Fats Waller was quite often in trouble. A man who lived the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle back in the 1920s, he had impressive appetites – gin, food, women, cars – and was mind-bogglingly hopeless in the making and losing of money. The word ‘unreliable’ doesn’t begin to cover his eventful career.
And in late 1929, he was in jail. He had for the umpteenth time failed to support his ex-wife and their family – or, as his son Maurice put it in a 1977 memoir of his father,
‘Dad suffered from a relapse of amnesia and totally forgot about Edith’s alimony.‘
The normal sources of financial support were unable to help this time. Even the producer/gangster Arnold Rothstein (‘the Brain’, Damon Runyon called him), who owed Fats back royalties, was inconveniently shot dead by a rival at just the wrong time for Fats. To add to his travails while he was in jail, his father Edward died from a heart attack.
It was Gene Austin, one of the great crooners of the time, who came to the rescue. Offering bail, he told the judge that Mr Waller was required for a recording session that afternoon and, that if he was unable to play, many musicians would lose work. And these are hard times, your honour.
The judge relented and accepted bail.
According to Maurice Waller, the story had a less than happy ending.
‘Pop was jubilant. Released from jail and reunited with his expectant wife, he even had a job to repay Austin for his kindness. Dad rushed out of court, put Mom in a cab, and headed off to the recording session. But that day’s hardships weren’t over. When he arrived at the studio, he found out, as did the orchestra, that he was the only black hired to play. As soon as they saw him, the white musicians announced that they were not going to play with “Austin’s nigger”.
Gene wanted Fats Waller to do the recording, and Dad was in no position to huff out of the studio after his friend had just posted bail for him. Eventually Gene was able to effect a settlement. The orchestra was placed at one end of the studio, grouped around a microphone, and the black pianist at the other end of the room with his own mike.’
Fats Waller’s career had everything – jazz, excess, prejudice, rip-offs, gangsters, triumphs and disasters. Yet, reading the two determinedly affectionate portraits written by his son, and a few years earlier, by his manager WT Ed Kirkeby in Ain’t Misbehavin‘, I found that, for all his roly-poly bonhomie, he was a difficult character to warm to.
His profligate talent for melody, though, was something else.
In the year he went to jail, he had already written an astonishing number of songs, including ‘A Handful of Keys’. ‘Ain’t Misbehavin”, Sweet Savannah Sue’, ‘I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling’, and the wonderful anti-prejudice song ‘Black and Blue’. In July, desperate for cash, he had sold the copyright to no less than 15 songs, including ‘Ain’t Misbehavin” and ‘Black and Blue’ for $500. He was so productive that, when things were tight – as they usually were – he and his main lyricist Andy Razaf would do the rounds of Tim Pan Alley publishers and sell off songs – frequently the same songs – by the batch.
Like great songwriters of later years – Chuck Berry, Willie Nelson, Paul McCartney – he hit a stage in his life when wonderful, commercial pop songs just poured out of him, and 1929 was the peak of that period.
The story of how my favourite Fats Waller tune ‘I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling’ was written is told Ed Kirkeby.
‘Fats’ career proceeded apace this summer. One day he ran into Harry Link [another songwriter, who later wrote ‘These Foolish Things’] in a publisher’s office.
“Hey, Fats! What you got there?” Link nodded to a manuscript under Fats’ arm.
“Oh, just a little bit of music, Harry. Gonna be a big hit, I expect – well, one never knows, do one?”
“Let’s go over to my place.” Link opened the door, and they both went out and across to the Santly Brothers Publishing Company.
“Now, let’s hear that song,” Link said, as he cleared some music from the rack of the piano.
He listened intently to the tune Fats played and shook his head in admiration.
“Good, Fats, how about us doing this together? I’ll get some Billy Rose to get some lyrics out on it….”
The song was indeed a hit and was widely covered at the time, including by Fanny Brice whose performance was edited into Woody Allen’s film Zelig.
For me, it’s the perfect Tin Pan Alley song – light, cheerful, seamless, a perfect marriage of deceptively simple lyrics with a great tune. The chord sequence for the chorus (in the key C, it goes C, B7, Gm7, A7), is irresistibly catchy, the idea behind the title is clever, and I love the way the song progresses and tells a story. I particularly like the middle eight and how it leads back to the final verse.
‘I used to travel single-oh
We chanced to mingle-oh
Now I’m a-tingle o-
Hey, Mr Parson, stand by,
‘Cos I’ve got a feeling I’m falling,
Falling for nobody else but you.’
I thought I would choose a version by my favourite 1920s singer Annette Hanshaw for this Friday song but, listening to it, I found it too fast and I don’t like the way the intro is put in the middle of the song.
Fats Waller’s saviour in 1929, Gene Austin, does the song perfect justice with his smooth, unfussy, warm-hearted interpretation. There is no live footage but here is Austin performing a song called ‘Blue Sky Avenue’ in 1934.
He is said to have insisted that the piano accompaniment on all his recordings had to be by Fats Waller, and his version of ‘Ain’t Misbehavin” bears comparison to the more famous one by its composer.
So here is one of the best songs from that annus mirabilis of song-writing, 1929.