Mister Waller’s Regrets
Thomas Wright Waller, born in Harlem in 1904 and subsequently known to all the world as “Fats,” is one of the few great jazz musicians to have been widely popular with the public at large. He appeared often on radio, and the small-group recordings he made between 1934 and 1942 sold well—several were hits—and were heard frequently on jukeboxes. In addition, he wrote the music for such standards as “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Honeysuckle Rose,” and at the time of his death in 1943 he had a successful show on Broadway, Early to Bed. Though Hollywood was slower to catch on to his potential, Waller’s appearance with Lena Horne and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in Stormy Weather (in which he performed “Ain’t Misbehavin’”) was favorably noticed, and he would surely have made more films had he not died shortly after Stormy Weather was released.
Perhaps inevitably, Waller’s popularity caused some to doubt his musical seriousness—though it never led anyone to question his talent. As a pianist he was universally admired and immensely influential, and he left behind ample recorded evidence of his formidable gifts. He was no less accomplished as an organist, the first to play hard-swinging jazz on that cumbersome instrument. But what made Waller a celebrity was not his instrumental prowess but his singing, which he usually (though not always) played for laughs. Most of his hit records were of Tin Pan Alley ballads like “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie” and “Until the Real Thing Comes Along,” whose sentimentalities he skewered with satirical asides.
About the Author
Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.