The jazz world has its share of legendary figures, and Thomas “Fats” Waller ranks as one of the most memorable. His enormous talent and humor are only paralleled by his infamous hedonistic lifestyle. Obviously, Waller often approached life like an all-you-can eat buffet, but his musical talent and influence were equally as vast. With Fats Waller The Cheerful Little Earful, British writer, Alyn Shipton provides an entertaining and informative look at this American master.
Many of Waller’s recordings, such as Honeysuckle Rose, Ain’t Misbehavin’, and I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter, became some of the most memorable songs of the twentieth century. His innate joy shows through in his music. Besides his gift for composition, though, Waller made a name for himself as a virtuoso pianist. This talent provides the primary focus for Cheerful Little Earful.
There are few writers who can compare to Shipton. His output is impressive, to say the least. The recently-published A New History of Jazz proves testament to his vast knowledge of not only jazz music but careful attention to detail and research. This book alone would be a lifelong achievement for many writers, but like Waller, Shipton’s talent seems practically inexhaustible. He hosts jazz programs for the BBC, serves as a critic for The Times in London, and has written several books on performers such as Dizzy Gillespie.
Cheerful Little Earful, is a revision of an earlier work. So why would Shipton want to update one of his earlier books when there are so many other projects at hand? One of the reasons comes from recent reissues of Waller’s recordings; another from additional publications during the past few years. These additional resources caused Shipton to reconsider not only Waller’s incredible musical talent, but his contributions as a composer as well.
By utilizing interviews from Waller’s contemporaries, consideration of previous writings, and a careful review of these recent releases and publications, Shipton provides an invaluable documentation into Waller’s life and contribution to jazz music. Shipton also argues that Waller’s skill was never completely represented on his recordings: “Fats recorded legacy doesn’t give a real idea of his capabilities as a pianist.”
Cheerful Little Earful traces Waller’s entire career. Shipton covers everything from stage productions, radio broadcasts, and studio recordings to later appearances in films. Along with Waller, the reader finds out a great deal about talented performers such as Al Casey, Bill Coleman, and Gene Sedric who worked with him. Shipton also devotes a portion of the book to an in-depth study of many recordings currently on the market.
Cheerful Little Earful goes beyond the surface of the Waller legend to consider the depth of his talent. Most jazz enthusiasts would agree that Waller’s gift never became fully realized. Had he lived longer, the situation would surely be different. Nevertheless, Waller did manage to leave an important body of work. Shipton provides essential reading to anyone interested in developing a better understanding of this jazz giant.