Creatin' "Ain't Misbehavin'"

Song of the rabbit and the duck

One story of how "Ain't Misbehavin' came to be is that it was written for Connie’s Hot Chocolates, an all-black musical revue.
  • One story of how "Ain't Misbehavin' came to be is that it was written for Connie’s Hot Chocolates, an all-black musical revue.

“I don’t stay out late/ Don’t care to go I’m home about eight/ Just me and my radio/ Ain’t misbehavin’ I’m savin’ my love for you.”

The singer of Fats Waller and Andy Razef’s classic song’s a faithful man. He’s so much in love he’s “through with flirtin'.” He’ll be “on the level from now on.” When it comes to women, he’s one man with one vote. If he can’t be with his beloved, he’s “happy on the shelf.”

The lyrics sound straightforward: one lucky dude fully in touch with his feelings and completely in love.

Ain't Misbehavin'

But at North Coast Rep’s current Ain’t Misbehavin', the singer's body language tells another story. Fidelity? In her dreams! Home at eight? Yeah. Eight a.m.

The performance unfolds like both sides of a record at once. The first is the social ideal: a constant man! Put his statue in the town square! The flip side’s the opposite: the trickster erases the smiles of side one. He’s in the spirit of Langston Hughes’s “I could have died for love — But for livin’ I was born.”

Watching and listening to "Ain’t Misbehavin’" in performance resembles that famous drawing of a duck/rabbit. Look at it one way, it’s a faithful duck; at another, a philandering rabbit. You can’t keep both in your head at the same time. But the one always lurks inside the other.

There are even competing versions of how Waller and Razaf wrote the song. According to Razaf, they needed another tune for Connie’s Hot Chocolates, an all-black musical revue that began at Connie’s Inn, a famed Harlem speakeasy, and was scheduled for Broadway in 1929. They met at Waller’s 133rd Street apartment. Waller, in his pajamas, played a “marvelous strain” on the piano. Razaf, one of America’s most underappreciated lyricists, thought up two lines — “No one to talk with/ All by myself” — about a man so in love he’d never misbehave. “The whole thing took about 45 minutes,” Razaf recalled.

Fats’s son Maurice agrees, pretty much. “Dad sat at the piano waiting to ‘become pregnant with an idea,’ as he used to put it.” Razaf uttered the two lines. “Pop tried to match the music” to the words. “Ain’t Misbehavin'" was the result.

Or was it?

Waller said he wrote it while in jail for refusing to pay alimony. He needed $250 to get out. Someone snuck in a tiny piano — into the jail, Mr. Waller? He composed “Ain’t Misbehavin’” in two days. That’s why he always called it “The Alimony Song.”

Okay, so there’s the rabbit and there’s the duck. But Waller and Razaf’s accounts never mention Harry Brooks, who always receives co-credit for the “score.”

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