The team of Thomas “Fats” Waller and Andy Razaf wrote some of the finest songs in the history of American popular music. Despite their great talents, neither received his due, either financially or artistically, in his lifetime, partially due to the racism that pervaded the music industry in the first half of the last century. Razaf, in particular, was taken advantage of by white publishers and others. Neither was called upon to write Broadway or Hollywood musicals (save Waller’s collaboration with George Marion, Jr., on Early to Bed).
Razaf was born Andreamenentania Razafinkeriefo (you don’t pronounce the second “en” in his first name or the “in” in his last name—that makes it simple, no?) in Washington, D.C., although he was conceived in Madagascar, where his father was a royal prince and his mother was the daughter of an American diplomatic consul. When the French decided to claim Madagascar as a colony, Razaf’s pregnant, sixteen-year-old mother escaped to the United States. After the family moved to New York, Razaf worked as an elevator operator, supporting his mother and writing lyrics on the side. No music publisher was interested in his work and so he turned to poetry, having some of his work published in Harlem newspapers.
Waller, meanwhile, began playing piano at age six. His parents, lay preachers, gave sermons on the sidewalks of New York accompanied by their son on a portable harmonium. He was entering and winning amateur contests in his teens and was coached by the great stride pianist, James P. Johnson. At the time of his mother’s death, sixteen-year-old Waller was earning money recording piano rolls and accompanying silent movies at the Lincoln Theatre. He began making records in 1922 for the Okeh label and supplemented his income by playing at parties and giving piano lessons (to Count Basie among others). That same year, Waller got married and had a child (not necessarily in that order). He divorced the next year.
Razaf had married a couple of years before Waller, but when he moved back to New York from Cleveland, he split with his wife, though not quite legally.
The old saw claims opposites attract and so it was with the free-spirited Waller and the more conservative Razaf--though Waller tried his best to lure Razaf into the world of wine, women, and song. He succeeded little on the first, more so on the second, and was triumphant concerning the third.
Still, the team was perpetually hard up for money and they wrote many songs that were sold outright to others. Rumors persist that they wrote the Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields hits “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby.” Waller probably did write the music for both and Razaf the lyric to the latter, but there is no concrete proof.
Waller sold arrangements to Don Redman and Fletcher Henderson for peanuts or, to be exact, hamburgers. Publisher Irving Mills, king of the cut-in, bought all of Waller’s rights to the songs from Connie’s Hot Chocolates for only $500. And that score included “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”
Razaf himself claimed the lyric to “Squeeze Me,” though composer/publisher Clarence Williams (who had written very few lyrics) is officially credited. In 1927, Razaf’s share of the song “Louisiana” was cut-in by Bob Schafer, a friend of publisher Joe Davis who owned the Triangle Music Publishing Company. Davis managed to cheat Razaf out of royalties to the great hit “S’posin’,” which was written to Paul Denniker’s music.
Razaf’s last hit song, for which he wrote both music and lyrics, was “That’s What I Like ‘Bout the South.” Phil Harris appropriated it, even copyrighting it in his name. When Razaf objected, Harris changed a few lines of the lyrics, slightly altered the title to “That’s What I Like About the South” and claimed authorship.
Both Waller and Razaf were in financial straits through most of their careers, even though, in the late 1930s, Waller earned what today would be a million dollars a year in songwriting, radio, and recording royalties. Clearly, his profligate ways, nascent alcoholism, and bad health drained his coffers. Razaf simply never made that much money. Proceeds from his revue work were split fifty-fifty with the shows’ producers. And for the lyric to “In the Mood,” a big hit for Glenn Miller, Razaf got a flat $200.
By 1932, the team’s collaborative years were practically over and Waller was concentrating on performing rather than writing. In 1942, he appeared in the film Stormy Weather, an all-black musical for Twentieth Century-Fox. In that period, he did write an excellent score for a Broadway show, Early to Bed, (with lyrics by George Marion, Jr.). In 1943, Waller died while traveling by train from Los Angeles to New York.
Razaf divorced his second wife in 1947 and in 1951, suffering from tertiary syphilis, he suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. His third marriage broke up quickly but his fourth was the charm. Razaf kept writing lyrics until his death in 1973. (KB)
Andy Razaf remembered how the song was written: “I remember one day going to Fats’s house on 133rd Street to finish up a number based on a little strain he’d thought up. The whole show was complete, but they needed an extra number for a theme, and this had to be it. He worked on it for about forty-five minutes and there it was.” Razaf’s memory doesn’t include Harry Brooks, who is credited with co-writing “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and other songs for the show Connie’s Hot Chocolates. He might have been a cut-in or he might have written the verses. Brooks once recalled that in "Ain’t Misbehavin’," “It was an attempt to copy the successful formula Gershwin used for ‘The Man I Love.’ We imitated the opening phrase that began just after the first beat and the minor part of the bridge, too.”Ain’t Misbehavin’
Andy Razaf recalled trying to get Waller to sit down and write this song: “It was hard to tie Fats down to a job; my mother used to make all the finest food and special cookies for him just to keep him out at our home in Asbury Park, New Jersey. We were working on a show called Load of Coal for Connie and had just done half the chorus of a number when Fats remembered a date and announced, ‘I gotta go.’ I finished up the verse and gave it to him later over the telephone.”Honeysuckle Rose
Joe Garland and Wingy Manone’s 1937 tune “Tar Paper Stomp” was adapted by Garland for “In the Mood.” Andy Razaf added a fine (if often ignored) lyric. Garland offered the song to Artie Shaw but the bandleader thought it too long. Miller picked it up, made a few cuts—and it became his theme song.In the Mood