When Etta James died last month, one brief footnote in the blues singer’s obituary intrigued me. Although James said she never knew who her father was, she always suspected it might be the legendary pool hustler Minnesota Fats.
James told an interviewer some years ago that she had met Fats once and he would neither confirm nor deny that he was her father. Even so, Fats’ widow has given a different version of that meeting to the Associated Press. Theresa Belle said her late husband told James more than 20 years ago that he was not her daddy.
Belle said prostate problems made Fats incapable of conceiving a child.
“He told me he didn’t have any children, that he couldn’t have any,” she told the AP last month.
Given what I know about Fats, that may not be the case. Fats often liked to bend the truth well past the breaking point. And he once told me there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do well. Actually, his boast was: “There ain’t a game in the world I’m not the best at.”
I was fortunate enough to get to know Fats (born Rudolf Wanderone Jr. in Brooklyn, N.Y.) while working as this newspaper’s state Capitol correspondent in the early 1990s.
The first time I saw Fats was on my way to work one morning. He was a short, fairly ordinary looking old man throwing bread crumbs to the pigeons at the state Legislative Plaza in Nashville.
I next saw him in the Oak Bar of the swanky Hermitage Hotel across from Capitol Hill. He was there stamping the cocktail napkins of patrons in the bar. I thought it was the behavior of someone suffering dementia when a colleague straightened me out.
“He’s Minnesota Fats, and that’s how he signs his autograph,” my associate informed me.
Wow! The one and only Minnesota Fats. I grew up watching him duel Willie Mosconi on TV. And who could forget Jackie Gleason’s portrayal of him in “The Hustler.”
I began talking to Fats in the mornings when I passed him while he was feeding the birds. He was always cheerful and pleasant.
Finally, one morning I asked him if I could interview him for the newspaper. His response caught me off guard.
“How much you going to pay me?”
Nothing, I told him.
“I don’t do nothing without getting paid,” he said.
Fats eventually changed his mind, and agreed to be interviewed in the hotel’s mezzanine where a pool table had been placed so he could entertain the guests of The Hermitage with some of his famous trick shots. This was part of the deal he had made with the hotel — he would get free room and board as long as he acted as The Hermitage’s celebrity-at-large.
I thought it was appropriate that one of the greatest hustlers of the 20th century would take up residence just yards away from where the Tennessee General Assembly met. It was about this time — the early 1990s — when the “Rocky Top” scandal broke. A number of legislators and state officials went to prison as a result of that FBI investigation.
During the interview, Fats told me he was not only the world’s greatest billiards player, but also the best at snooker, cards and darts. He had always made a living in bars and pool halls. In fact, Fats said his earliest memory was that of a toddler sitting on the bar of the tavern his father ran in New York City.
Fats said he had made millions in his lifetime, and judging from his humble circumstances, I suspected he had also lost a fortune. But despite being in his late 70s, Fats still had the rogue’s charm that made him famous and he still exuded the confidence that made his appearances with Mosconi on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” so memorable.
Fats said he let Mosconi win so as to keep up interest in those pool games. Otherwise, Fats said he would have won all those matches and nobody would have wanted to watch. Shrewd. And as a hustler, Fats knew nobody but Mosconi could dispute his version of the facts.
He attributed his success as a hustler to his keen skills as an observer. “I was triple smart,” Fats told me.
Triple smart was also one of the aliases he used as a young man bouncing from pool hall to pool hall.
Fats died in 1996, just a few years after I interviewed him. I didn’t see much of him in his last years. My daily walk from the parking garage on Union Avenue to the Legislative Plaza didn’t seem the same without Fats feeding the pigeons.
I always felt this was an inside joke Fats shared with God: The man who had hustled so many “pigeons” over the years was spending his last days feeding real ones in Nashville.
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.