When I come home late at night I get my favourite dish
It made perfect sense to me that Harry Winslow should be crazy about Fats Waller because, as with Milton Caniff, he was at the peak of his popularity during Harry's teenage years and I was crazy about him myself. Waller's records were brash, bouncy, sly and joyous -- on some you can hear a party in the background -- and it's easy to hear how Waller's sound led inevitably to Louis Jordan's which led inevitably to rock and roll. And Waller had songs about marijuana and songs about cunillingus! The poor Andrews Sisters claimed not to have known what "Hold Tight (Want Some Seafood Mama)" was really about until they'd recorded their own version and someone finally told them -- they'd just thought it had a catchy tune.
The Mayor of Harlem
Born and raised in Harlem, his lay preacher father hoped young Waller would use his keyboard talent on the church organ but instead he fell under the tutelage of stride piano genius James P. "The Charleston" Johnson and never looked back. In his lifetime Waller wrote 450 compositions -- the best of them with Andy Razaf, a Madagascar prince -- and recorded 500 songs between 1930 and 1942. After taking ill during a night club engagement in Hollywood he boarded a train for the long ride home but died in Kansas City on December 15, 1943.
The single best Waller detail that never made it into Empress of Asia is that his ashes were scattered over Harlem by "The Black Ace," a World War I aviator.
Recorded in New York City on July 13, 1942, by Fats Waller & His Rhythm (Al Casey, guitar; Bugs Hamilton, trumpet; Gene Sedric, clarinet; Arthur Trappier, drums; Cedric Wallace, bass.) On August 1, 1942, the American Federation of Musicians called a strike over wages which prevented union musicians from playing their instruments at recording sessions. The strike lasted until November 1944, making the "Swing Out To Victory" session Waller's last.
Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA)
I was introduced to Waller's music in 2001 at a barbershop quartet competition in Abbotsford, BC, where my friend Barry Fairbridge's group was performing. One of the quartets performed a version of "Lulu's Back in Town," a song I'd never heard before but which lodged in my brain for the whole ride home.
If this old song sounds so catchy to me now, I thought, how insanely good would it have sounded to Harry Winslow in 1938? I learned that the song was originally recorded by Fats Waller, who until then I'd know in name only. There was a free music download site called Audiogalaxy operating at the time and I subsequently made good use of it.
The Empress of Asia Soundtrack
…if you were to assemble such a thing, would include "Perfidia" by Xavier Cugat, "Elmer's Theme" by Glenn Miller, "The Java Jive" by The Ink Spots, "Lulu's Back in Town" by Fats Waller, "T'Ain't No Sin" by Lee Morse & Her Bluegrass Boys, "Praise My Soul, the King of Heaven" by a British choir, "Tiger Rag" by The Mills Brothers, "If I Didn't Care" by The Ink Spots, "Our Don Bradman" by Art Leonard, "Mean Old Bed Bug Blues" by Bessie Smith, "Naguiné" by Django Reinhardt and "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire" by The Ink Spots. You could probably find room for some Tex Morton, Buddy Williams and The Singing Stockmen, too, along with a dozen more Fats Waller songs. In 2004 Barry and I saw the latest incarnation of The Ink Spots perform here in Penticton but came away disappointed -- their lead singer thought he was Whitney Houston or something and that's just not what the Ink Spots are about. He belted when he should've crooned.