It’s not hard to know that Fats Waller was a jazz pianist and entertainer who wrote great songs like “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” You can see him do what he did, in all facets, in the film “Stormy Weather” from 1943.
What’s far harder to know is that after that film and before his early death at 39, Waller wrote the music for a hit Broadway musical. It played just down the street from “Oklahoma!” And it was a mainly white musical. A Black man wrote a white Broadway show. It had happened only once before, in 1911, with a quickly and profoundly forgotten show called “Hello, Paris” — whose music was written, as it happens, by J. Rosamond Johnson, who wrote the music for the classic Black anthem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”
Waller’s show was called “Early to Bed.” It played for a year — hit status in 1943 — and then toured the country for almost a year. Yet it’s a historical footnote at best.
I have been dedicated to changing that for eons now. Waller’s songs and performing effervescence spill out of every recording he made; how that translated into a Broadway tunestack intrigues me. Plus, the few songs from “Early to Bed” that got around a little are grand. Two made it into the smash Waller revue “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” for example; “The Ladies Who Sing With the Band” and “When the Nylons Bloom Again” have now delighted audiences nationwide in productions of that review since 1978. One seeks more.
I have gathered every scrap of “Early to Bed” that I could find, as it is simultaneously one of the most fascinating and least preserved aspects of Waller’s career. I have been especially excited about the project of late because of a couple of major finds that are getting us ever closer to having all the songs and more. The Waller legacy deserves that we gather as much of the score as we can.
There are musicals from 1943 for which every jot and tittle is beautifully preserved from overture to curtain. “Early to Bed” is not one of them. There are many reasons, and Waller’s Blackness is but one. Definitely, a show with a score written by a Black jazzman in 1943 was less likely to be preserved for the ages than one written by, say, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.
But it’s also true that “Early to Bed,” like most shows just coming and going at the time, was shamelessly unambitious artistically. The annals of an art form focus on what pushed the boundaries; “Early to Bed” was quite content with them.
“Oklahoma!” knit its musical numbers into the narrative, heralding a new coherence in the form of American musicals. “Early to Bed” was basically a two-and-a-half-hour wink, with the plot dwelling on a succession of people mysteriously unable to perceive that what they think is a finishing school is actually a house of prostitution. The songs were just decorations along the way, riding lightly on the plot, such as it was.
This kind of thing was hardly unusual at the time, filling a space that would later be occupied by television variety shows. But that means they were forgotten as soon as they closed, unless they were recorded as cast albums. But in 1943 that tradition was just beginning. Only a few shows both successful and esteemed got that treatment, like “Oklahoma!” A serious Black-themed hit like “Carmen Jones” was recorded; a goofy white hit even by the likes of Cole Porter, “Something for the Boys,” was not.
Add that Waller is primarily assessed by jazz specialists who have little interest in musical theater. And then there is the most poignant issue, which is that the score of “Early to Bed” vanished after the tour. There is no full score extant to play from; the parts the instruments played in the orchestra don’t survive. Instead, there are just piano sheet music versions of about six of the songs. It’s as if all we had from “Fiddler on the Roof” were sheet music of five songs and we could listen only to oldsters talking about how good the show was.
Or we could dig around a bit and find a little more. A small, diligent and brilliant off-Broadway company called Musicals Tonight, led by Mel Miller, embarked on finding out what the rest of “Early to Bed” was like in 2009 and found unpublished sheet music of a few more of the songs. Then it contacted a surviving cast member, the tap dancer Harold “Stumpy” Cromer, who recalled what he could — 65 years later! — of four songs that were never cast as sheet music.
Between the published and unpublished sheets, recordings by Waller and others and Cromer’s recollections, it is clear that Waller wrote a distinctly yummy score. Anyone who knows Waller’s work knows that he never wrote a bad melody. Between his melodies and the lyricist George Marion’s always clever and sometimes naughty words — encompassing brassieres and orgies, among other things — the songs in “Early to Bed” made for an evening of joy. Reviewers at the time thought so, and they were right.
Ever since I saw the Musicals Tonight production of “Early to Bed” in 2009, I’ve been trying to retrieve even more of what people liked so much in 1943. It’s been a detective story.
Waller left behind a cache of handwritten musical sketches for the show, which eventually wound up in — get this — his son’s lawyer’s son’s garage in Tenafly, N.J.! I drove to that man’s house to get a look and copy it all and smoked out what is likely one of the four songs that remained lost in their original version in 2009.
Then a little while ago, my friend Alex Hassan, a brilliant pianist, found an unpublished sheet music version of another lost song — in a collection of work by Don Walker, who scored the songs for the orchestra.
A bit more: I just found out that the Library of Congress has the orchestra parts of “Early to Bed’s” overture and finale.
We’re getting there.
Where? Truth to tell, “Early to Bed” doesn’t really need to be performed onstage much. In terms of its plot, it was, well, let’s call it a keepsake of its era. It’s an ephemeral part of its time. What we need are two things.
One is that we must find the three remaining lost songs. The one I gleaned from the cache of sketches is only possibly what the performed melody was. Cromer’s recollections were invaluable — but imagine if all we had of the extended “Fiddler” sequence “Tevye’s Dream” were the basic melody and a stanza or two of the lyrics. Among the lost “Early to Bed” numbers, one (“Supple Couple”) was a multipart ensemble, and one (“Me and My Old World Charm”) was an extended multistanza performance that reviewers praised for its extravagance. Numbers like that don’t do well in long-term memory; we need the originals.
Then, whether the lost songs turn up or not, we need a recording of what we have of “Early to Bed” with an orchestra. The first-act finale, “Martinique,” could be arranged for a recording as a saucy Andrews Sisters-style trio, for example. (Modesty forbids my mentioning who wrote such an arrangement for a cabaret performance some years ago.) The absence of an “Early to Bed” recording is a gaping hole in the recorded oeuvre of Waller. Among the many recordings since the 1980s of painstaking reconstructions of hitherto unrecorded Broadway scores, none have been of scores written by a Black composer — e.g., Duke Ellington or Eubie Blake. It’s time.
“Early to Bed” is no “Blues Opera” (for those of you who have been following me here), by a long shot. But its music is, quite simply, exquisite candy and a missing piece of the Waller story. The only people alive from its cast are a few chorus members. I hereby inquire of them or anyone who knows of mysterious things in a garage, attic or archive: Have you (1) a full score of “Early to Bed,” maybe from the tour (please?!?!?) or (2) music for the songs “Supple Couple,” “Me and My Old World Charm” or “The Girl That Doesn’t Ripple When She Bends”? (Sorry, but it was 1943, and that referred to stockings.)
We should be able to hear this thing!
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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever” and the forthcoming “Woke Racism.”