Once he became more famous, and more wise to the ways of show business, Fats Waller insisted on maintaining his legal rights to his music, and songs like "Honeysuckle Rose," "Ain't Misbehavin'," and "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," turned Fats Waller into a household name. He was given a recording contract in the 1920's with RCA Victor, and stayed with them throughout his career. He was one of the first black performers to perform with interracial bands, and to record as well with prominent white musicians and singers. He stayed true, however, to the many black musicians who performed with him in the early days, and most frequently performed with his own sextet, Fats Waller and His Rhythm. He also maintained a life-long partnership with the Harlem lyricist Andy Razaf, who was always given joint credit with Fats on any song they worked on together.
If he had a signature tune, it was "Ain't Misbehavin'", and by the time Hollywood began to notice Fats Waller, and his appeal to white and black audiences, he was asked to perform "Ain't Misbehavin'" in the film Stormy Weather, released in 1943. This was the movie that made Lena Horne famous as a vocalist. In this clip from the movie we see Fats Waller singing and playing the piano. His back-up musicians include Zutty Singleton on the drums, Slam Stewart on the bass, and Benny Carter on trumpet. Lena Horne is at the table, wearing a turban. The great dancer Bojangles Robinson appears briefly in this clip.
His reputation was solidified at the time of his death, but his music was less frequently performed after the war. This changed in 1978, when the Broadway Musical Ain't Misbehavin' opened, featuring music written by or performed by Fats Waller. The musical was an enormous success in New York, London, and then on tour. The cast featured five vocalists, and the original cast was particularly able and worked very well as an ensemble. We have next a video clip from the original production. The three women appear first in this clip: Nell Carter, Armelia McQueen, and Charlaine Woodard, singing "Get Some Cash for Your Trash," and "Off Time." These were songs performed by Fats Waller during World War II - the first song specifically devoted to the nationwide campaign of saving up raw materials for recycling, including tin cans and newspapers. The two men in the ensemble then join them - Ken Page (who plays Fats Waller on the stage), and Andre DeShields. The five performers complete the set with "The Ladies Who Sing With the Band."
I saw the Broadway production many times and can testify to the high energy that was generated by these performers and the musicians on stage. Fats Waller certainly would have been proud, and perhaps a bit surprised, at how enduring his legacy has become.