It appeared that the only way for me to capture an interview with Walter Fuller was to drive to his home in an unincorporated area of San Diego, pick him up and take him 40 miles north to the NAMM headquarters building and back home again. Not one to pass up such an opportunity, I jumped at the chance to arrange a meeting and I was excited for the opportunity to learn more about him and to get to know him. I am very glad I did, as his friendship is one of the lasting memories of my early days conducting interviews for the NAMM Oral History program.
To put my excitement into perspective, let me tell you that when I was a teenager, I sat on my bedroom floor listening to as many albums as I could. Somehow, I got ahold of an Earl Hines LP with songs recorded in the 1930s and I loved it. On those recordings, as I learned reading the liner notes (another passion of mine), was a trumpet player named Walter Fuller. I listened closely at his riffs and the subtle nuances that he cleverly and tastefully added around Earl’s innovative piano playing. The more I heard, the more I enjoyed his style of playing and I could somehow feel his expressions through the music. Over the years, whenever I had a chance to pick up an album that included Walter Fuller, I didn’t hesitate to bring it home. Fast forward 15 years, while working for NAMM, I was invited to lunch at the Musicians’ Union in San Diego. Sitting at a large banquet table was a gray-haired gentleman with a slightly worn brown jacket who smiles as he indicated that no one was sitting next to him. I sat down and introduced myself. It was Walter Fuller! I had no idea he lived in the area and I immediately told him everything I knew about him, gushing over him like a young fan of a rock star. Walter was humble and soft-spoken; I knew instantly I needed to cool my enthusiasm. I think he appreciated that I enjoyed his music and I could tell a friendship was developing.
Walter was born in Dyersburg, Tennessee, about 80 miles north of Memphis. He was told it was a cold day on February 15, 1910, when he was born because his mother wore two jackets on her way to the hospital. As a grade-schooler, Walter watched a marching band parade down the street and inquired how he could possibly take part in such a remarkable musical experience. His teacher encouraged young Walter to join the school band, which he did, first playing the mellophone. He later recalled the first time he played along with the band; it was a special moment in his life sharing, “We played together, and it felt so peaceful, so peaceful, I just knew I had to play music." After switching to the trumpet, Walter found himself being asked to perform around town at parties and even at clubs. Just before his 14th birthday, he was hired to perform for a traveling medicine show, performing mostly in Kentucky, southern Ohio, and Pennsylvania. He only earned a little money, but he recognized that he was learning how to perform with different musicians and in a variety of places and people. One day around 1925, the medicine show even stopped along a railroad track to play for the inmates of a local jail who were out working on the chain gang.
In 1928, Walter traveled to Chicago to stay with his aunt, his mother’s sister, in order to work at the glorious Royal Gardens Ballroom with Irene Eadie and her Vogue Vagabonds. While playing in the band he heard that Sammy Stewart was forming an orchestra that would hopefully travel to New York, which excited Walter. Stewart, a pianist from Ohio, hired Walter and took a liking to him, he encouraged Walter to write his own music which later served him well. When the band reached New York, Walter had the opportunity to meet Earl Hines. Earl “Fatha” Hines was in the early stages of his dynamic career as a jazz pianist when Walter audition for him. Hines had big plans of formulating a large traveling orchestra. Once the band began recording and having great success, they travel around the world! Walter stayed with the band on and off for about 10 years before forming his own orchestra in 1940. The theme song for his band also became his biggest-selling record, “Rosetta,” which was based on a song Hines wrote years earlier. Walter led a large band in California for many years and settled in San Diego where he became active in the local chapter of the Musicians’ Union. Walter played a vital role in the desegregation of that chapter of the union, a fact he was always very proud of. When he joined the union the directory of musicians was split into two parts, the list in front had the white musicians, while the African American musicians were listed in the back. Walter helped put an end to that practice.
As I got to know Walter, I became fascinated by his stories of playing speakeasies and small dives in which often featured top-notch musicians. I often think about the story he told me when he was playing in a small club in New York around 1932 with a few other cats who all played in other big bands. They got together just to jam. On the stand, one night was a fellow trumpet player who years later would be a friend of mine, Jonah Jones (you can view Jonah’s interview here). What times they must have had, meeting great musicians who helped them develop their own sound and playing in clubs that are now almost mythical sounding due to the incredible legends who played them, such as Three Deuces, Onyx Club and Club DeLuxe, which was later renamed the Cotton Club.
The last time I saw Walter was when we had lunch together and I dropped him off at his home. He stood in the doorway and waved goodbye. As I drove away, I recall humming his theme song, “Rosetta,” just as I had laying on my bedroom floor as a teenager. How lucky I felt to be his friend. How blessed I am now, having had that wonderful opportunity.
To view Walter’s interview please click here
Dan Del Fiorentino