In honor of Black History Month, MTI Marquee is featuring shows from out catalog that deal with the national celebration’s themes, and those African American artists whose work has helped shape musical theater history. Falling into the latter category is Thomas “Fats” Waller, the musician and composer who’s work makes up the score for AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’.
A two-act revue, AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ features songs by Waller and various lyricists. Though the show, created by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horwitz, isn’t exactly a Waller biography, the piece spans music from his career and brings to life the “comic and musical soul of 1930’s Harlem” – Waller’s stomping ground. AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, which opened in 1978, was awarded two Tony awards, Best Musical and Best Featured Actress: Nell Carter. Largely regarded as the prototypical “jukebox” or “catalogue” musical, it garnered a significant amount of praise for its (then) unique structure. The show is known for bringing Waller’s work to an unfamiliar generation. Even those already familiar with his music might be surprised to discover title song “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” were written by this melodic genius.
Born in 1903, Harlem Thomas Wright “Fats” was the son of a Baptist minister. As a child he learned to play the organ in his father’s church, where the seeds of musical history were planted. After going on to become a renowned jazz pianist, “Fats” Waller became a profound figure in the Harlem Renaissance. A cultural movement in the 1920′s and 30′s, the Harlem Renaissance launched many black American artists to popular recognition, a previously unprecedented occurrence given the lack of interest by white “cultural authorities” and legal restriction. It was during this time that Waller rose to prominence. His work stands as a prime example of the musical styles and choices being innovated in that revolutionary environment.
In the early 1920′s “Fats” begin making a name for himself as a musician. At the age of 18 he recorded his first piano solos, Muscle Shoals Blues and Birmingham Blues. 1928 marked Waller’s Broadway debut with the musical KEEP ON SHUFFLIN’. That same year, he also made his Carengie Hall debut. In 1929 he and lyricist Andy Razaf (collaborator on …SHUFFLIN’) composed LOAD OF COAL and HOT CHOCOLATES, the latter with another BLACK HISTORY MONTH- Innovative Musical Contributions subject Eubie Blake. In 1929 Waller released his incomparable tune “Ain’t Misbehavin” which would later become a star vehicle for both Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong.
Since his death from pneumonia in 1943 at the age of 39, “Fats” Waller and his music have been honored by numerous awards (including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement) and countless “hall of fame” inductions (Big Band & Jazz Hall of Fame, Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, and Grammy Hall of Fame). His music has stood the test of time and his legacy has contributed monumentally to the expansion and diversification of the Broadway musical as an art form. Sadly, artists of color have historically faced discrimination and lack of opportunity in the world of musical theatre, particularly mainstream venues like Broadway, despite creating work that deserved (and deserves) recognition. Shows like AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ allow the work of these artists to continue to reach audiences nationwide.