JAZZ / Ain't misbehavin', just laughing at life: Robert Cushman recalls the genius of Fats Waller, the hard-living jazz giant who died 50 years ago next week

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The Independent Culture
THOMAS Fats Waller did not compose either 'My Very Good Friend the Milkman' or 'When Somebody Thinks You're Wonderful'. This may explain why neither was included in Ain't Misbehavin', the theatrical celebration of Fats that took New York by storm in the 1970s. It may have contributed to the show's failure in Britain where Waller's recordings of both numbers - one spry, the other lolloping - have always been treasured.

They were perennial favourites on Housewives' Choice in the Fifties, but I doubt if many of the choosers were hardcore jazz fans; Waller was probably more successful than anyone at translating jazz into pop. I suspect that he appealed to a wider audience even than Louis Armstrong. Armstrong's humour sometimes puzzled or unsettled people, but Waller's was an intrinsic part of the act. His singing, too, was more accessible. The voice - a high baritone - may not have been conventionally beautiful but it was clear, and uncluttered, and always in tune. It was gravelly only when its owner wanted it to be, and it always sang recognisable words; no scatting. And of course Waller the pianist had one signal advantage over Armstrong the trumpeter. He could sing and play simultaneously. His piano sparkled, and if Fats's music could hardly match Louis's for intensity that may not have hurt it with the customers. People knew Waller wanted them to be happy.

'When Somebody Thinks You're Wonderful' radiates insouciance; it's a suave foot-tapper. The 'Milkman' song is another long-line melody but one that bounces rather than glides. It's one of Waller's gentler comic turns; he doesn't have to inject humour because it's there already. The lyric is by Johnny Burke, a master of discreetly balanced whimsy, and the song tells how the singer is being willingly badgered by the local tradesmen into proposing marriage. Like many songs of the 1910s it takes pride in spinning lightly witty variations on a romantic theme. It says that being in love is a serious matter worth being funny about. Waller's gleeful performance says the same about the business of singing and playing a love-song.

The point is worth making since the standard line is that Waller despised the songs he was forced to perform and showed it by exaggerating the lyrics in his singing and deflating them with his patter, all the while reshaping the music far beyond its intrinsic worth. This is a neat combination of tricks if you can manage it, and doubtless he did from time to time. But one can't generalise. One of Waller's most virulent performances is of a sodden number called 'How Can You Face Me'. 'WOMAN,' he thunders, 'have you no conscience?' He seems to have been remarkably even-handed; the song he is mocking is one he wrote himself. Maybe he just got carried away. One of his most sardonic comments - 'I wonder what the poor people are doing tonight', with its wry sequel, 'wish I was doing it with them' - crops up in his performance (instrumental only) of a song he certainly respected: the spiritual 'Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child'.

The biographers tell us that for most of his life Fats did feel like a motherless child. Born in 1904, he adored his mother, who spoilt him and whom he lost at an early age. He had an uneasy relationship with his father, a Harlem preacher who distrusted secular entertainment but none the less had a musical influence on his son; some of Waller's profoundest playing was done on the organ. He was a successful musician and composer by the end of the 1920s and a recording and radio star from the mid-1930s. He made big money (and spent it), and did time in jail for non-payment of alimony. Playing the American South, he commented bitterly on the audiences who applauded him and then barred him from their hotels. He said that many black musicians 'went South by Greyhound and returned by bloodhound'.

It's conceivable that he wasn't even too thrilled by his weight. He had a good-time image in work and in life, but he was warned that his eating and more especially his drinking might kill him, and eventually they did. He died, 50 years ago next week, on a train from Los Angeles to New York; of pneumonia, but it would not have got him if his system had not been so thoroughly abused. The familiar pictures of Fats, all derby hat and roguish grin, suggest a man laughing compulsively and therefore defensively, not at music but at life.

Which doesn't mean the laughter wasn't genuine. On his recording of 'Until the Real Thing Comes Along', a middling-good song, he interrupts the musical flow of protestations about what he'll do for love with a quickfire 'You want me to rob a bank, well I won't'. It bubbles up out of nowhere, and he gets back to singing without a break in rhythm. His biggest hit, 'I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter', goes by without an interpolation. Maybe he sensed that the song was its own little joke, needing no embroidery. His opening instrumental chorus harks back to the Harlem pianists' roots in ragtime: not in its metre but in its delicate, contemplative tone. He then takes a plaintive, understated vocal - no kidding, and with a clarinet obbligato reinforcing the mood - and a rejected song turns into a standard before our ears. It's undergone some strange mutations since, including a feverish performance from Lena Horne that so muddles the pronouns you want to sit her right down and ask her just who she thinks is writing what to whom.

I get the same feeling from Waller's most celebrated comedy turn, 'Your Feet's Too Big'. Nobody could resist a song with such a title, and you can hear Waller taking off on it, pounding out the rhythm, inflating the title into 'your pedal extremities are colossal'. But I still don't know whose feet are being arraigned: his own or a male or female friend's. It's very frustrating.

Most of Waller's own songs were written before stardom struck, and he only returned on disc to the best-known of them: to 'Honeysuckle Rose', or 'Ain't Misbehavin' ', which may have the best title of any song ever, so casually, wickedly disarming in its double negative. Very Fats. One of his last recordings was a slow version of it with wonderful piano runs that make a square-cut staccato tune sound languorous.

In his last year Waller returned to composing, becoming the first black composer to write a non- black Broadway show, a carnal romp called Early to Bed. The show is forgotten and so, undeservedly, are the songs. They include the best ballad he wrote, 'There's a Man in My Life', and a first-rate comedy production number, 'The Ladies Who Sing with the Band', which suggest that, had he lived, he might have become a major theatre composer. The tag-line for a talent so bountiful, so agreeable, and so self-destructive, is inescapable. One never knows. Do one?

'Ain't Misbehavin' ', a CD EP containing six of Waller's hits, is released on 13 Dec (BMG/RCA). 'Lives of the Great Songs' returns next week.

(Photograph omitted)