Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Webb, William Henry “Chick”

Swing music literally emerged before Chick Webb's eyes as he sat on his drummer's throne on the stage of the Home of Happy Feet, New York's Savoy Ballroom. Known as the “King of the Savoy,” as the leader of the Savoy house band in the 1930s Webb presided over some of the most exciting moments in jazz history as his Orchestra battled rival bands led by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman.

In a tragically brief career, Webb overcame physical adversity to rise to the top of the competitive world of big bands and expanded the possibilities of the drummer/bandleader with his expressive, vigorous drumming style on the brink of the modern style and his hard-hitting, show-stopping leadership on the bandstand.

Webb is also credited with introducing singer Ella Fitzgerald to the public when he hired her in 1935. She remained with the group until Webb’s untimely death in 1939, at which point she sustained his legacy by leading the Orchestra until 1942.

There is a good deal of published variation surrounding the question of William Henry “Chick” Webb's birth date. While we know that he was born in Baltimore, Maryland on February 10, various sources list 1902, 1907, and 1909 as Webb’s year of birth. While 1909 seemed the most credible option for a long time due to Webb’s birth certificate that appears to show that date (albeit supposedly written on top of another already written final digit) it appears none of the abovementioned dates are Webb’s actual birth year.

Eric B. Borgman, a writer and jazz fan, should be credited with revealing Webb’s actual birth year of 1905. He researched this information in both the 1910 and 1920 census records, with the 1910 record showing an age of 5 (the census was taken in April which would confirm Webb’s birth date of 1905) and the 1920 records showing an age of 14 (the census was taken in January – before Webb’s birthday that year - which yet again yields a birth date of 1905). While the majority of published documents do not include this correction, glancing at Borgman’s research, including images of the census records solidify a birth date of February 10, 1905.

Webb grew up around Madison Street and Ashland Avenue in East Baltimore. As a young boy, Webb suffered from spinal tuberculosis, which left him with limited mobility in his legs, a short stature, and a misshapen spine. In a simple twist of fate, Webb’s doctors, probably informed that Webb was already banging on pots and pans around his house from the age of three, suggested that he try drumming as a way to increase muscle usage and overall mobility. After working as a paperboy to earn the money, Webb purchased a secondhand drumkit and began playing.

Webb jammed with local Baltimore musicians in his early teens and soon thereafter he and banjoist/guitarist John Truehart joined the Jazzola Orchestra, a group that frequently performed on the Chesapeake Bay steamboats.

In 1924-25, Webb moved to New York and gigged with trumpeter Bobby Stark, saxophonist Johnny Hodges (Webb’s cousin) and Duke Ellington at jam sessions at Small’s Playhouse. Webb’s forceful, infectious swing beat caught Ellington’s ear, and the Duke booked the drummer to lead a group of four other musicians, under the name “The Harlem Stoppers,” for a five-month stint at the Black Bottom club. Afterwards, the band gigged at The Paddock Club as an octet. In 1926-27, Webb briefly gigged at the Savoy Ballroom, which would soon house his quickly developing band.

In 1929, a transitional version of Chick Webb’s band entered the studio for their first recording session. The resulting two tracks, “Dog Bottom” and “Jungle Mama,” featured trumpeter Ward Pinkett, reed-man Hilton Jefferson, and quick cymbal/percussion bursts from Webb.

As the 1930’s began, after a run of somewhat less successful gigs, a brief time of unemployment for the band, the departure of Johnny Hodges upon his joining Duke Ellington’s group (May, ’28), and the quick arrival and quicker departure of saxophonist Benny Carter (March-August, 1931), Webb revamped his band, named it The Chick Webb Orchestra, and introduced it to the public with engagements at the Savoy and Dixie Ballrooms in 1932-33. The Orchestra was soon invited to become the house band at the Savoy, which by 1933 featured the impressive saxophonist/arranger Edgar Sampson, trombonist Sandy Williams, and trumpeter Mario Bauza. The Orchestra would remain the house band at the Savoy until Webb’s untimely death in 1939, securing their legacy as one of the Swing Era’s leading bands.

There are multiple factors to consider in revealing the growing success of the Chick Webb Orchestra in the first half of the 1930s. First was Webb himself. It’s immediately noticeable that Webb’s choices within each song are more refined than many drummers of the previous decade. He utilized his huge 28” bass drum and wide array of percussion instruments not as novelties but as part of a thoughtfully constructed drum part that often built in intensity as the song progressed – linking the drummer’s role to the increase in dramatic tension rather than as a static rhythmic base. This helps to explain the sheer force and excitement of a Chick Webb shout chorus that dancers adored and other swing bands were envious of. Additionally, Webb was perched on a riser on stage and truly led his band, complete with physical and musical cues that future drummer/leaders – from Gene Krupa to Buddy Rich to Louie Bellson – all extensively borrowed from.

Second, the writers/arrangers of the early Chick Webb Orchestra introduced some of the finest contributions to the big band repertoire from 1931-1934. While he wasn’t with the group long, Benny Carter introduced “Blues in My Heart” during his tenure with the group, and Edgar Sampson arranged his own compositions and others written by Benny Goodman, some of which included “Blue Lou,” “Blue Minor,” “Let’s Get Together” (Webb’s theme song), “If Dreams Come True,” “Don’t Be That Way” and the immortal “Stompin’ at the Savoy.” Webb also hired George Bassman, a white arranger formerly of Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra, to work for the band as well.

