Is there anyone finer
In the state of Carolina?
If there is and you know her,
Here’s one I associate with my childhood, The Vocal Fats Waller, a compilation from 1972 but music from the 30’s and 40’s. I really love this music, it’s a little like slipping into a warm bath for me, but is it any good? Spoiler Alert: Yes! But first let’s have some facts:
Something of a piano prodigy, he became a player in various Harlem theatres from the age of 14 or 15 onwards; a prolific composer he apparently sold the writing credits on many well-known tunes of the day for a pittance in times of need; a master of the stride piano form and a charismatic larger-than-life performer he became very popular domestically and in Europe; he released over one hundred and fifty 78rpm records in 9 years; his pipe organ records soundtrack David Lynch’s Eraserhead; he was kidnapped at gunpoint in Detroit to play at a party thrown by Al Capone for three days; he died at the age of 39 in ’43 and his ashes were scattered over Harlem by an unknown black World War 1 aviator.
At his best here Fats Waller was just sublime, his songs tilt, ride and glide right on by, waved on by that effortless voice and that easy, easy piano. At worst it hits my cabaret gag reflex, but even in this Fats is never less than entirely charming. Take ‘Ain’t Misbehavin”, that beautiful cascading, striding piano underpinned by some brush strokes and a little sparing bass is just beautiful, so much so that almost a minute and a half of a four-minute song is given over to the intro. I like the way it gains momentum and umm, jazzes out before coming back down to earth at the end. Fats Waller rarely seems to get mentioned when all the great black jazz pianists are discussed, but he should do, what he plays is deceptively hard. But never mind all that, I just totally fall for the easy sentimental nature of the song.
I don’t stay out late
Don’t care to go
I’m home about eight
Just me and my radio
I’m savin’ my love for you
Here’s the version filmed for the 1943 film Stormy Weather, without the intro:
Check out the Louis Armstrong like ‘The Joint is Jumpin”, which is in it’s comparatively polite way, as wild as The Vocal Fats Waller gets; or, the bitter-sweet ‘I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself a Letter’*, perfectly poised, perfectly played, perfectly judged. I’m also a sucker for the comedy turns of ‘You’re Not The Only Oyster In The Stew’ and the joyously silly ‘Your Feet’s Too Big’. I’ve loved the latter since I was about nine.
Say up in Harlem at a table for two
There were four of us, me, your big feet and you
From your ankles up, I’d say you sure are sweet
From there down there’s just too much feet
To me you look just like a fossil
You got me walkin’, talkin’ and squawkin’
‘Cause your feet’s too big, yeah
As an adult I find all the clowning and mugging for the cameras slightly conflicting. I know it was, as always, a product of its times but it does smack a little of the early Disney movies and The Black & White Minstrel Show for me too – the only way in which a black performer could get to be successful for a racially mixed audience was to be and to seem as non-threatening as possible, a clown at best; never show your teeth, unless it was in one of those big famous grins! I know that I am looking at it with 21st Century eyes** and that essentially what Fats was pedalling here was light entertainment, but it does rankle a bit. It rankled with Fats Waller too, the whole clownish, quipping asides while he played, fun persona did limit some of his musical ambitions, but when the chips fall an artist still has to eat and provide for himself and others; and Chuck D was some years off being invented. The social, racial issues stirred up by WW2 hadn’t hit yet when Fats died and so he never got to see that younger, wilder breed of musicians that came afterwards – whether he would approved, or not is an entirely different question.
But, ignore my anachronistic silliness and instead just kick back and enjoy The Vocal Fats Waller, or any one of a 1,000,000 similar Fats Waller compilations all of which tend to have some dross mixed in with the genuine nuggets of brilliance. Just enjoy the fun and the exquisite delivery, that airy easiness of it all.
My very good friend, the mailman says
That it would make his burden less
We both had the same address
And he suggests that you should marry me
*source of the title for Paul McCartney’s Kisses On The Bottom.
**well 20th century, but you know what I mean.