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Major League Baseball recently had a nationwide audition for new versions of “Take Me Out To The Ball Game.”
It received many interesting video entries, some displaying peculiar musical idiosyncrasies.
I, too, have been thinking about the many ways “Ball Game” can be sung. And I know the one person I wish were alive to play and sing it: Thomas “Fats” Waller.
Waller, a New York native, was a unique jazz pianist and songwriter who died of pneumonia in 1943 at the age of 39. The first time I heard a recording of one of his songs was while I watching TV—and that was the key. It is one thing to listen Waller jazz his way through a song, it is another to see him do it.
When Waller, who weighed nearly 300 pounds, played the piano, you could see he was having fun. Wearing a derby that seemed a few sizes too small, he grinned as his fingers tap-danced along the keyboard. The let’s-have-some-fun image comes to my mind whenever I listen to him play the piano or sing a jazz composition.
Waller is well-known in the jazz world. He became popular to the general public in the late ’70s with the Broadway show, “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” In 1993, 50 years after his death, his career was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
As someone who wrote “The Joint is Jumpin’,” Waller would be perfect to sing “Ball Game.” I imagine Waller would play “Ball Game” one of two ways.
The first would be a give-and-take response to someone else singing “Ball Game,” much the way Waller did with Una Mae Carlisle in their 1939 recording of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby.” When she so perfectly sings, “Gee, I’d love to see you looking swell, baby,” the piano-playing Waller crashes through the schmaltz by saying, “Well, my tailor is waiting right outside the door, keeping me looking swell.”
Similarly, I can picture Waller sitting at his piano at home plate as some American Idol third-runner-up diva sings “Ball Game.” When she screeches, “I don’t care if I never come back,” that would be the cue for piano man Waller to respond, “I was thinking the same thing.”
The other way I imagine Waller playing “Ball Game” would be as a showcase for his piano skills. (He studied classical piano, and jazz pianist James P. Johnson refined Waller’s jazz technique.) Waller’s first solo in “Crazy About My Baby,” for example, could be the prelude to a swinging version of “Ball Game.”
And I know Waller would sing “Ball Game” in a way no one could match. In most of his rollicking jazz recordings, he could sing a line and then, off-handedly, he’d “latch on” to a whimsical thought and comment about the line—all the while keeping in time with the beat. It was beautiful.
If alive, Waller could take me out to the ball game, and he would take many others, too.
MICHAEL PAUL is sports editor of the Beacon. Reach him at 754-6890 or email@example.com.