Fats Waller, the prolific composer and pianist, was such a phenomenal musician and versatile entertainer that many believed he wrote the music and lyrics for such popular songs as “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “The Joint is Jumpin’,” but Waller shared these creations with Andy Razaf.
Razaf, in the various tomes of Black history, is almost as obscure as Waller is ubiquitous. But when you dip into the American songbook, you will discover that he deserves more than a footnote. And even beyond the world of music, Razaf established himself as more than an adequate essayist, philosopher and editor.
Born Andreamentania Razafkeriefo Dec. 16, 1895, in Washington D.C., Razaf—and we can see why he changed his name—was the son of royalty and traced his roots to the island nation of Madagascar off the eastern coast of Africa. His father was killed during the French invasion of Madagascar, then a colonial possession. His widowed mother, still a teenager, fled and arrived in the U.S. just in time for Razaf to be born in America.
It is not clear when and how he later arrived in Harlem, where he attended public school, quitting high school when he was 16 and taking a job as an elevator operator in Tin Pan Alley. A year later, he wrote his first song, “Baltimo,” and embarked on a career that would include more than 500 songs.
Along with his song lyrics, Razaf was also writing poems, some of which were published in the Voice, a newspaper edited by the redoubtable Harlem militant agitator Hubert Harrison. Eventually, given his talent and determination, he became an editor of Negro World, the official newspaper of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association.
An artist of indefatigable energy and commitment, Razaf, like Amiri Baraka, was as busy on the political front as he was in the cultural realm. In fact, he, along with Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson, supplied a bridge between the Harlem Renaissance and the Black nationalist, Pan-African movement of the 1920s and 1930s. Razaf gained wide recognition from his collaboration with such composers as Eubie Blake, Fats Waller, Harry Brooks, Don Redman, James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith. “What Did I Do to Be So (Black and Blue),” with Waller is often cited as a breakthrough song on race conditions in the nation. Here’s a fragment of the song:
“I’m hurt inside, but that
don’t help my case
Cause I can’t hide what is on my face
How will it end? Ain’t got a friend
My only sin is in my skin
What did I do to be so black and blue?”
One of Razaf’s favorite tunes was “Memories of You,” which he did with Eubie Blake, and he wrote a number of risqué numbers for Ethel Waters long before her film popularity. He was also called upon by Broadway producers and his songs/compositions were performed in “Keep Shufflin’” (1928) and “Blackbirds” (1930).
After suffering a stroke in 1951, Razaf’s activity was curbed considerably, although he still was able to write an occasional column or pen a poem or lyric. He was married and divorced several times, but by the time he was 67, he finally met a match that would last.
He was saluted in Tin Pan Alley in 1972 by members of the Songwriters Hall of Fame. If he had lived long enough, he would have been surprised at the success of such Broadway productions as “Bubbling Brown Sugar,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Eubie” and “Black and Blue,” all with some evidence of his brilliance and creativity.
More renown arrived in 1988 when singer/pianist Bobby Short recorded an album dedicated to Razaf, “Guess Who’s in Town—Bobby Short Performs the Songs of Andy Razaf.” In 2001, the Recording Industry Association of America selected “Ain’t Misbehavin’” as one of 365 Songs of the Century.
Razaf died of kidney failure at Riverside Hospital in North Hollywood Feb. 3, 1973. He was 77.
Author Barry Singer celebrated Razaf’s life with a superb biography in 1992 titled “Black and Blue: The Life and Lyrics of Andy Razaf.”
In the song sheet included here, Razaf is listed at the top and Grant Reid’s grandfather, Leonard Harper, listed at the bottom.