The post (“Imagine being such a talented musician that the mafia kidnaps you to perform at a birthday party”) consisted of a black and white photograph of Fats Waller, and a brief description of the claim. Text on the image read:
Fats Waller was kidnapped to be the surprise guest at Al Capone’s birthday party at gunpoint. He left 3 days later[,] intoxicated[,] with thousands of dollars in tips.
On Imgur, the Fats Waller and Al Capone meme was popular — but the claim also appeared to be one of those stories cyclically “discovered” by Reddit and Imgur users over the years. Iterations of the story were shared to r/todayilearned in September 2021, r/Damnthatsinteresting in July 2021, r/todayilearned in August 2019, and r/todayilearned in December 2013.
One of the posts featured a similar meme:
In that iteration, Fats Waller was depicted from above in a different photograph. Text on the bottom of the meme explained:
Famous jazz pianist Fats Waller was kidnapped by gangsters for three days in Chicago in 1926. He was the “surprise guest” at Al Capone’s birthday party. He was later found very drunk, extremely tired, and had earned thousands of dollars in cash from Capone and other party-goers as tips.
A fifth Reddit post about Fats Waller and Al Capone appeared on the stringently moderated community r/AskHistorians. That the post was live on the subreddit was itself a positive signal with respect to the veracity of the claim; a Wikipedia entry about r/AskHistorians described the high regard in which that subreddit was widely held, and explained that “historical myths” were not tolerated on the subreddit:
AskHistorians has received praise for its commitment to unbiased and well sourced history, and for making academic history accessible to a broad audience, with the American Historical Association stating that “AskHistorians is, in effect, a training ground for historical thinking facilitated by the moderators and experts”. Many of AskHistorians’ most popular posts deal with common historical myths and misconceptions, such as the theory that lead caused the fall of the Roman Empire.
AskHistorians is strictly moderated, with rules related to civility and academic rigor. Though initially only lightly moderated, the subreddit has added moderators and rules as its subscriber count grew. Questions and answers are limited to events that occurred at least twenty years ago.
AskHistorians has been noted for its commitment to combating Holocaust denial, in comparison with the more lax policies of Facebook. The moderators of AskHistorians are outspoken about their policy of banning all holocaust deniers and Nazi sympathisers from the platform, and preventing Nazi apologism or manipulation of historical facts surrounding The Holocaust. AskHistorians’ contributors also write in-depth explorations of the circumstances in which the Holocaust occurred, and its historical weight.
On April 26 2021, a Reddit user asked r/AskHistorians if Waller would have been “treated well” during the course of his alleged kidnapping by Capone’s associates:
In that post, u/the-ghost-cow asked:
In jazz circles, the story of legendary pianist Fats Waller’s kidnapping by associates of Al Capone in 1926 is often referenced. Capone was allegedly a fan of Waller’s music, so members of Capone’s gang kidnapped Waller and brought him to play at Capone’s birthday party as a surprise gift. Waller played at the party for 3 days before being retuned, and according to Waller’s son, he was treated well and generously paid. However, as an African American in 1926, what are the odds that he was actually treated well? If he had been treated poorly, a black man in 1926 would probably not be too keen to speak out about mistreatment from a powerful criminal enterprise of white men. Does Waller’s treatment seem on brand for Capone’s gang at the time? Thanks in advance.
In the appended thread, r/AskHistorians moderator u/jbdyer published a detailed reply — first saying that Waller’s purported anecdote “would have been on brand” for Al Capone, and then detailing an incident involving Capone and jazz musician Milt Hinton. The comment went into detail about the relationship between musicians and organized crime during the Prohibition era, and u/jbdyer added:
The Fats Waller story about the birthday party is probably true. Maurice Waller, his son, later recounted in detail his father’s narrative.
On Wikipedia, the anecdote appeared in the broader entry for Fats Waller:
On one occasion [Waller’s] playing seemed to have put him at risk of injury. Waller was kidnapped in Chicago while leaving a performance in 1926. Four men bundled him into a car and took him to the Hawthorne Inn, owned by Al Capone. Waller was ordered inside the building and found a party taking place. With a gun to his back, he was pushed towards a piano and told to play. A terrified Waller realized he was the “surprise guest” at Capone’s birthday party and was relieved that the kidnappers had no intention of killing him.
A footnote to that entry cited a 2017 biography, Fats Waller, intermittently available on Google Books. The section cited appeared to be in the words of Waller’s son Maurice, and it read in part:
Dad [Fats Waller] was playing solo piano at the Hotel Sherman, not very far from East Cicero, the home of Chicago’s ”second mayor,” Al Capone. Every night Dad rocked the joint with his dazzling playing, funny stories, mugging, and risque patter. He was immensely happy with the gig.
Soon he began to notice a bunch of mugs in black ties and wide-lapeled suits coming to listen to him nightly, but thought nothing of it. Then, one night these gentlemen leaped up from their seats, pulled out machine guns, and told everyone to be as still as possible as they searched the audience for a ”friend.” Satisfied that they had found their acquaintance, they told the rest of the audience, a rather large group of people, to get into the men’s room. Dad was the first in and had to be persuaded to come out after the police had arrived.
