This week, we’re hosting a Sugar Foot Stomp dedicated to the music of Chick Webb. To mark the occasion, we’ve asked Professor Wondra to write a short bio on this important musician. RSVP on Facebook.
WILLIAM “CHICK” WEBB: drums, bandleader, song writer.
Born: Feb. 10, 1902, 1905, 1907, or 1909 (most sources cite 1909, but 1907 is most likely), Baltimore, MD.
Died: June 16, 1939, Baltimore, MD.
Chick Webb was born into and extremely poor family and was taken care of by his grandfather. While an infant he was dropped on his back, resulting in several smashed vertebrae. Because of this he was rendered a hunchback and only grew to be four feet tall. He suffered a great deal of pain throughout his life and finally succumbed to tuberculosis of the spine. Because of his small size, other children nicknamed him “Chick,” and the appellation stayed. As a child, he was impressed by the drummers in parade bands that he saw on the way to church each Sunday. At age nine, he left school and sold newspapers to help the family. He earned enough money to buy a second-hand set of drums. Eventually his street-playing gigs around town got him enough attention to acquire his first professional job with The Jazzola Boys playing on excursion boats in the Chesapeake Bay. He struck up a friendship with the band’s guitarist/banjoist John Trueheart. The two left the band in 1924 and headed to New York City. They gigged around and their talents impressed many new and upcoming musicians, one of whom was Duke Ellington. Ellington got Webb his first job as a bandleader at The Black Bottom Club in mid-town Manhattan. Webb, supposedly only 17, was a reluctant leader. Ellington got him another job at The Paddock Club where the band was a sensation. At the end of 1926 a fire closed the club.
Webb’s band started playing at the Savoy Ballroom in Jan. 1927, the venue where he would eventually become the formidable house band. The ballroom had two stages and he played opposite the Savoy Bearcats and Fess Williams. He was still young and inexperienced as a leader, but he didn’t let that stop him from going against such incredible bands as Fletcher Henderson, Joe “King” Oliver, and Fess Williams. Chick Webb and his Harlem Stompers made their first recordings for the Vocalion label on Aug. 25, 1927, but the sides were never released. He had a smaller band throughout this time and wanted to expand its size. When his one-year contract expired at the Savoy, the management refused to let him increase the number of band members. His band played many venues and toured the road starting at the end of 1927. He had many ups and downs, but was determined to become a successful bandleader. He even turned down two offers to join the bands of Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington. In June 1929 Webb made two recordings for the Brunswick label: “Jungle Mama” and “Dog Bottom” credited as “The Jungle Band.” This was rather odd since Duke Ellington had already used this name for the same label. But Webb’s band played in a similar style to Ellington’s current “jungle” sound. In July 1929 Webb filled in for Ellington at The Cotton Club while Ellington was touring. Late 1929 found the band engaged at both the Roseland Ballroom and regularly appearing the Savoy Ballroom.
In early 1931, Webb acquired saxophonist Benny Carter from Fletcher Henderson’s band. Carter was also one of the first great arrangers to work with big bands and he gave Webb’s band a new innovative style. Chick Webb & his Orchestra made their first recordings under Webb’s own name on March 30, 1931 for Brunswick. Following was a period of touring. Carter left the band in Aug. 1931 and took half of the members with him. This forced Webb to reorganize once again. After more ups and downs, the band returned to the Savoy in Oct. 1932 and set an attendance record of 4600. His band backed Louis Armstrong on Dec. 8, 1932 for two Victor recordings “That’s My Home” and “Hobo You Can’t Ride This Train.”
By mid-1933 Webb had hired new band members along with arranger Edgar Sampson, who gave the band yet more stylings. By autumn 1933 the Savoy’s business had recovered enough to use Webb’s band as one of its major attractions. (Prior to this, the Savoy had been losing money and didn’t pay full price for the bands.) On Dec. 20, 1933 Chick Webb’s Savoy Orchestra recorded two tunes for Columbia. “I Can’t Dance, I Got Ants In My Pants,” recorded on May 9, 1934, was Webb’s first record to chart. Edgar Sampson’s “Stompin’ At The Savoy,” recorded May 18, 1934, became one of the biggest monster-hits of the swing era.
Webb had been a member of the Moe Gale Agency since late 1929. Gale was a booker, manger, and stockholder in the Savoy Ballroom. He negotiated a new contract with Decca records, and the band made its first recordings there on Sep. 10, 1934. Two tunes recorded on Nov. 19, 1934, “Don’t Be That Way,” and “Blue Lou,” both became swing era anthems. Webb hadn’t felt that his band had great commercial appeal. His band was musically skilled, but he wanted to gain a wider audience. His current vocalist, Charles Linton, was asked to find another vocalist. He tracked down a young singer he’d heard and brought her to Webb. At first, Webb was coldly unimpressed with the ragged-looking young woman. She wasn’t dressed well, her appearance somewhat unkempt. After some arm twisting, Webb relented and listened to the woman sing. Webb agreed to give her a two-week tryout at the Savoy. The young woman was Ella Fitzgerald.
