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Al Casey

Swinging guitarist with Fats Waller

Albert Aloysius Casey, guitarist and bandleader: born Louisville, Kentucky 15 September 1915; married (one son); died New York 11 September 2005.

"Is you all on, Fats?" Fats Waller would ask himself as he looked down anxiously over his shoulder for the piano stool his huge frame had just engulfed. Born in Kentucky 90 years ago today, Al Casey was a schoolboy when he moved with his grandmother to New York in 1930 and first met Fats Waller.

Two of Casey's uncles and two of his aunts, already in the city, had formed a gospel quartet called the Southern Singers, which had worked with Waller on radio programmes. They took the 14-year-old to Waller's house to play for him and Waller immediately arranged for Casey to record in his band:

Recording with him was a light-hearted business. The record people would give him all those pop tunes the other artists refused. Fats would look through the music. "OK," he'd say. "We'll try this one." Then we'd make the record. Just like that. Sometimes we cut seven or eight numbers in three hours.

He insisted that I go back to school to complete my education. But in June 1933, three weeks after graduating, I was in the bus and riding with Fats.

Casey came from a musical family and was forced to learn the violin. He hated the sound of it and as soon as he could jettisoned it for the ukulele. Once in New York he studied guitar at DeWitt Clinton High School before his uncles sent him to the Martin Smith Music School for three years.

During the first part of his career Casey played a mainly chordal style on the guitar and it was only later, after Waller's death in 1943, that he concentrated on electric guitar and the delightful single string solos that swung so much. He had such a powerful ability to swing that he had no need for complex solos and compared to other guitarists used a minimum of notes. This style can best be heard on the remarkably swinging blues feature that he recorded with Waller "Buck Jumpin' " (1941). This was a big hit at the time and Casey continued to play it regularly for the rest of his career. As far as could be judged it never lost any of its irresistible swing in later performances.

Once in Waller's band Casey stayed with the mighty pianist and alcoholic for most of the next 10 years. During that time he made more than 230 recordings with him. Waller, in an unusual display of taking responsibility, behaved to Casey like a father, and the guitarist grew up to be a quiet and gentle man, loved by everyone he met.

This was despite the fact that over the years he must have been exposed to some of the most surreal musical happenings - and not just with Waller. Casey told me, with some diffidence, of Billie Holiday's habit of sitting naked in the musicians' band room before and after being on stage. Casey worked and recorded on many occasions with Holiday and with many of the great Mainstream musicians of the Thirties and Forties - Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Edmond Hall, Benny Carter, Art Tatum, Earl Hines, Frankie Newton.

When Waller died Casey joined the trio of the pianist Clarence Profit but eventually formed his own trio with a pianist and a bassist. They worked in 52nd Street's Onyx Club for 11 months and then crossed the street for a long residency at the Down Beat. By now he was winning magazine polls for his playing. He shared billing with many of the emerging bebop musicians but resolutely avoided their influence to stay with swing, although there are signs of the new music in his solo work on the recordings by the Esquire All Stars of 1943.

Casey made a particularly successful trip to California, and appeared with Armstrong, Hawkins, Tatum, Jack Teagarden and others in a historic Esquire All-American Awards concert at New York's Metropolitan Opera House. In 1957 he joined the rhythm and blues band led by the saxophonist King Curtis, which led to much studio work.

In 1980, by then a veteran, he made a rewarding first tour of Britain with the pianist Ralph Sutton. The same year, Casey joined the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band, which toured the world with success until the middle Nineties. A small band drawn from the group and led by Casey was resident at the Louisianan Community Bar and Grill from 1992 to 1997.

A 90th birthday celebration arranged for Al Casey today at St Peter's Church in New York will now become a musical memorial to the guitarist.

Steve Voce