William Henry Webb (Chick Webb) was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1909. Afflicted at birth with spinal tuberculosis which left him in poor health for his entire life, Chick was a small, hunchback of a man (only 4’1)of unusual spirit and an astounding musical talent. Chick Webb represented the triumph of the human spirit in jazz and life. He wa Hunchbacked, small in stature, almost a dwarf with a large face and broad shoulders. For many jazz fans, Chick remains arguably the greatest jazz drummer to have ever played the instrument. Yet it was only by a quirk of fate that Chick even came to play the drums.
The idea of playing the instrument was suggested to him by his doctor as a way to “loosen up” his stiffened limbs. By saving money earned through delivering papers, Chick soon secured a drum set. And by the age of seventeen, Chick was playing in New York nights clubs such as the Black Bottom and the Paddock Club. These early jobs were secured for him through the efforts of Duke Ellington who instantly recognized Chick’s talent. It was Ellington who encouraged Chick to form a quintet aptly called the “Harlem Stoppers.” The name was probably derived from Chick’s own hard driving style on the drums as the quintet’s leader. Later, this quintet would evolve into one of the most feared “swing” bands in New York—The Chick Webb Orchestra. Although Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges played with the band early on, the Webb band was oddly short on major soloists during its heyday from the mid-’30s onward; the young alto sax player Louis Jordan made the biggest impression after leaving the band. But the band made up for it with a crisp ensemble sound, Webb’ disciplined, ferociously driving drum pyrotechnics, trumpeter Taft Jordan’s impressions of Louis Armstrong, and most of all, a series of strong compositions and charts by Edgar Sampson (“Blue Lou” and “Stomping at the Savoy” among them).
Webb was unable to read music, and instead memorized the arrangements played by the band and conducted from a platform in the center. He used custom-made pedals, goose-neck cymbal holders, a 28-inch bass drum and other percussion instruments.
Alas, Webb did not get a fair shake on records; Decca’s primitive recording techniques could not adequately capture his spectacular technique and wide dynamic range. The band released a continuous string of Decca 78s that featured such irresistible numbers as “T’aint What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It)” and the B-side of “Tasket,” “Liza.”
The Chick Webb Orchestra earned its fame after it became the house band of the legendary Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, New York. At the Savoy jazz bands made reputations for themselves by taking part in cuttin’ sessions usually against Chick Webb’s Orchestra. Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, Lloyd Scott and other, merely great, swing bands fell before the awesome power of Chick Webb’s spectacular playing. And, when the famous Benny Goodman Band came to Harlem to challenge the Chick Webb Orchestra at the Savoy, they too were left cut and bleeding after the encounter. Even the legendary Gene Krupa was said to have been shell-shocked by the power of Chick’s playing. But what else could Krupa expect from a bandleader and drummer whose moniker was “The King of the Savoy!” Drumming legend Buddy Rich (who studied Webb intensely) also cited Chick’s powerful technique and virtuoso performances as heavily influential on his own drumming, and even referred to Webb as “the daddy of them all.”
Chick Webb’s already mythical reputation was given even greater stature when he replaced his longtime vocalist Charles Linton with a then relatively unknown singer who had recently won the Talent Contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. In 1935 began featuring the teenage Ella Fitzgerald (actually rebuilding the show around her). He and his wife Sallye later adopted Ella.
Jazz legend has it that Ella “snuck” into Chick Webb’s dressing room in order to convince him to take her into his bed. It was also noted that upon seeing Ella for the first time Webb asked. “What the hell am I going to do with THIS mess?” In those early days she was hugely overweight and it was said the she had severe hygiene problems, accordingly, could be difficult to be around. This was due to lack of a stable home life and never being taught such things. Ironically, Ms. Fitzgerald later came to be known for her elegant gowns and fur.
But legends notwithstanding, Ella did become Chick’s lead vocalist. And Ella, called adoringly by fans and musicians, “The First Lady of Swing,” always acknowledged Chick Webb as her “first and foremost” influence.
Together, Chick and Ella would electrify the Swing era of jazz with hits such as “A-Tisket a Tasket,” which was composed by Ella to cheer Chick up while he was ill. And while this and other great tunes recorded by these artists are well-known, Chick’s early work—some say his most impressive solos—was regrettably poorly captured by recording technology ill suited for Chick’s immense talent. But one of Chick’s hit tunes “Stompin’ at the Savoy” gives contemporary jazz fans some hint of the power of Chick Webb and his Orchestra.
In 1938, Chick Webb’s health began to fail him. This was mostly due to Chick’s chronic spinal condition and his insistence that he and his orchestra would only perform at the height of their talents for their fans. Often it was said that Chick played with such power that he was physically exhausted when he left the bandstand.
In November 1938, Webb’s health began to decline; this was mostly due to Chick’s chronic spinal condition and his insistence that he and his orchestra would only perform at the height of their talents for their fans. He continued to play, refusing to give up touring so that his band could remain employed during the Great Depression. He disregarded his own discomfort and fatigue, which often found him passing out from physical exhaustion after finishing sets.
Finally, he had a major operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in 1939. William Henry “Chick” Webb died from spinal tuberculosis on June 16, 1939 with his mother at his side. He was roughly 34 years old. Chick’s funeral procession was said to have been composed of some eighty cars and the church where he was eulogized was said to be unable to hold all the mourners. Webb was buried just outside Baltimore, in Arbutus Memorial Park, in Arbutus, Maryland.
Chick Webb is remembered for his last words which were, “I’m sorry, I’ve got to go.”
For awhile, Ella Fitzgerald carried on Chick’s tradition when she became one of the first female bandleaders. But soon the orchestra became too much for Ella to handle. Finally, the band went under. But not after it left a jazz legacy that has been recognized by such jazz greats as Buddy Rich, Louis Bellson, Art Blakely, and Duke Ellington.