A few nights later Dad noticed the same thugs sitting in the first row and he remembered what had happened the last time they paid the Hotel Sherman a visit. He was nervous during the performance, and by the time he slipped out to get something to eat he was relieved that there hadn’t been another incident. Suddenly someone shoved a revolver into his paunchy stomach and ordered him into a car. He did what he was told.
The gunman ordered the driver to take them to East Cicero, and Dad began to sweat it out. What were the possibilities? Had he crossed a mobster unknowingly? Had he said something during the first incident when he should have kept his mouth shut? Was Edith getting her ultimate revenge for his desertion? Pop prayed as hard as he knew how, but a sinking feeling gripped his heart. It only took the shiny black limousine a little while to make it to its destination.
The car pulled up in front of what appeared to be a hotel or fancy saloon. It was the headquarters of Al Capone. Dad’s four escorts shoved him through the front door and then through a crowd of people, led him to a piano, and told him to play. It was a surprise birthday party. Capone, who had heard Dad play at the hotel, was delighted when he saw the present the boys brought him sitting at the piano.
Frightened, Dad began to pound the keyboard with something less than his usual gusto, but when he saw the enthusiastic response from Scarface [Al Capone] and his buddies, he really began to swing it. In fact he swung it so hard, Capone kept him there several days, shoving 62 hundred-dollar bills into his pocket whenever he played a request, and filling his glass with vintage champagne whenever Dad (frequently) emptied it.
After the birthday party was over, three days later, [Capone’s associates] returned [Fats Waller] to Chicago several thousand dollars richer. Dad always said the incident stood out in his mind because it was the first time he ever drank champagne. Happy to get back to the safe streets of Harlem after that Chicago gig, he returned to his regular job as house organist for the Lafayette and the Lincoln, his security blanket with seats.
On Reddit, the oldest version of the story we were able to track down was from December 2013; in December 2012, a clip of Maurice Waller telling the story was published to YouTube. At the 1:05 minute mark, the younger Waller began telling the story:
… the first time he [Waller] ever got a hundred dollar bill, Al Capone gave it to him. Now, it’s a funny thing how that happened — my father was playing in Chicago. Al Capone lived in a suburb of Chicago …
An even earlier iteration appeared in an article by British news outlet The Independent, dated August 12 1995 and titled “First encounters: When Fats Waller met Al Capone.” It provided a familiar description of the benevolent kidnapping of Fats Waller:
The ebullient young man with the dazzling jazz style [Waller] was a big hit at the Sherman Hotel. His nightly audience included men with wide lapels and bulging pockets. One evening Fats felt a revolver poked into his paunchy stomach. He found himself bullied into a black limousine, heard the driver ordered to East Cicero. Sweat pouring down his body, Fats foresaw a premature end to his career, but on arrival at a fancy saloon, he was merely pushed toward a piano and told to play. He played. Loudest in applause was a beefy man with an unmistakable scar: Al Capone was having a birthday, and he, Fats, was a present from “the boys”.
The party lasted three days. Fats exhausted himself and his repertoire, but with every request bills were stuffed into his pockets. He and Capone consumed vast quantities of food and drink. By the time the black limousine headed back to the Sherman, Fats had acquired severeal [sic] thousand dollars in cash and a decided taste for vintage champagne
In the partially excerpted r/AskHistorians comment above, u/jbdyer said the story was “probably true,” and italicized those two words. Later in the comment, they referenced a slightly different telling of the story by Waller’s grandniece, adding a purported statement by Capone on racism and integrated venues:
Now, I say “probably” to all this because another book — this one by Al Capone’s grandniece — tells things a little differently; that Waller was one of the musicians who got his start through Capone’s nightclubs, although she also mentions the stuffing of hundred-dollar bills. However, Fats Waller’s career really did get going long before Al Capone came into the scene, and the behavior of the mobsters doing a kidnapping is really not out of character.
To return to the essential point: Al Capone really did seem to care for African-Americans, and it is unlikely in the midst of a multi-day party anyone would have been abusive to the guest against his wishes. This quote supposedly from Capone himself is second-hand as told to his brother, but fairly plausible based on Capone’s other actions:
… these poor bastards are going through the same kind of crap that us Italians had to put up with a generation ago. Even worse! So I’m glad to help them make a living, especially when they are as talented as these guys are.
In July 2023, a long-circulating claim that Fats Waller was “kidnapped” for Al Capone’s birthday party in 1926 reappeared on Imgur. Iterations of the claim were common on Reddit and other social media platforms, and Waller’s son Maurice Waller recounted and later wrote out the story in a 2017 biography. Redditor u/jbdyer’s estimation the claim was “probably true” was apt, as no records or other evidence were likely to have been generated in the course of the “kidnapping.”