Fats Waller (p, vcl); Benny Carter (tp); Alton “Slim” Moore (tb); Gene Porter (cl,ts); Irving Ashby (g); Slam Stewart (b); Zutty Singleton (d); Ada Brown (vcl).
Pre-recording session, 20th Century Fox soundstage
Hollywood, CA, January 23, 1943
Ain’t Misbehavin’ (FW vcl) TCF-203, Victor 40-4003
Moppin’ and Boppin’ TCF-191, 202,Victor 40-4003
That Ain’t Right (AB & FW vcl) TCF-201, V-Disc 165-A
In January 1943, Fats Waller arrived in Hollywood to make his third feature film appearance, in 20th Century Fox’s STORMY WEATHER. His earlier Hollywood excursion, in 1935, had resulted in two memorable performances, first in RKO’s HOORAY FOR LOVE and then 20th Century Fox’s KING OF BURLESQUE.
In HOORAY, he joined with tap dancers Bill Robinson and Jeni LeGon for a delightful, lengthy sequence built around the song Livin’ In a Great Big Way. This was a typical all-black “Hollywood Harlem” number, with the Negro performers confined to the routine, with no interaction with the otherwise white cast. Southern theater owners could easily cut the song, with no effect on the film’s plot.
Fats’ other appearance was a bit different. His participation in the I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed number in KING OF BURLESQUE, actually showed him interacting (sometimes in the same frame) with white singer-dancer Dixie Dunbar and her male dancing chorus. I can’t think of an earlier instance of this situation in an American film and I haven’t found any mention of Southern objections to the performance.
Still, it would be a long time before the races met on film with any regularity. Martha Raye was roundly criticized for appearing (in blackface) with Louis Armstrong in ARTISTS AND MODELS (1937). The Nicholas Brothers tap duo met with protests over their performing with whites in TIN PAN ALLEY (1940 – with Betty Grable & Alice Faye) and THE PIRATE (1948 – with Gene Kelly). A lamentable situation.
STORMY WEATHER avoided any such potential problems, being one of two all-black musicals that appeared in 1943, the other being MGM’s CABIN IN THE SKY. Each was loaded with African-American talent and Lena Horne starred in both. Bill Robinson also starred in STORMY, but he and Fats had almost no interaction this time around.
For the soundtrack, Fats assembled a fine band of West Coast jazzmen and a few old friends. Benny Carter was working on the film as arranger and conductor of the Cab Calloway Band – featured throughout on-screen and behind the scenes. Zutty Singleton and Fats had recorded together on some of the Billy Banks’ Rhythmakers discs in 1932. Gene Porter and Slim Moore were then members of the Benny Carter big band. Irving Ashby had been with Lionel Hampton’s LA-based band and soon would become a stalwart of the Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe and the Nat Cole Trio. Slam Stewart was then gigging on the West Coast after a sensational five-year run as the partner of Slim Gaillard in the Slim and Slam combo. His distinctive trademark of humming along with the bass would soon be heard on a myriad of sessions with Lester Young, Benny Goodman, Art Tatum and his own groups. Though Carter is heard on trumpet, the man playing on-screen was a look-alike actor, since Carter had too much on his plate to step in for the filming.
Waller is featured in a lengthy scene with his band at Ada Brown’s club in New Orleans. Ada was a popular 1920s Vaudeville blues singer, who was then enjoying a welcome, though brief, rediscovery in Los Angeles. Her duet with Fats on That Ain’t Right is one of the film’s highlights. They play off each other affectionately, as if they had been doing so for years. Fats slips in a reference to “balling” that must have snuck by the censors! Manager/impresario/song publisher Irving Mills was contracted to assemble the music for the movie and not surprisingly all the tunes came from his various publishing firms. That Ain’t Right was a relative newcomer, having been introduced in 1941 by its composer, Nat King Cole. Mills is credited with the lyrics.
Then it’s time for Fats’ featured number, his own Ain’t Misbehavin’, which is given a truly definitive rendition here. Despite some hokum from the crowd and intrusive shots of Bill Robinson making goo-goo eyes at Lena Horne, Fats and the band get some nicely framed closeups, as does Zutty Singleton, showing off on the drums. Aside from a few brief look-ins later on, Fats doesn’t have any more to do in the film.
There is another treasure here, though. Moppin’ and Boppin’, a Waller-Benny Carter instrumental collaboration was recorded for but not featured in the picture. A few brief moments of it are heard off-screen at two points. This four-and a-half-minute tour-de-force shows everyone off at their best, starting with an arresting tom-tom intro by Zutty.
A brief solo by Gene Porter with Fats dancing on the keys is followed by an acidic high-note Carter trumpet chorus, split with Ashby. Slam Stewart then does his thing vocally and bass-ically. There follows a wonderful Zutty-Fats back-and-forth chorus, with some Waller vocal encouragement in the background. A final ensemble chorus swings terrifically, with Waller getting a last spot in the release.
It would have been a shame if these sparkling performances remained in the vaults. That Ain’t Right surfaced in 1944 on a V-Disc. In addition to commercial recordings, broadcasts and special studio sessions, the V-Disc producers also swept up a few soundtrack items in their net. Songs from CABIN THE SKY, DUBARRY WAS A LADY and SWEET AND LOW-DOWN (by Benny Goodman) were issued on these soldier records. After the war, V-Disc A&R man Steve Sholes returned to his job at RCA Victor and in 1946, got permission from 20th Century Fox to issue the two Waller performances on a 12-inch 78 in Victor’s new green-label “hot jazz” series. Transferred from a lacquer he likely had glommed from Fox during the war, Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Moppin’ and Boppin’ soon took their place on collectors’ shelves. The labels gave the full personnel, but no mention of the disc’s origin was mentioned. Now. of course, this music is once again legitimately available (and stunningly reproduced, I may add) on the Krtizerland CD of the STORMY WEATHER soundtrack, transferred from the original Fox 35mm film recording elements.
Steve Sholes would later get permission to issue some of Waller’s solo items from a September 1943 V-Disc session onto an RCA 45 EP. These lovely, contemplative performances were among the last before the pianist’s untilemy death in December.
It was a nice gesture on Sholes’ part to bring these forgotten items of tasty musicmaking into the public fold. In fact, these Waller items were the only V-Disc selections to be given official release of any kind, untangling the massive red tape required from the Musicians’ Union to get these not-for-profit recordings onto commercial platters. It’s wasn’t as if Victor didn’t already have massive holdings of Fats Waller in their vaults! I’m sure Fats was smiling down from his lofty perch on high. One never knows, do one?