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On this date in 1895, Andriamanantena Paul Razafinkarefo, better known as Andy Razaf, was born. He was an African-American musical lyricist and a major influence in Black theater during the 1920s.
Razaf was a descendant of the royal family of Madagascar. His grandfather, John Louis Walker, a former slave, became counsel to Madagascar. His mother married the nephew of Queen Ranavalona III, before moving to Washington D.C., where Razaf was born.
Razaf quit school at 16 and worked as an elevator operator, butler, and custodian to help bring money into the home. He moved to Cleveland to become a semi-professional baseball pitcher for a Negro team. He also wrote newspaper articles, speeches, poems, and ragtime songs.
He wrote his first song "Baltimo" at the age of 13. In 1921, he returned to New York, briefly playing for the New York Black Sox, but soon was able to make a living as a songwriter. A year later came his first important lyrical contribution with Joe Hurtig’s Social Maids Show. During the 1920s Razaf was a true fixture of Harlem’s nightclub scene, collaborating with many notable composers and players, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Eubie Blake (with whom he wrote Memories of You), James P. Johnson and others. It was at this time that Razaf met and became friends with Fats Waller.
Together, the two of them wrote some of the most renowned popular songs of the 20th century. Among their compositions were Honeysuckle Rose, My Fate Is in Your Hands (1928), Ain’t Misbehavin, Blue Turning Grey over You (1929), Keeping Out of Mischief Now (1932), and The Joint Is Jumpin' (1938). One of the duo’s most famous songs, What Did I Do to be So Black and Blue (1929), displayed Razaf’s longstanding concern with racial injustice. Although Louis Armstrong’s influential version interpreted the song in terms of white racism towards African-Americans, Razaf’s original lyrics were also directed at interracial bias against darker-skinned blacks.
The greatest vocalist and players of jazz and popular music of the roaring twenties and 1930s performed Razaf’s music. After Tan Manhattan (1940), Razaf moved to Englewood, New Jersey, where he failed at an attempt to enter politics. He moved to Los Angeles, living the remainder of his live in relative obscurity.
In 1972, at the age of 76, the most prolific Black lyricist of 20th century popular music was finally recognized by his Tin Pan Alley peers in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Andy Razaf died of kidney disease on February 3, 1973.
Jazz: A History of the New York Scene
Samuel Charters and Leonard Kunstadt
(Doubleday, Garden City, N.Y., 1962)