When I was seventeen, in the summer of 1976, I spent a month or so staying with my half-brother Dave in Moraga, California, and heard Fats Waller for the first time. As a teenager, I was naturally entranced, and Dave helped me work out the chords to “You’re Not the Only Oyster in the Stew,” and fairly soon thereafter I bought my first Fats Waller album, a two-LP set that included that, and “I Wish I Were Twins,” and “A Porter’s Love Song to a Chambermaid.” Most of the songs were too complicated for me to work out by ear, but by the time I’d finished that year with Van Ronk, this one was within my range, and it became a staple of my street sets when Rob and I began working in Harvard Square. It did not occur to me that there was anything markedly racial about the professions of the protagonists — I just thought of their jobs as a pretext for the cutely romantic lyric, which Rob notably parodied by adding his own variation on the lyrical theme: “I will do your chafing, if you’ll be my dish.”
The original lyric was not far from that, and was penned by one of the great lyricists of the twenties and thirties, Andy Razaf — a frequent partner of Waller’s, though this particular melody was by Waller’s mentor and teacher, the dean of Harlem stride pianists, James P. Johnson. Razaf had a distinctly unusual background; to quote the first paragraph of his biography in the NY Public Library (which holds his collected papers):
Andy Razaf was born Andreamentania Paul Razafinkeriefo on December 16, 1895 in Washington D.C., months after his mother had fled Madagascar because the government there had been overthrown. His father Henri Razafkeriefo… was killed after the French captured the island, exiled his aunt, the Queen and abolished the nobility.
Razaf’s formal poetry sometimes suggested his elevated upbringing, but his song lyrics were most notable for their sharp, supple wit and clever wordplay. His numerous collaborations with Waller included “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Keeping Out of Mischief Now,” and “Blue Turning Gray Over You”; a show with Eubie Blake produced “Memories of You”; and he also wrote the lyrics to “In the Mood,” “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” “Christopher Columbus,” the naughty blues hit, “If I Can’t Sell It, I’ll Keep Sitting On It,” and roughly a thousand other songs. At one point Dave Van Ronk suggested we might collaborate on an album of Andy Razaf’s lyrics, and when he got to know Billy Novick and Guy Van Duser, who were far better suited to that task than I was, I suggested he do it with them and he was briefly enthusiastic, but it never happened. (Another of his concept albums that never happened was songs about food, with “Everybody Eats When They Come to My House” as the title song.)
In any case, this was probably the first Razaf lyric I learned, and remains a favorite. And I wish Dave had done that album.