This Day in Black History: May 21, 1904

Fats Waller, noted jazz pianist and composer, was born.

Posted: 05/21/2013 08:00 AM EDT

(Photo: Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller  was a celebrated jazz pianist, organist, singer, composer and comedic entertainer. He was born in New York City on May 21, 1904, and began playing the piano at the age of six. By the time he turned 14, he was playing the organ at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem and had composed his first song by the time he was 15.

Waller was one of the most renowned and celebrated performers of his era. He was particularly popular not just in the United States but also in Europe. He was also a prolific songwriter and many of the songs that he wrote are still popular, including “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (1929) and “Honeysuckle Rose” (1934), which are in the Grammy Hall of Fame as recordings of “qualitative or historical significance.” Other recordings by Waller include “After You’ve Gone” (1930), “African Ripples” (1935) and “Jitterbug Waltz” (1942). 

Waller died in 1943 at age 39, after contracting pneumonia on a cross-country train trip near Kansas City. He was posthumously inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame; in 1970 he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame; in 1989 he was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame and in 1993 he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

A Broadway musical revue showcasing his tunes, Ain’t Misbehavin’, was produced in 1978 and ran for over 1,600 performances. Biographies of Waller include Ain’t Misbehaving: The Story of Fats Waller (1975) and Fats Waller (2005).

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