Finally, while this last feature of the Webb Orchestra would only develop as time progressed, the group immediately asserted itself as the leading “battle band” in New York. It was quite common for “Battle of the Bands” to ensue at the Savoy Ballroom, and the sheer energy, high level of musicality, and supreme showmanship of Webb’s group resulted in their near-unbeatable reputation.

In 1935, Savoy manager Charlie Buchanan urged Webb to add a female vocalist to further to band’s profitability. Hesitant to alter a fairly newly assembled and successful unit, Webb was quickly convinced to hire an “Apollo Amateur Night” winner named Ella Fitzgerald after she auditioned at a dance at Yale University on March 8, 1935. After just three months with the group and only two months after her 17th birthday, Fitzgerald made her first recording with the Orchestra, “Love and Kisses,” on June 15, 1935. Mentoring Ella Fitzgerald and introducing her to the public quickly became one of Webb’s most noteworthy accomplishments.

Meanwhile, the band toured quite extensively in 1935 in addition to their regular gig at the Savoy, performing in Boston, Indianapolis, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Chicago, the last of which was highlighted by a “Battle of the Bands” against Jimmy Noone’s Orchestra on November 3.

The band was based largely in New York through the first half of 1936, followed by an extended road trip beginning in June that lasted until the Orchestra returned for a year-ending engagement at the Savoy in November and December of 1936. A highlight of this holiday-time affair was a battle against Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra on December 13.

The band toured and recorded at a remarkable rate throughout 1937, documented by multiple radio broadcasts and studio recordings of “Love Marches On,” “I Want to Be Happy,” and “Just a Simple Melody,” all featuring Fitzgerald on vocals. On November 1, 1937, the Orchestra recorded an instrumental track, “Harlem Congo,” arranged by Charlie Dixon, and a small group recording of “Sweet Sue, Just You,” supplementing the overwhelming majority of Webb/Fitzgerald big band recordings since 1935.

The apex of the band’s battle career also occurred in 1937. The band took on the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra on February 11, suffered a rare though excusable loss to Duke Ellington on March 7, and in one of the Webb Orchestra’s shining moments, defeated the rival Benny Goodman Orchestra, featuring Gene Krupa on drums, on May 11, 1937, at which point Webb was increasingly referred to as “The King of the Savoy.”

After a hotly contested battle with the Count Basie Orchestra in January 1938 in which Fitzgerald and Webb edged out Billie Holiday and Count Basie, the Orchestra recorded two of its most revered recordings in mid-1938. The first, the nursery rhyme turned Webb/Fitzgerald classic, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” was recorded on May 2nd, reached number one on the charts in July, and became a million seller in 1950.

The instrumental flip-side, “Liza,” recorded a day later on May 3rd, showcases Webb’s finest moment of recorded drumming – a tour-de-force of power and finesse, showmanship and musicality, highlighted by the fantastic half-straight/half-swung snare drum fills. By many accounts, “Liza” is among the few tracks that were thought to be able to stand up to Gene Krupa’s performance with Benny Goodman on “Sing, Sing, Sing” at the time.

The band toured throughout the remainder of 1938, and based on their recent run of hit records and dramatic victories in battle, had reached the height of their popular and commercial success.

Serious health problems began to plague Webb and affect his performance ability during this time, however. In April 1939, Webb entered Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore to have fluid drained from his spine. Sid Catlett subbed for Webb while he was out of commission, yet Webb returned to tour with his band, as evidenced by his top-form performance on this May 4, 1939 recording of “Chew, Chew, Chew.”

Webb’s health continually worsened, however, and when gigging in Washington D.C., he was in such tremendous pain that he was readmitted to the nearby Johns Hopkins Medical Center on June 9, 1939, now suffering from kidney problems in addition to his pre-existing conditions. On June 16, 1939, Chick Webb passed away with his family by his side.

According to the Baltimore Sun, Webb’s funeral “drew such musical notables as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Gene Krupa, Jimmie Lunceford and Fletcher Henderson, while thousands more crowded the church and surrounding streets. It was all that Ella Fitzgerald could do to sing two choruses of ‘My Buddy.' She was sobbing without restraint when she finished…”

In preserving Webb’s memory, Ella Fitzgerald kept the Orchestra in tact and led the band herself until 1942, when she moved on pursue her solo career. The vast number of recordings of Webb with Fitzgerald, the small yet consistently high-quality performances of drum-centric instrumental numbers, the countless memorable battles at the Savoy Ballroom, and the indomitable musical spirit of Chick Webb secures his legacy as one of the leaders of the Swing Era, an inescapable influence to any showman, drummer, and/or bandleader that has graced the stage since.

Select Discography:

Chick Webb and his Orchestra, 1929-1934 (Classics 502)

Chick Webb and his Orchestra, 1935-1938 (Classics 517)

Swingsation: Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb (GRP 9921)

Spinnin’ the Web: The Original Decca Recordings (Decca/GRP 635)

Contributor: Eric Novod