Born Thomas Wright Waller in New York City, Waller studied classical piano and organ before apprenticing himself to legendary Harlem stride pianist James P. Johnson. Johnson introduced Waller to the world of rent parties (a party with a piano player, designed to help pay the rent by charging the guests), and soon he developed a performing career.
He was an excellent pianist, but his songwriting and his lovable, roguish stage personality ("One never knows, do one?"), overshadowed his playing. Before his solo career, he played with many performers, from Erskine Tate to Bessie Smith, but his greatest success came with his own five- or six-piece combo, "Fats Waller and his Rhythm".
He collaborated with the Tin Pan Alley lyricist Andy Razaf and had a commercially successful career, which according to some music critics eclipsed his great musical talent. His nickname came about because he weighed nearly 300 pounds. His weight and drinking are believed to have contributed to his death.
With Razaf he wrote "What Did I Do (To Be So Black and Blue)?" 1929 which became a hit for Louis Armstrong. This song, a searing treatment of racism, black and white, calls into question the accusations of "shallow entertainment" levelled at both Armstrong and Waller.