Chick Webb

Photo of Chick Webb
  • Birth Name

    William Webb
  • Born

    February 10, 1909
    Baltimore, Maryland
  • Died

    June 16, 1939 (age 30)
    Baltimore, Maryland

Chick Webb was one of the finest jazz drum­mers of the big band era and also one of the most in­spi­ra­tional. Crippled by spinal tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, which left him with min­i­mal use of his legs and a hunched back, Webb over­came his hand­i­cap to lead one of the swingin­gest or­ches­tras of the 1930s. At less than five feet tall, he reigned over the Savoy Ballroom dur­ing its hey­day and is of­ten cred­ited with the dis­cov­ery of singer Ella Fitzgerald.

Born in Baltimore in 1909, Webb learned to drum at an early age as ther­apy for his con­di­tion. While still a teenager, he landed a spot in the Jazzola Orchestra. When Jazzola mem­ber John Truehart moved to New York in 1925 he took Webb with him. There the young drum­mer worked briefly with Edgar Dowell and played in ses­sions with such artists as Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, Tony Hardwick, and Duke Ellington be­fore form­ing his own five-piece group in 1926, which spent five months at the Black Bottom Club. He then led an eight-piece out­fit at the Paddock Club be­fore tak­ing his group, now called the Harlem Stompers, to the Savoy in January 1927. During the rest of the 1920s, Webb and his band, by then ex­panded to eleven pieces, played var­i­ous nightspots around the New York area, in­clud­ing the Roseland, the Cotton Club, and the Strand Roof. In the early 1930s, they toured with the Hot Chocolates re­vue.

In 1931, Webb and his Stompers be­gan the first of sev­eral long, reg­u­lar sea­sons at the Savoy. This arrange­ment lasted un­til 1935. When not at the Savoy they con­tin­ued to tour. In 1932, they played a se­ries of the­ater dates with Louis Armstrong, and in 1934 they were booked into a long en­gage­ment at the Casino de Paris in New York. The band’s sound and Webb’s show­man­ship quickly at­tracted a large fol­low­ing, and the group changed its name to the Chick Webb Orchestra.

Webb’s early line-up fea­tured such top mu­si­cians as Carter, Edgar Sampson, John Kirby, and Louis Jordan. Charlie Linton was lead vo­cal­ist un­til 1935 when Webb came un­der pres­sure to hire a younger, hip­per singer. Webb’s front­man Bardu Ali heard 17-year-old Ella Fitzgerald per­form at the Harlem Opera and brought her to Webb for an au­di­tion. She proved a star at­trac­tion for the or­ches­tra and sang on many of its most fa­mous record­ings, in­clud­ing their biggest hit A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” Fitzgerald was an or­phan and Webb came to re­gard her as his own daugh­ter, legally adopt­ing her soon af­ter she joined the band.

Webb’s or­ches­tra re­mained highly pop­u­lar through­out the 1930s. Webb him­self was the con­sum­mate drum­mer, rais­ing the stan­dard for all with his in­ven­tive­ness and ex­per­tise. He made full use of his in­stru­ment and was a mas­ter of the high-hat cym­bal. Webb’s mu­si­cian­ship in­spired many other per­form­ers, in­clud­ing ri­val drum­mer Gene Krupa and fu­ture Jazz Messenger Art Blakey. Webb never learned to read mu­sic but was ca­pa­ble of per­fectly mem­o­riz­ing every de­tail of the band’s arrange­ments. He rarely missed a beat.

In 1938, Webb’s health be­gan to fail him. He of­ten had dif­fi­culty fin­ish­ing per­for­mances and ended up in the hos­pi­tal sev­eral times. Despite his phys­i­cal frailty, he con­tin­ued to tour and record with his or­ches­tra. In June of 1939, how­ever, he be­came se­ri­ously ill and en­tered the hos­pi­tal for the last time. He passed away af­ter un­der­go­ing a ma­jor op­er­a­tion, his mother at his side. Fitzgerald took over Webb’s or­ches­tra and tried to keep it go­ing but gave it up in mid-1942 to go solo. The group tried to stay to­gether un­der an­other leader but soon dis­banded.

Music

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  • I'll Chase the Blues Away
    Chick Webb (Ella Fitzgerald), Decca (1935)
  • When I Get Low I Get High
    Chick Webb (Ella Fitzgerald), Decca (1936)
  • Holiday in Harlem
    Chick Webb (Ella Fitzgerald), Decca (1937)
  • A-Tisket, A-Tasket
    Chick Webb (Ella Fitzgerald), Decca (1938)
  • Crying My Heart Out for You
    Chick Webb (Ella Fitzgerald), Decca (1939)

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