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Patrick Talty

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A Shade Of Odds...and all that jazz
by Patrick Talty   

Last edited: Monday, October 29, 2001
Posted: Monday, October 29, 2001

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I hypothetically offer a shade of odds to the reader about the chances of the subject of the article rising from a condition of genteel poverty and a love of "the high life" to riches and international fame beyond his wildest youthful dreams.

This is not just another rags to riches story. It's a story of one of the greatest of all show biz characters who went from genteel poverty to riches and enduring fame in defiance of the circumstances from which he sprang and in spite of his lovable, larrikin ways.

I tell you, my friend, if I had been a betting man and had lived in those times (the early 20th century) I'd have been willing to lay New York to a brick on that this son of a poor preacher would never rise above the class of his birth to become a brimming-with-talent piano man with a unique jazz touch. You can add to that a raspy vocal style with an ultra-engaging cheekiness of tone, and a presentation that won the hearts of several generations of jazz buffs. He was also a brilliant composer and a confirmed lover of liquor.

The tale becomes all the more incredible when we find that he was born into a family of eleven children. They were not a well-off family, but they got by. Unfortunately, six of the children died, but fortunately for himself, his family and the world the subject of our story was one of the survivors. They were a deeply religious family whose members (including our hero) attended a Baptist church regularly. In fact, the patriarch of the family was a lay preacher who was so "full of the spirit" that he often did his preaching on street corners using a soap box as a pulpit.

So far, so good! Here we have a member of a devout religious family, a bit of a musical prodigy who often played the organ in his father's church at quite an early age. Seems as though our hero's destiny was all laid out : to follow in his father's footsteps to become a preacher, or, at least a church organist. So, even given a shade of odds, wouldn't you be reluctant to place a bet on the chances of his breaking out of genteel poverty to become an internationally famous all-round entertainer based on a piano and vocal style that were so unique that they have never been successfully emulated?

Well, your reluctance to take the shade of odds would show you to be a person of intuitive wisdom, because the hero of our story is the late, great Mr. Thomas ("Fats") Waller, jazz pianist, vocalist and entertainer extraordinaire. He also wrote most of the songs that brought him universal fame and riches beyond his early dreams -in conjunction with a brilliant lyricist called Andy Razaf.

"Fats" Waller was born in New York in 1904. He quite early showed an aptitude for music and a capacity for long hours of practice on a piano bought for him from the proceeds of contributions from the entire family. In his mid-teens he was fortunate enough to come to the attention of James P. Johnson, "the king" of ragtime music in those days. Johnson, who was very impressed with his talents, encouraged and assisted him in many ways, including getting gigs for him in prestigious New York clubs.

During his progress along the pathway to fame and fortune, "Fats" developed a love of "the high life" and became notorious for his heavy drinking. However, these drinking habits and his high living did not stem the flow of his musical production. By the end of the 1930s he was also writing musical shows, one of which included what is, perhaps, his best-known song, "Ain't Misbehavin". Another of his many compositions which has ignored the ravages of time is "Honeysuckle Rose". He also appeared in a couple of films including "Stormy Weather" in which he co-starred with the great female jazz vocalist, Lena Horne.

Sadly, in 1943, he contracted pneumonia, and died on 15th December in New York.

Finally, my friend, let me make a suggestion as to how you can spend the money you saved through your reluctance to accept the shade of odds I might have offered you. Go to your nearest music store and buy a CD featuring "Fats" Waller and his music (yes, they are still available fifty odd years after his death!). You won't regret it, I can confidently assure you!

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Reviewed by Victoria Murray
Very nicely written...
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