This week, let's take a look at some clips of pianist, singer and songwriter Thomas "Fats" Waller, whose work inspired the hit musical Ain't Misbehavin', currently being revived by Stages St. Louis.
Waller made his first recordings in 1922 at the age of 18, and in just a few years became one of the most popular entertainers in the United States, performing in nightclubs and theaters, on the radio, and eventually in films. An excellent pianist, effective vocalist, and a charismatic presence with a talent for wisecracks and comic mugging, Waller also wrote dozens of hit songs, a good number of which are included in Ain't Misbehavin'. (Waller also had a St. Louis connection during the latter part of his career, as he often employed clarinetist and saxophonist Gene Sedric, who was born here in St. Louis.)
Waller's most famous film appearance was in the 1943 movie Stormy Weather, which became a commercial hit and still stands as a pivotal work in the history of African-American cinema. Sadly, it also would be his last appearance in a film, for while taking a cross-country train trip back to Hollywood to begin work on a follow-up movie, Waller contracted pneumonia and died while in route, near Kansas City, at the age of 39.
In the late 1970s, the success of Ain't Misbehavin' on Broadway (with a cast that included St. Louis native Ken Page) helped bring Waller's music to the attention of a new generation. More than 30 years later, the show continues to be revived regularly by professional, community and college theaters, ensuring that Waller and his music will be remembered fondly for a good while to come.
Today, we've got a half-dozen clips of Waller's own performances of songs included in Ain't Misbehavin', plus a little something extra. While these videos emphasize Waller as entertainer, rather than as virtuoso musician, they do include ample amounts of his playing and singing, and in addition to being historically important, they're just plain fun to see and hear.
Up top, we start with "The Joint Is Jumping," which serves as the first act closer of Ain't Misbehavin', and here is performed by Waller for a "Soundie" - a sort of early music video - depicting a house party. (Be sure you watch until the very end to see the cops who have come to bust the joint start dancing.)
Down below is Waller's performance of the song "Ain't Misbehavin'", taken from Stormy Weather. The lovely lady is none other than Lena Horne, and there also are glimpses of dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, drummer Zutty Singleton, bassist Slam Stewart and trumpeter Benny Carter.
The third clip depicts Waller performing "Honeysuckle Rose," one of his most famous compositions and one that has been covered by dozens of other singers and musicians. Next, it's "Your Feet's Too Big," a comedic number that demonstrates Waller's singular mix of erudition - note the use of the phrase "pedal extremities" - and earthiness. That's followed by another performance from Stormy Weather, a blues called "That Ain't Right" that features Waller and singer Ada Brown.
The last two clips show more visuals of dancers than of Waller, but still have both musical and historical interest. The first is a version of "I've Got My Fingers Crossed," which is used near the end of the second act of Ain't Misbehavin' as the show builds to a climax.
Finally, as a sort of lagniappe, there's one song that's not included in Ain't Misbehavin', a performance of "I'm Living In A Great Big Way" as sung in the 1935 film Hooray For Love by Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Waller. That's dancer Jeni Le Gon with Robinson at the beginning of the clip.
Stages' production of Ain't Misbehavin' runs until July 1, and features a live band led by pianist Adaron "Pops" Jackson and including Jason Swagler (alto sax, clarinet), Kendrick Smith (tenor sax, clarinet), Cody Henry (trombone), Matt Bittles (trumpet), Jahmal Nichols (bass), and Bernard Long, Jr. (drums). For ticket information and a schedule of performances, see the Stages St. Louis website.