On this Day in Movie History, May 21, 1904: Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller Was Born

On this day, May 21, 1904, a jazz pianist, organist, composer, singer, and comedic entertainer was born. Dubbed “the black Horowitz” this performer was credited with having composed some 400 popular songs of his era which are still popular today. Overcoming opposition from his clergyman father, he became a professional pianist at 15, working in cabarets and theaters. The prize pupil, and later friend and colleague, of stride pianist James P. Johnson, he was one of the most important pianist in the history of jazz. Born Thomas Wright Waller, you may know him as Fats Waller.

One of the most popular performers of his era, Waller found critical and commercial success in his homeland and in Europe. He was also a prolific songwriter and many songs he wrote or co-wrote are still popular, such as “Honeysuckle Rose”, “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and “Squeeze Me”.

Collaborating with the Tin Pan Alley lyricist Andy Razaf, Waller wrote “Squeeze Me” (1919), “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now”, “Ain’t Misbehavin'” (1929), “Blue Turning Grey Over You”, “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling” (1929), and “Jitterbug Waltz” (1942). He composed stride piano display pieces such as “Handful of Keys”, “Valentine Stomp” and “Viper’s Drag”.

Although Waller played with many performers, from Nat Shilkret and Gene Austin to Erskine Tate to Adelaide Hall, his greatest success came with his own five- or six-piece combo, “Fats Waller and his Rhythm”.

Playing once put him at risk of injury. Kidnapped in Chicago leaving a performance in 1926 by four men who bundled him into a car and took him to the Hawthorne Inn, owned by Al Capone. Ordered inside the building, Waller found a party in full swing. Gun to his back, he was pushed towards a piano, and told to play. Terrified Waller realized he was the “surprise guest” at Capone’s birthday party, and took comfort that the gangsters didn’t intend to kill him. According to rumor, Waller played for three days. When he left the Hawthorne Inn, he was very drunk, extremely tired, and had earned thousands of dollars in cash from Capone and other party-goers as tips.

Waller influenced many pre-bop jazz pianists; Count Basie and Erroll Garner have both reanimated his hit songs (notably, “Ain’t Misbehavin'”).

Waller performed Bach organ pieces for small groups on occasion. Between 1926 and the end of 1927, Waller recorded a series of pipe organ solo records. These represent the first time syncopated jazz compositions were performed on a full sized church organ.

On a cross country train trip near Kansas City, Missouri Waller contracted pneumonia and died on December 15, 1943. He was on his way back to Hollywood for more film work, after the smash success of “Stormy Weather” after making a final recording session with an interracial group in Detroit that included white trumpeter Don Hirleman. Ironically, as the train with the body of Waller stopped in Kansas City, so stopped a train with his dear friend Louis Armstrong on board.

Finding critical and commercial success in his homeland and in Europe, Waller was one of the most popular performers of his era. Fats Waller filmography included King of Burlesque (1935), Hooray for Love (1935), and Stormy Weather (1943). But it was perhaps the movies in which his songs appear for which he may be best known. IMDb lists 94 movies in which his songs appeared as part of the soundtrack.

1904 – Robert Montgomery (Henry Montgomery Jr.) (actor: Private Lives, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Here Comes Mr. Jordan; director: Eye Witness, Lady in the Lake, The Gallant Hours; host: Robert Montgomery Presents; father of actress, Elizabeth Montgomery; died Sep 27, 1981)

1917 – Raymond (William Stacy) Burr (actor: Perry Mason, Ironside, Rear Window, A Place in the Sun, The Defense Never Rests, Godzilla; died Sep 12, 1993)

1920 – Anthony (Maitland) Steel (actor: Wooden Horse, The Malta Story, Perfect Crime; married to actress Anita Ekberg; died Mar 21, 2001)

1924 – Peggy (Mary Margaret) Cass (comedienne: To Tell the Truth; actress: The Hathaways, Women in Prison, Aunty Mame, Paddy, Gidget Goes Hawaiian, Cheaters; radio serial: The Doctors; died Mar 8, 1999)

1941 – David Groh (actor: General Hospital, Rhoda, Hot Shot, Broken Vows, Illegal in Blue; died Feb 12, 2008)

1945 – Richard Hatch (actor: Battlestar Galactica, Ghetto Blaster, Party Line, Delta Force, Commando 2; radio host: Love on the Edge)

1948 – Carol Potter (actress; Beverly Hills 90210, Today’s F.B.I.)

1952 – Mr. T (Lawrence Tureaud) (actor: The A-Team, Rocky III, The Magic of the Golden Bear: Goldy 3, Spy Hard, Inspector Gadget)


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