Jazz music's first organist and one of the giants of piano jazz Thomas Wright "Fats" Waller was born on May 21, 1904 in Harlem into a musical family. His grandfather was an accomplished violinist and his mother was the church organist. His family had moved to New York City from Virginia in the late 1880s and his father was the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. His first exposure of music was in the form of church hymns and organ music, an instrument that he was taught to play by his mother and the church musical director. The latter introduced him to the works of J.S. Bach which he played on and off for the rest of his life. When he was about 6 or 7, because he had expressed interest in playing the neighbor's piano, his mother hired a piano tutor for him. He learned how to read and write music from his piano teacher but he preferred to play "by ear."
At age 14 he won a talent contest playing Carolina Shout by James P. Johnson, a song he had learned by watching a pianola play it. That year he left school and worked at odd jobs for a year. In 1919 he got his first regular job when he was hired by a movie theatre to play organ accompaniment to the silent films they showed.
His father wanted him to follow in his footsteps and go into a career in religion but he wanted to pursue his passion for music so in 1920, after his mother died, because of the disagreements he had with his father over this issue he moved out of his family's house and in with the family of pianist Russell Brooks where he met James P. Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith two of the giants of the Harlem stride. James P. Johnson took the young Waller under his wing and taught him the stride piano style and advanced his musical education in general. Smith also influenced the young man by introducing him to the works of the impressionistic composers of the 19th century.
In 1921 he was hired to play musical accompaniment on the organ at another silent movie theatre at a weekly salary of $50. A year later he made his recording debut for the Okeh label with a 78 of two of his own compositions. In 1923 he recorded a number of piano rolls for the QRS company in addition to additional sides both as a leader and as an accompanist to blues singers.