Thomas Wright "Fats" Waller (May 21, 1904 – December 15, 1943) was an American jazz pianist, organist, composer, violinist, singer, and comedic entertainer. His innovations in the Harlem stride style laid the groundwork for modern jazz piano. His best-known compositions, "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Honeysuckle Rose", were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1984 and 1999. Waller copyrighted over 400 songs, many of them co-written with his closest collaborator, Andy Razaf. Razaf described his partner as "the soul of melody... a man who made the piano sing... both big in body and in mind... known for his generosity... a bubbling bundle of joy". It is likely that he composed many more popular songs than he has been credited with: when in financial difficulties he had a habit of selling songs to other writers and performers who claimed them as their own.
Waller started playing the piano at the age of six, and became a professional organist at age 15. By the age of 18, he was a recording artist. Waller's first recordings, "Muscle Shoals Blues" and "Birmingham Blues", were made in October 1922 for Okeh Records. That year, he also made his first player piano roll, "Got to Cool My Doggies Now". Waller's first published composition, "Squeeze Me", was published in 1924. He became one of the most popular performers of his era, touring internationally and achieving critical and commercial success in the United States and Europe. He died from pneumonia, aged 39.
Waller was the seventh child of 11 (five of whom survived childhood) born to Adeline Locket Waller, a musician, and Reverend Edward Martin Waller, a trucker and pastor in New York City. He started playing the piano when he was six and graduated to playing the organ at his father's church four years later. His mother instructed him in his youth, and he attended other music lessons, paying for them by working in a grocery store. Waller attended DeWitt Clinton High School for one semester, but left school at 15 to work as an organist at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem, where he earned $32 a week. Within 12 months he had composed his first rag. He was the prize pupil and later the friend and colleague of the stride pianist James P. Johnson. His mother died on November 10, 1920 from a stroke due to diabetes.
Waller's first recordings, "Muscle Shoals Blues" and "Birmingham Blues", were made in October 1922 for Okeh Records. That year, he also made his first player piano roll, "Got to Cool My Doggies Now". Waller's first published composition, "Squeeze Me", was published in 1924.
Later in Waller's career, he had the distinction of becoming the first African-American songwriter to compose a hit Broadway musical that was seen by a mostly white audience. Broadway producer Richard Kollmar's hiring of Waller to create the 1943 musical Early to Bed was recalled in a 2016 essay about Waller by John McWhorter, an American academic and linguist who is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
Waller contracted pneumonia and died on December 15, 1943, while traveling aboard the famous cross-country Los Angeles–Chicago train the Super Chief near Kansas City, Missouri. His final recording session was with an interracial group in Detroit, Michigan, that included white trumpeter Don Hirleman. Waller was returning to New York City from Los Angeles, after the smash success of Stormy Weather, and after a successful engagement at the Zanzibar Room in Santa Monica, California, during which he had fallen ill.:6 More than 4,200 people were estimated to have attended his funeral at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem,:7 which prompted Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who delivered the eulogy, to say that Fats Waller "always played to a packed house."