Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller was born in New York City on 21 May 1904 and by the time he was sixteen he had already written his first hit song ‘Squeeze Me’, and established a reputation as one of the most likeable and talented of the exponents of Harlem stride piano. He idolised James P. Johnson, who gave him lessons and encouragement and even got him his first job at Leroy’s Cabaret on 135th Street and Fifth Avenue. His first work as an organist was at the Lincoln Theatre in Harlem in the mid Twenties, playing in the intermission between films. Count Basie, like Waller, just starting out, saw him play there…”I heard a young fellow beating it out on the organ. From that time on I was a daily customer, hanging on to his every note, fascinated with the ease his hands pounded the keys and his feet manipulated the pedals…” Waller really loved the organ, he could get more colour from it than the piano and eventually installed an electronic Hammond organ in his home. As Ashton Stephens wrote…”The organ is the favourite instrument of Fats’s heart; and the piano only of his stomach.”
This is a unique album. It features fourteen tracks originally cut by Fats Waller as piano rolls between 1923 and 1927 transposed through a player-piano mechanism to play the magnificent Compton Theatre Organ at the home of organist Ronald Curtis in his studio at Darcy Lever, Bolton. This instrument was originally installed in the Paramount Theatre, Liverpool, and consisted of four manuals and pedals and ten ranks of pipes. It has recently been enlarged and now contains extra pipes from a number of other Compton organs together with a tibia rank from a Wurlitzer, the aim being to produce the best possible ensemble.
In order to transpose the piano rolls through the organ, a standard 88 note player-piano was installed in the studio. The piano action was discarded, leaving the player mechanism intact, together with the gearing required to govern the tempo of the roll speed, and the bellows in the base of the piano to provide the suction necessary to work all the mechanism.
It is important to remember that the player action is pneumatic, whereas the Compton organ has electric action. The music is reproduced by means of a paper roll travelling over a metal tracker bar on which there are 88 holes – one for every note on the piano. As the roll passes over this bar, slits, representing the notes of music, pass over this bar and uncover a hole. This in turn collapses a small bellows in the player action and a note is sounded. The duration of the note depends on how long the slit is cut. When this small bellows collapses, an electrical contact is made which runs through to the organ. As the organ has only 61 notes per keyboard to the piano’s 88, the top and bottom octaves were ‘Tee’d’ into the corresponding top and bottom octaves on the organ and down onto the pedals.
From the player mechanism all the contacts are connected through onto the main organ manual, i.e., the Great organ on the master console. The other divisions are spread over two more of the organ manuals acing on the ‘solo’ and the ‘accompaniment’ departments. These are in turn able to be coupled onto the ‘Great’ organ at the console. Also available are various aids to assist the organist registrate the stops, and control the volume, by means of two swell pedals working directly on shutters in the organ chamber itself, and by combination pistons placed under each manual which, when pressed, will change groups of stops automatically. Finally there is a general crescendo pedal which works directly on all the stops and enables the player to go from ‘very soft’ to ‘very loud’ and back again in an instant, without moving the stops.
In order to immerse himself in Waller’s technique and choices of registration, and to make this album as authentic as possible, Ronald Curtis spent many weeks studying Fats Waller’s recordings, made in the Trinity Church Studio in Camden, New Jersey, and his performances with the Louisiana Sugar Babies and Shilkret’s Rhyth-Melodists. Of particular help were Waller’s 1938 recordings made on the Compton organ at the H.M.V. Studios, a sister instrument to the Paramount Theatre organ. Several test recordings were made to check tempi and dynamics before the master tapes were made and the final result is breath-taking. For the first time, we heard what Fats really sounded like at the Theatre organ, full authority, beautifully phrased and flowing with melody.
For Waller, melody was all important…”It’s melody that gives variety to the ear. That’s what makes popular music endure. It is my contention that the thing that makes a tune click is the melody, and give the public four bars of that to dig their teeth into, and you have a killer-diller. But regardless of how sweet that melodic line, how fast or slow, the good old left hand can always swing it out.”… Fats Waller was a sensitive and dedicated musician who could breathe soul into the blues while clowning behind that great big grin, and nearly forty years after his death it is a privilege to present a record that is completely new, authentic and exciting, and in superb stereo sound, made with much care and much love.
© 1981 KEVIN DALY