possessed a dirty, raspy clarinet sound but played very pretty on alto. On one of his clarinet spots Fats exhorted, "Make that thing sweat!" Guitarist James Smith pinch hit on some sides for Casey and in Jan. 1935 Charlie Turner took over bass duties. The musical drum chair went from Dial to Arnold Bolden to Yank Porter before Slick Jones came in for a long stay. From time to time Fats fronted big bands usually including the Rhythm fleshed out with extra horns. A Dec. 1935 date featured one of these units including Autrey, Sidney de Paris, Benny Morton, Don Redman, Sedric, Powell, Bob Carroll and Emmett Matthews on soprano, who did some live dates with Fats. A great version of I Got Rhythm recreates a stage routine with Fats dueling band pianist Hank Duncan (himself a fine stride man). There is also some high flying soprano by Matthews.(Don Redman was probably musical director for this session since there were quite a few of his men aboard).

The 1935-6 edition of the Rhythm produced many classic sides: Lulu's Back in Town, Somebody Stole My Gal, I'm Crazy' bout My Baby, Rosetta, Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter, "S'posin' and Until the Real Thing Comes Along. Some additional non-vocal takes were recorded. Two sides stand out to this musician: My Very Good Friend the Milkman and When Somebody Thinks You're Wonderful. These tunes have been part of my repertoire for years. (The latter is my theme song.)

The format by now was pretty much set with Fats' effervescent stride and vocals followed by solos by the Rhythm and a swinging band or vocal ride out, and, of course, Fats kept things loose with his comic touches. Fats could also sing a mean ballad (try Then I'll be Tired of You) No matter how banal the material, Fats and the boys always rose to the occasion with their joyous sounds and Fats' musical and comic energy led the way. Louis Armstrong was also a master of this art.

Two personal favorites from this golden period are 12th St. Rag and Have a Little Dream on Me. Here are some reasons why they are so representative of the early Fats and Rhythm. Have a Little Dream (8/17/34) by Phil Baxter and Billy Rose is a charming little tune that probably wouldn't have gone far were it not for Fats' lovely rendering. Fats opens with some pretty piano including his trademark clusters, waterfall-like runs that enhance the solo. (Billy Taylor's slap bass is also very effective.) Fats' vocal is tame but has a few cute asides. Autrey enters with some Cootie Williams-ish plunger work. (He was very adept at the style.) Sedric gives us some rhapsodic tenor. He also plays nice backgrounds that make the group sound larger with Fats singing us home. A simple but very tasty version of a typical pop tune, Fats put just as much effort into these ditties as he did the jazz classics.

On to the wild side and 12th St. Rag.(6/24/35). The old Euday Bowman favorite gets a swinging, hilarious ride from Fats and the boys. Starting with Fats' awesome striding,(not once is the traditional melody played) , a light hearted vocal and Rudy Powell's dirty clarinet. Fats keeps the running comrntary going as Autrey plays a very Louis-ish solo leaving lots of spaces for the rhythm.(this was one of his specialties). The rideout has Autrey popping off single high notes (again the Louis influence) against Powell's clarinet and Fats' exhuberant YEHs. Fats gives us an operatic coda and the horns play a 3 Stooges lick with one last YEH from Fats. An amazing performance combining great swing and comedy. These two short examples show how much joy and jazz are to be found in the amazing recorded legacy of Fats and the band.

The period of 1936-8 saw the group rolling along with more classics such as Us on a Bus, Lounging at the Waldorf, Sin to tell a Lie, Boo Hoo, Joint is Jumpin', Fractious Fingering, I'm sorry I Made you Cry, Honey on the Moon and Fat's own Crazy 'bout my Baby and the Waller-Autrey Yacht Club Swing (for a time the group's theme). There were more non-vocal takes and two extended 10" 78s of Honeysuckle Rose and Blue Turning Grey (Apr/June 1937). These versions let Fats and the boys stretch out. Slick Jones even gets in a chorus on vibes on Honeysuckle. Slick Jones (mid 1936) and bassist Cedric Wallace (early 1938) solidified the group till the end. One noticeable difference was Autrey's use of the muted horn. . He still played great open horn, but seemed to be fascinated with the muted sound, especially buzz-mute. but seemed to be fascinated with the muted sound, especially the buzz-mute.

Another big band session in April, 1938 produces some exellent sides by Fats' working big band (including all the rhythm and future trumpeter John Hamilton). In the Gloaming, Sheik of Araby and Fats' Hold my Hand are standouts.
Fats' piano and personality were so strong that he carried two Rhythm sessions with different players and the results were exellent. A December 1937 session in Hollywood included Paul Campbell,trumpet-Caughey Roberts,reeds and Lee Young (brother of Lester) on drums. The standout track is Every Day's a Holiday with Louis-ish trumpet by Campbell.
While on tour of England in August of 1938 Fats recorded for HMV with some of England's finest players. Released as Fats and his Continental Rhythm the band featured Dave Wilkins, trumpet, George Chisolm, trombone, Ian Sheppard and Alfie Kahn,reeds. (all top men in British dance bands). Ain't Misbehavin', Flat Foot Floogie and Music, Maestro, Please are standouts and Fats' English colleagues swing along with him in grand style.