Webb always got feedback from musicians who attended the Savoy. Kaiser Marshall, Fletcher Henderson’s drummer, told Webb, “You damn fool—you better take her.” Webb had a goldmine in Ella. She recorded her first song with the band on June 12, 1935 with “I’ll Chase The Blues Away.” Ella’s popularity with the public naturally demanded more recordings. On Oct. 29, 1936 she sang her first scat vocal on “If You Can’t Sing It, You’ll Have To Swing It.” Saxophonist/vocalist Louis Jordan was with Webb from 1936-38. (He had some on again/off again relationships with Ella during his tenure.) Jordan sang and acted as emcee at live shows. Supposedly, Webb was more than a little jealous of the attention Jordan was getting—stealing the limelight from his newest female vocalist. In any event, Jordan, who wanted to be a leader and more of an entertainer, either quit the band or was fired by Webb, depending on whose account one reads. Webb had also thought that Jordan was planning on leaving for a while and trying to get other members to quit too. It’s a good thing for music history that Louis Jordan did leave. His Tympany Five group was responsible for the highest amount of top-selling records by black artists from 1943-50.
Webb’s reputation took-off in 1937 due to his weekly radio broadcasts. Webb also got much attention from the battle-of-the-bands events at the Savoy Ballroom. On Feb. 28, 1937 Webb lost out to Duke Ellington. On May 11, 1937 more than 4000 people showed up for the battle with Benny Goodman’s orchestra. 5000 people were turned away. Webb had three books of arrangements, number three being the least difficult and number one composed of the hottest musical pyrotechnics. He beat Goodman with his number three book. When it was over, Goodman’s drummer Gene Krupa, also a friend and admirer of Webb, said, “I’ve never been cut by a better man.” Jan. 16, 1938, the night of Goodman’s famous Carnegie Hall concert, was also the night of Webb’s battle-of-the-bands with Count Basie. Musicians who played at Carnegie Hall rushed to the Savoy afterwards. Webb rarely lost on his home turf, and he pulled out all stops. Webb’s intent that night was to send “those hicks back to the sticks.” Even though Webb played with a fury of blistering intensity, Basie kept calm and swung in a relaxed and solid groove, much to the lindy hoppers’ delight. Webb used his number one book that night. Metronome magazine voted Webb the winner of the night’s escapade. Down Beat declared Basie the victor. Famed lindy hop creator and dancer Frankie Manning said, “Of course we loved Chick Webb. But for the dancers, Basie was the winner!” In any event, the night went down in swing music history as one of music’s greatest competitions of all time.
On May 2, 1938, Ella did a vocal on another of swing music’s all-time greatest hits: “A-Tisket A-Tasket.” Webb was a top-attraction, and Ella was a star vocalist. The band played numerous engagements and toured. From April to May, 1938, Webb’s orch. played a stint at the Flamingo Room of Levaggi’s Restaurant. Webb spend two weeks in the hospital. After leaving the hospital he did more touring. By this time Webb’s health was deteriorating rapidly. Despite his health, he still performed with amazing energy. He never complained of the pain he experienced. In late April 1939 he entered John Hoskins Hospital in Baltimore for treatment of fluid on his spine. Upon his discharge the band played at the Park Central Hotel in New York and afterwards at the Southland Café in Boston. Webb still played with undiminished energy, never allowing the pain to slow him down on the drums. The band continued with one-nighters and Webb’s condition worsened on June 9, 1939. He returned to the John Hoskins Hospital, while drummer Bill Beason took over the band. Webb had resisted his inevitable demise due to tuberculosis of the spine. According to the story, on June 16, 1939, as he was propped against his pillows, he said, “I’m sorry, but I gotta go.” He died immediately after delivering this statement. (Another story states he died in his mother’s arms.) His funeral was one of the largest ever held in Baltimore. People lined the streets and rooftops, and no late comers could make it to the church without a police escort. As many people said, this small man had such a large impact.
Bill Beason and Ella Fitzgerald took their turns managing Webb’s band after his death. The band was billed as “Ella Fitzgerald and Her Savoy Eight” and later as “Ella Fitzgerald and her Famous Orchestra.” Ella didn’t care to manage a band, and soon after adopted a solo career, with incredible skill and precision earning her the well-deserved moniker “the First Lady of Swing.” Webb was inarguably one of the most important figures in swing music. He was only four feet tall, hump-backed, and had special drums made with extended pedals so he could reach them. He couldn’t read music and memorized every arrangement. He innovated percussion effects and syncopation. Drummers said that when he put the emphasis on beats not normally emphasized, that he was a forerunner of the forthcoming be-bop music. Webb was also one of the first drummers to make use of the high-hat cymbals. Many of the swing era’s most excelled and famous drummers cited Webb as a direct influence—drummers such as Gene Krupa, Jo Jones, Dave Tough, Sid Catlett, and Buddy Rich. Chick Webb departed too soon. It would have been interesting to see what he would have done keeping current with musical trends. Still today, he’s regarded as one of the permanent, primary, percussive practitioners and is held in great esteem; which is as it should be. This way musicians, scholars, and dancers will forever have Webb access.