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JAZZ PIANIST and composer Fats Waller wrote perhaps 400 songs, among them “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “Ain’t Misbehavin,” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” Boston Blackie was a fictional noir pulp hero, appearing in short stories (23 of them, 1914-1920), movies (25 of them, 1918-1949), radio (two different series, 1944 and 1945-1950), TV (1951, syndicated into the next decade) and even a 2002 graphic novel.
The adventure I share here links Fats with radio’s second Boston Blackie, Richard Kollmar. There are cameos by a guy named Capone, the fellow who wrote Grand Canyon Suite,, a Broadway award named Tony, and various white jazz musicians.
Fats Waller started playing the piano at age six. He won a talent contest at age 16 by playing a song he learned from watching it performed on a player piano. In 1922, Okeh Records brought out two Waller recordings; he was 18. Waller’s first published composition, “Squeeze Me,” was in 1924.
After a 1926 gig in Chicago, Waller was kidnapped. The ransom? Taken to another locale, gun at his back, Waller was pushed toward a piano—as the surprise guest at a birthday party for Al Capone. Waller played at the party, on and off, for three days. Then, according to Wikipedia, he left, “very drunk, extremely tired, and had earned thousands of dollars in cash from Capone and other party-goers as tips.”
Indeed, this wasn’t the only time that alcohol played a role in Waller’s career. Alas, he gained a reputation for selling his songs cheaply, typically to white song writers, more’s the pity, when he was in his cups.
Richard Kollmar’s great-great-grandfather had been the fourth governor of New York and the sixth vice-president of the United States. Richard got interested in acting while attending Tusculum College, a Presbyterian coeducation institution, Tennessee’s oldest college and the 28th-oldest in the U.S. After graduation, he briefly attended the Yale School of Drama, but got seduced into a radio career.
Supplementing his radio work, Kollmar appeared in two Broadway musicals, Kurt Weil’s Knickerbocker Holiday, 1938, and Rodger and Hart’s Too Many Girls, 1939. A brief riffling of the calendar to April 11, 1945, when he was the second to take the radio life of Boston Blackie. The program ran until October 25, 1950 (and is a regular feature today on SiriusXM “Radio Classics” channel).
Pre-Boston Blackie, though, back in 1943 Kollmar turned to producing his own Broadway musical, Early to Bed, and this is when Fats Waller got involved.
At first, Waller had solely a comedy role. Notes John McWhorter, a Columbia professor, “Even as late as 1943, the idea of a black composer writing the score for a standard-issue white show was unheard of.” (This hedging of “standard-issue white” is important. As noted in SimanaitisSays, Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle had their hit show Shuffle Along on Broadway back in 1921.)
McWhorter continues, “Kollmar’s original choice for composer [of Early to Bed] was Ferde Grofé, best known as the orchestrator of George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ whose signature compositions were portentous concert suites.”
I hate to pick fights with Columbia professors, but Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite is, to my ears, hardly “portentous,” (Merriam-Webster: “ponderously excessive”). The 1958 Walt Disney flick Grand Canyon with Grofé’s music won the 1959 Academy Award for Best Short Subject. The suite’s main theme is majestic; its charming “On the Trail” third movement recurs as soundtrack accompanying Ralph and brother Randy’s dreams in A Christmas Story. Those of us of a certain age also associate this theme with a hotel bellhop paging, “Call for Philip Morris.”
Back to Kollmar and Early to Bed. Grofé backed away from the project, and, as McWhorter notes, “… it is to Kollmar’s credit that he realized that he had a top-rate pop-song composer available in Waller.”
Alas, Waller’s dual role as comedian and composer was short-lived. He and Kollmar got into a squabble over song rights (Waller was in his cups again…). Kollmar got cold feet about Waller staying sober enough for eight performances a week, and Fats got demoted to composer only.
Early to Bed had a Broadway run of 380 performances, from June 17, 1943, through May 13, 1944.
Fats Waller didn’t live to see its close. His final recording session was an interracial gig in Detroit, a rare thing in 1943; indeed, even into the 1960s (see Dave and Iola Brubeck’s The Real Ambassadors). Waller contracted pneumonia and died on December 15, 1943, while a passenger on The Santa Fe Super Chief traveling from Los Angeles to New York City. He was 39.
Ain’t Misbehavin, a Broadway musical showcasing Waller’s songs, won four Tony awards in the Musical category in 1978: two for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role, Best Direction, and Best Lighting Design.
Kollmar combined his Boston Blackie assignment with a popular radio program, “Breakfast with Dorothy and Dick,” his wife, Dorothy Kilgallen, a newspaper columnist of note.
The morning chat show, broadcast from their Manhattan apartment, ran from April 1945 until March 1963.
Kollmar died on January 7, 1971, in his sleep at age 60. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018