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Fats Waller: My Fats Waller Obsession: Why Do We Collect Music?

Marc Davis By

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It's not enough to enjoy great music. I must own it, preferably in physical form, in matching sets or boxes. That's the nature of collecting.
The collector pauses to reflect.

As a young pianist back in high school in the 1970s, I fell into the theater crowd. We put on shows and we went to shows on Broadway. One of my favorites was Ain't Misbehain', the tribute to pianist-composer Fats Waller. I was enthralled. This was music with verve and personality, and it swung like crazy. I bought the soundtrack record and wore it out. I bought the music book and taught myself every song.

And then I sought out the original Fats Waller records. The man was prolific, and thanks to the hit show, the world was re-discovering Fats. Lucky me. Even luckier—the old RCA Bluebird label was reissuing everything from its vaults. I ate it up.

My plan was to collect everything—all of it. As each volume in the Complete Fats Waller series came out, I snatched it up. I loved the music—the virtuoso piano solos, the hokey singing, the clownish asides, the ensemble work of Waller's band. But more than that, I loved having the records. I wanted the complete set. And I wanted to display it. I wanted everyone who visited my house to see it and talk about it.

When RCA stopped the series short of completeness, I was devastated. I would never have it all. It wasn't possible. The collector pouted.

And then came CDs. Praise the Lord! Suddenly, Fats was back and more abundant than ever. I started a new collection. This time, I was determined to get it all—and I partly succeeded. Not every Fats Waller song ever recorded; that's just not possible. There's too much of it and it's scattered all over. But I did get all six volumes of the old RCA- Bluebird sets—all 15 CDs. I loved listening to the music, but once again, I loved having it even more. My one complaint: Because the sets were issued over several years, the spines on the CD boxes don't match. They sit on my desk, a cherished possession, displayed for the world to admire, but they don't look great. The music is all there, but having it isn't as pleasing as I had hoped it would be because it doesn't look quite right.

And there's the collector's dilemma, and maybe a glimpse into the psychology of collecting.

I am a collector and my wife doesn't understand. Maybe you do. I like sets—complete sets. When I buy a book or a record, I look for the next one and the next one after that. I want the whole thing, and preferably in a box, but if not, at least in a matching set.

When I was a boy, I collected Hardy Boy books. I started with three brown-cover books passed down from my older cousin. I liked reading the books, but I liked having them even better. I started buying more and quickly discovered the brown-covered books were out of style. Stores only sold the newer blue-covered books. I bought them all, one by one, the whole set, and read them all, and I proudly placed them on my bookshelf, in perfect order.

I collected stamps, too. Whenever possible, I wanted a complete set—flags or sports or space-themed stamps. My heart ached if I missed just one stamp from the set. Baseball cards, too. Every year, every set.

That was my obsession, and it is still my obsession. It is not enough to own and enjoy the sci-fi book Red Mars. I also had to have Blue Mars and Green Mars, and in the same matching covers. I read the classic sci-fi novel Dune, didn't like it, but was determined to own and read the entire trilogy. Same with Lord of the Rings. If I didn't like them, why did I want to own them? I don't know. It was a compulsion.

Today, my work desk has 26 CD box sets alongside my computer and monitor. All my favorites are there: Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Clifford Brown sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with Bruce Springsteen, Simon & Garfunkel, Jim Hendrix, Faces and Yes.

What is this obsession to own it all? And why isn't it enough to simply have it all on MP3 files, where I can listen whenever and wherever I like? Why must I have the physical thing—the box, the jewel case, the matching spines? Why do I insist on owning the entire Mark Twain collection of novels in matching book-club covers? I don't know.

Several years ago, I bought a book on the history of Impulse records. Maybe you've seen it. It's called The House That Trane Built and the cover features John Coltrane, of course, but also a whole bunch of records—actual LPs—from Impulse lined up on a shelf. Every one of them has the classic orange-and-black spine. And I believe (I could be wrong about this) they are arranged in chronological order.

It's beautiful. And as soon as I saw it, I knew I wanted it. Not those specific records, but probably something else. Maybe the classic Blue Note records from the 1950s and '60s that I enjoyed so much. Yeah, that would be great. That would be an amazing collection.

That's where my Blue Note obsession came from. I have always loved the old Blue Note music, but that wasn't enough. I wanted to have it, in physical form, and proudly show it off in a bookcase or a CD case, just like that gorgeous line of orange records from Impulse. I needed it.

That's how this column began, and that's how it will end. I'm taking a break from Blue Note collecting and writing. Maybe I'll come back to it. I have loved discovering new artists and finding new records from familiar names—some great albums, some not so much. Most of all, I have enjoyed collecting them. Whenever possible, I got the physical CDs.

I recently moved with my very understanding wife to an apartment where there is no room for huge CD racks. So the Blue Note collection (and many, many other CDs) sit in bins in a dark closet in the guest room. It means I can't see them every day when I walk into the guest room and sit at my computer. But it makes me smile anyway, knowing they are there, knowing that I own them, that I can see them and touch them and play them whenever I want.

I will come back to my Blue Note obsession eventually. I always do. It's the nature of obsession. It's the nature of collecting.

What drives it? No idea, but it makes me happy. Someday, I may find a book that explains this silliness. Till then, I have Fats Waller and His Rhythm to keep my toes tapping and keep my poor fingers straining to imitate his music on the piano.

And maybe in some distant future, I'll find the truly great complete set that satisfies my itch, though I doubt it will ever happen. One never knows, do one?
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