Fats Waller: Centennial Collection

Robert R. Calder

Fats Waller

Centennial Collection

Label: RCA Victor
US Release Date: 2004-04-20
UK Release Date: Available as import

This set's by and large a sheerly technological update on the first model of Fats Waller 12-inch vinyl LP American RCA Victor produced in the '50s. With the exception of a two-LP set of studio recordings for radio broadcast, its pattern was followed through the decades of vinyl production. This CD simply has more titles (a radio session, an organ feature, and a neatly naughty item recorded for export to troops in time of war -- understandably not issued at the time). The second disc in the box is a DVD. Beside an animation founded on Waller's recording of "Your Feet's Too Big", there's film footage of Waller in variety or vaudeville stage music routines (one from a movie, the others "soundies", earlier more music-centred precedents of latterday pop videos). Great fun, but really the DVD tracks ought to be listed on the liner booklet beside the 22 items on the audio CD . Given the availability of other Waller collections on sometimes low-price CD, the DVD is surely the major buying point. There's nothing else special about its re-representation of the commonplace Waller image, a vast cliche which locks out the depth of the man and the range of his music. It's based on the commercial treatment of his talents on issued recordings (RCA Victor) from 1935 on, the year following what's spoken of as his breakthrough.

There's an enormous variety in Waller's few dozen recordings (mostly for RCA Victor) from 1934 and before. Check for reference to collections from the whole of Waller's recorded range -- with a variety of ensembles of front-line and (daringly at the time in public, though commonplace after hours) both black and white musicians, as well as some piano solos. It took several vinyl albums for French RCA to pioneer the issue of all Waller's pre-1934 recordings in chronological order. French RCA also collected all his solo piano recordings, belatedly, on LP. Other than a Scandinavian independent's mostly bootlegged collection including studio and off-the air-recordings, the first LP of Waller piano solos was issued by Argentinian RCA Victor. Mike Lipskin has seen the piano solos all onto a 2-CD RCA set.

The public fed the American RCA Victor misconstruction of Waller was not, it seems, to be twitted, or given the idea dear ole Fats wasn't predictable. For all that he'd done and continued to do, the formula was trumpet, saxophone/clarinet, guitar, bass and drums, on mostly the latest ephemeral pop-song with Waller vocal. One used to be told of amazing send-ups which redeemed the direst material. The direst material is irredeemable.

Most band numbers on this set make me think Waller was actually parodying his "stride" piano style by playing four-square and fustian when not being elaborately fanciful. There is a reliance on stock phrases, but why take routine seriously. Mike Lipskin's reference to the untroubled ease with which tunes were turned into band performance underrates the group's professionalism and ignores how little was usually involved. Why do different things on, respectively, tune A and tune B when you can't tell the difference between tune A and tune B? (Tunes of A & B types are not represented here)

The opening track of the audio CD in this set is both clever and not clever. The announcer preceding Waller's performance of "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" is a period touch. Waller's first recorded performance of that song rescued it from oblivion undeserved or otherwise? In musical as well as comedic terms there's at least one better version of which could have been used, Brrrrrlieve me!

There's nothing from the November 7, 1934 recording date for Victor, which was the nearest Waller's Rhythm came to having top-line personnel. The teenaged Al Casey (b.1915) was and remained one of the major jazz guitarists (his feature with Waller, "Buck Jumpin'", ain't here but ought to have been! It shows Waller clowning in the background without interfering with a first-rate musical performance). Bizarrely, Casey's under-represented on this set -- a disproportionate number of titles have the efficient John Smith on guitar. Incidentally the publicity bumph with this set refers to a guitar solo "from the rhythm" on one of the DVD titles. So why shouldn't I think of the blurbist who penned that insult as a faceless wonder? The November '34 date also had Bill Coleman, unique lyric trumpeter. Waller's usual reedman was Gene Sedric, overrated as a jazzman by Hugues Panassie but abidingly interesting for a St. Louis clarinet style his contemporary Norman Mason had to abjure (playing in Singleton Palmer's band in their hometown) to meet public demand for a "Dixieland" style strictly of the tourist brochure.

Sedric and Waller had a little comedy routine useful when playing schmutter, a mock salon, palm court, or Balldorf Pasteuria style. The virtuoso flourishes, the phrasing in Waller's clownings and parodies are incredible.

The piano solo "Original E-Flat Blues" is different, not only wistful but quiet (judging from the curious sound of the lower keys on the piano); the recording level might have been bumped up in the studio. Waller's playing with Eddie Condon on the Commodore label is quiet and scarcely identifiable as his -- and perhaps not only because he was moonlighting.

Why is the recording selected from radio archives "rare"? Is it perhaps because it's one of the duller sets, with the solo piano feature "Hallelujah" maybe Waller's tamest ever recording of it? He wasn't tame in the "If You're a Viper" recording the troops didn't get to hear -- and couldn't have understood if unacquainted with the use, abuse, and effects of marijuana.

This CD isn't all that bad a selection from the cross-section of orthodox Waller the public knew and loved, but while Charlie Shavers's "Undecided" was a rare inclusion of better material in that repertoire, well, the performance is poor, rhythmically lumpy, the tempo amiss, with a performance matching all that could be done with some standard songplugger's rubbish. November '34 had everything, from fresh comedy to good music, the ideal repertoire from all sides. We do have a long organ performance in a style which re-emerged full-blown at the feet and fingers of Count Basie on one of his memorable two-keyboard recordings with Oscar Peterson, a large sound nothing like subsequent jazz organists. On this 1927 title there's modest vocal encouragement and surprisingly late in the performance a vocal from the admirable Alberta Hunter, "Beale Street Blues". The closer, "'Tain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do" (1940), taken at a brisker pace than usual, is one of the best performances by Waller and his Rhythm. There are even hints of the piano style that might have been to come.

Waller's talents bespoke a considerable future as musician as well as entertainer and songwriter. He died not, I think, of "overwork rather than pneumonia", as Mike Lipskin's sleevenote has it, but of his whole way of life and situation. Not mentioned by Lipskin, in Paris in the 1930s Hugues Panassie found him a quiet enough spirit, with an enthusiasm for one vin du table which could only be accounted for by naivety and the effects of prohibition bathtub gin on his palate. Waller was entranced by the organ (the "God-Box") in Notre Dame Cathedral, and in London he composed and recorded a suite of piano solos as well as (with Scottish, English and Caribbean musicians) more items on his standard recording pattern of the time. Waller toured in the USA sometimes with a more or less ad hoc big band, recording one masterpiece (which could have been here!) in "I Got Rhythm". It has one of the only five or six soprano sax solos ever recorded by Emmett Matthews, a rare individual voice on that horn. The band itself hardly saw the inside of a studio, but its "I Got Rhythm" includes representation of Waller's nightly on-stage duel with the staff pianist, the tiny sorely neglected Hank Duncan. It was modelled on the "cutting contests" which went on at those rent parties so much is made of in Professor Lipskin's notes. The still earlier band called "Fats Waller and his Buddies" deserves mention too. On such music, Mike Lipskin also had a hand in some of the better efforts to represent Waller qua musician which can be found in the CD repertoire. See

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.