The early part of 1939 continued on a high note with sides such as Good Man is Hard to Find, Hold Tight, Undecided and 'Taint what cha Do. An interesting session of June 1939 had Chauncey Graham filling in on tenor and Larry Hinton on drums. Graham is a very able replacement for Sedric and takes great tenor solos. Autrey had one of his best sessions with nice muted and open horn. Fats' piano and vocals shine on I Used to Love You and You meet the Nicest People( a great little tune). One of Fats' lesser known originals Honey Hush also gets a nice rendition. John Smith, a fine rhythm guitarist pinch hit for Casey until April 1940. (He did some nice work with Wibur DeParis later in his career).

In August of 1939, Fats and the band made some wonderful transcription sides including Sheik of Araby, Bflat Blues, Nagasaki and Sweet Sue. These sides along with earlier transcriptions are all on CD.(The Definitive Fats-JZCL 5004) This session introduced John "Bugs"Hamilton on trumpet, he would take Autrey's place for the next two years. From St.Louis, a great trumpet town, Hamilton was a fine trumpeter with a clean sound, nice ideas and swing. He fitted perfectly into the Rhythm sound. By this time the band hit a high for musicality and sound. They didn't have the earthy charm of the earlier sides but swung just as hard. Fats hadn't let up with his great comedy-Victor was giving him some terrible novelties to record. The band did get to record some nice instrumentals including The Moon is Low, Clarinet Marmalade, Scram!, Pantin' in the Panther Room, Buck Jumpin' (featuring Al Casey) and Fats' own Mamacita and Bond Street(from his London Suite).

This later period including many great vocal sides such as I can't give you Anything but Love with his protege, pianist/vocalist Una Mae Carlisle (she deserves a future post) , Everybody Loves my Baby, Let's get away from it All, 24 Robbers and a charming rendition of Little Curly Hair in a Highchair(this could have been a disaster in anybody else's hands). Fats also played Hammond organ on some of these sides.
The big band was back for sessions on July 1941 and March 1942. Two instrumentals Chant of the Groove and Fats' lovely Jitterbug Waltz(with Fats on organ) stand out. Herman Autry was in on these big band sessions and returned to the Rhythm for the session of Dec. 1941 Arthur Trappier had taken over on drums. (Wallace, Casey and Sedric still held forth). A lovely seasonal tune, Winter Weather was waxed. Hamilton was back for the final Rhythm session of July 1942. A nifty Fats-Razaf tune, Up Jumped You with Love is a highlight. The tune has all the hallmarks of the Rhythm-great piano solo and humorous vocal, a nifty riff with solo spots for the horns and Casey and Fats riding home on the vocal. Fats and the boys also appeared in some film soundies at this time.

A special version of the Rhythm appeared with Fats in the film Stormy Weather. The band included Benny Carter on trumpet, Zutty Singleton,drums, Gene Porter,reeds and Slam Stewart,bass. In the film they played a great version of Ain't Misbehavin'. The cut Moppin' and Boppin' featuring Zutty is heard briefly. Both these sides came out on Victor. Fats had always been a notorious drinker and party person. On December 15, 1943 while on a train out of Kansas City, Fats left us, much too early. The cause of death was pneumonia just lived to hard during his 39 years on earth. Thankfully we have this immense legacy of music to enjoy and as long as people can enjoy great,swinging music and a good laugh, Fats will always be with us.

On a personal note, I've had a wonderful and interesting odyssey collecting these wonderful Rhythm sides in the Boston area. Starting with two wonderful Victor lps-One Never Knows,Do One? and Handful of Keys. These featured many of the Rhythm classics plus a couple of Fats' piano solos. Victor also added Ain't Misbehavin' (with many of the hit standards) and a Camden lp, The Real Fats Waller (more Rhythm and some of the transcriptions).(I purchased many of these at the Concord Music Shop, where I later worked) In the 60s, Victors' Vintage Series issued 5 great lps of Rhythm sides with a few piano solos to boot. In the late 60s, French RCA issued two 5lp Memorial sets with many Rhythm classics and piano/organ solos. Finally they issued single lps that covered the entire Waller output for Victor! I got most of these at the Harvard Coop in Cambridge from a fellow musical colleague Mark Pucci, who was working in the record dept.

The CD era has given us the Classics series of Complete Fats and the Bluebird Complete set on 6 volumes of CD boxes. If Fats had lived longer, I'm sure he would have continued with the Rhythm and expanded his great composing gifts. Fats is still swingin' and singin' in the 21st Century and will for many more to come.

As Fats would say-My, My, Latch On!

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