Song: "Ain't Misbehavin'"
Album: Ain't Misbehavin' (single)
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Though there have been scores of great performers all across the history of recorded music, one can easily make the case that the further back in time one goes, the more important and influential the performer in question. Yet the fact that during the earliest years of recording, it was so expensive and in many ways rare, one can argue that those who were selected to make recordings were "the best of the best," and this is much the reason that it is difficult to find anything other than groundbreaking music within this time period. Among these early artists, few showed as much talent, or have had as lasting an impact as one finds in the catalog of the great Fats Waller. Not only does he stand as one of the most exceptional pianists in history, but there many be no other artist ever that so perfectly encapsulates the idea of being an entertainer as brilliant as Waller does on almost every one of his recordings. Beginning in the late 1920's, Fats Waller is responsible for writing and recording countless songs which are now deemed "standards," and even though they have been covered numerous times, in many cases, the original Waller version remains the definitive take. It is due to this reality that it is difficult to name a single song as his finest, yet one would be hard pressed to find a song that better shows everything that makes Fats Waller such a legend than what one can experience in his monumental 1929 recording, "Ain't Misbehavin'."
There are actually two main recordings of Fats Waller playing "Ain't Misbehavin'," the first from 1929 and then a later re-recording in 1943 to be featured in the film, Stormy Weather. While the latter recording certainly does justice to the song, it is the original version that overflows with personality and historical significance. The song begins, and is dominated by a slow swinging, almost playful pipe organ progression, played by Waller. The amount of character that he is able to convey through his playing remains unparalleled, and he is also able to keep it from becoming cliché or silly, whilst still making it clear that there is a level of enjoyment to be had in the song. In fact, this progression dominates more than half of "Ain't Misbehavin'," and many modern listeners may begin to wonder if the song is anything more than an instrumental. While it may seem like an understatement, the classic, vaudevillian tone that the organ presents is completely unique, and it instantly transports the listener back in time. Yet the overall recording is far more smooth than a majority of others from the era, and it is the clarity of Waller's performance, as he brilliantly dances across the keyboard, that enables the song to retain its impact. In fact, it was this performance that largely set the standard for the use of a Hammond organ in music, and his style and sound are still heavily used to this day. There is a small backing band alongside Waller (including trumpet master Benny Carter) on "Ain't Misbehavin'," but his playing dominates the sound, and this is not a bad thing, as in both the progression as well as his tone, his performance set the standard for decades that followed.
If the fantastic organ work that Fats Waller places on the track is somehow not enough to hook the listener, his brilliant vocals will surely do the trick. Even almost a century later, there are virtually no other performers that have shown as much sheer personality in their singing as one finds across the Waller catalog, and "Ain't Misbehavin'" is one of his finest displays. There is a slightly gruff edge to his voice, and yet one can argue that it was more for emphasis than anything else, and yet it works perfectly here, heightening the mellow, meandering mood as opposed to disturbing this delicate balance. The jovial tone with which he sings is beyond endearing, and fans of any age or musical preference will surely be completely transfixed by the way that he brings a dramatic, light swing to "Ain't Misbehavin'." This ability to quickly captivate the audience was certainly the result of the demands of live performances during his time, and the fact that it remains just as potent today cements just how amazing a talent lived within Waller. Perfectly complimenting both the music and singing, the playful lyrics which Waller sings on "Ain't Misbehavin'" are as sweet yet simple as any other song in history. At its core, "Ain't Misbehavin'" is a love song, and it is the sincere, truly likable presence of Fats Waller that pushes this far beyond almost every such song that has been recorded by any other artist.
Over the eight-plus decades since Fats Waller first recorded "Ain't Misbehavin'," it has been used in countless areas of popular culture, and been the inspiration behind a number of films and theatrical productions, as well as musical tributes. During that time, the song has been adapted by nearly every icon of music at some point in their career, and versions of "Ain't Misbehavin'" have been recorded by everyone from Miles Davis to Ray Charles to Billie Holiday, though each falls short of the Waller original in some way or another. The most common place where covers are not up to par is in the sheer level of joy and beauty that Fats Waller exudes throughout his recording, and it is this infectious personality that turned him into the icon he remains to this day. There is a lovable honesty within his singing on "Ain't Misbehavin'," and few lines have as much simple, candid beauty as when he sings, "...I know for certain the one you love, I'm through with flirtin', it's just you I'm thinkin' of, ain't misbehavin', I'm savin' my love for you..." This idea in itself has been reinterpreted countless times over the passing decades, and yet no other artist has been able to boil it down as superbly as Waller does here. Complimented by his truly extraordinary and landmark pipe organ performance, there are few songs as deserving as of the label of "perfect" as one can find on Fats Waller's timeless 1929 recording, "Ain't Misbehavin'."