Waller, Fats (21 May 1904-15 Dec. 1943), jazz and popular pianist, singer, and songwriter, was born Thomas Wright Waller in New York City, the son of Edward Martin Waller, a Baptist preacher, and Adeline Lockett. From age six Waller was devoted to the piano but initially failed to practice properly or learn to read music well, because he could memorize lessons immediately. In his youth he also played reed organ in church. He studied piano, string bass, and violin at P.S. 89, which he attended to about age fourteen or fifteen. Although his girth had earned him a nickname by this time, the names Thomas and Fats appeared interchangeably (and sometimes together, as Thomas “Fats” Waller) in his professional work until at least 1931. Later in his career, and posthumously, the nickname prevailed.
Intermittently from 1919 into the mid-1920s he played organ at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem. After his mother’s death in 1920, he moved in with the family of pianist Russell Brooks, who introduced Waller to James P. Johnson. Upon discovering that Waller had learned “Carolina Shout” from Johnson’s piano roll, Johnson offered Waller piano lessons and in turn introduced him to Willie “the Lion” Smith, whom Waller replaced at Leroy’s saloon. Johnson, Smith, and Waller became the leading figures in the jazz style that came to be called stride piano, and through the decade their improvisational competitions were a fixture of Harlem rent parties.