From The Past

The Legendary Chick Webb: A Profile In Courage

by Robert Hillary

The story of Chick Webb is more than the story of a dynamic drummer of the swing era. It’s the story of a gallant little man who overcame physical deformity, chick webb copyhardship and pain. A man whose spirit, courage and determination was perhaps unsurpassed, and whose drumming ability and total musicianship was nothing short of phenomenal.

William “Chick” Webb was born in Baltimore on February 10, 1907. Born badly crippled, his formative years were those of a virtual invalid until an operation as a youngster enabled him to use his feet. It was during this time, the young Chick first demonstrated an interest in drumming.

Throughout his entire adult life, Chick was hunchback and frail, just barely able to reach the foot pedal of his drums, but an unwavering determination got him to New York City at the age of 17 as drummer with the Ed Dowell band. Later in 1924, he formed his first band gathering together the talents of such outstanding section players and soloists as Jimmy Harrison, Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges, and working primarily in Harlem, the stomping grounds for all the fine young black bands of the day.

The Savoy Ballroom was a second floor walkup in the heart of Harlem and a well known dance palace during the years of the lindy hop. The exchange between the musicians on the bandstand and the dancers on the floor was oftentimes electrifying. Each fed off the other, setting exhausting paces,” and creating exhilarating waves of musical excitement. By 1928, the management of the Savoy spotted the Webb band outplaying the likes of Fletcher Henderson and King Oliver’s respective bands and offered them the house band job at the Savoy. It was a turning point for Chick Webb as his band was to reign nightly for more than a decade as the unheralded kings of that swinging emporium.

Though the band recorded for the Brunswick label in 1931, it wasn’t actually until 1934 when the swinging little band under the leadership of its pulsating powerhouse of a drummer began to achieve any prominence. By the onset of the big band era, Webb was leading a dynamic 13 piece band with such outstanding sidemen as Bobby Stark and Taft Jordan, John Kirby on bass, and tenor saxophonists Louis Jordan and Edgar Sampson, the latter being responsible for much of the writing. Sampson had written instrumental like “Blue Lou”, “Don’t Be That Way”, and “Stompin’ At The Savoy”, all of which the Webb band played well before Goodman recorded them and eventually made famous in the mid-thirties.

Throughout the strong years of the swing era, the Chick Webb band held fort nightly at the Savoy, usually rocking the entire building with their great spirit and intense drive. In 1935, a young female singer came to Chick’s attention. Dates at Levaggi’s – a club in Boston where college kids from Yale and Harvard congregated – found crowds flocking in to hear the band with its new found singing discovery, relinquishing Chick’s initial reluctance to hire a singer for the band. The shy young vocalist came on the band as a permanent fixture in 1935. Her name was Ella Fitzgerald.

Throughout the mid and late thirties, the band broadcast nationally on radio and produced a superb series of recordings for Decca. Under the management of Moe Gale – owner of the Savoy – the band was booked into the Paramount Theatre in New York, and an engagement at the Park Central Hotel gave the Webb band the distinction of being the first black band to ever play the hotel. Webb rose to become one of the most acclaimed figures in jazz; a powerful drummer whose marvelous control of bass drum and cymbals lent the band much of its personality both in section and solo work. One of his greatest admirers was a fiery young drummer just out of Chicago by the name of Krupa. Webb’s influence was evident in the playing of Krupa, along with numerous other drummers of the swing era.

A massive crowd packed the Savoy Ballroom, with thousands more turned away outside on the evening of May 11, 1937 as Chick Webb and the Benny Goodman band fought it out in a legendary “battle of the bands”. Police lined the bandstand, reserves in readiness, as the Goodman band stormed on, and aptly propelled by Krupa, reached a peak level of performance, but it was only the beginning. Though one might have thought it impossible to outplay the Goodman band of ’37, Chick Webb proved otherwise that evening as his band came on, super-charged, blasting out one exciting arrangement after another. The huge crowd reached a frenzy level as the little dynamo put his band through its paces, driving them to unexcelled heights and practically blowing the roof right off the old Savoy. Krupa later wrote, “That night when we battled Chick at the Savoy – he just cut me to ribbons — made me feel awfully small…that man was dynamic; he could reach the most amazing heights. When he really let go, you had a feeling that the entire atmosphere in the place was being charged. When he felt like it, he could cut down any of us.”

By 1939, it was determined that Chick had tuberculosis of the spine. The pain grew worse with each passing week, and yet, he refused to give up even after collapsing at the New York Paramount in 1939. In June, while playing on a riverboat in Washington, D. C., he collapsed again and was rushed to a hospital in Baltimore where an operation was performed to no avail. Chick Webb died on June 16, 1939 at the age of 32.

The band continued for several years fronted by Ella Fitzgerald. By ’42, Ella had left and the band soon became just a fond memory, never regaining the spark and enthusiasm without Chick in the drivers seat.

Chick Webb’s style was military oriented, similar to that of Baby Dodds who had been a great influence during his formative years. Webb however had a flair, a pulsation, an excitement that was unequaled. He played with a feeling of four in the bass drum as opposed to the predominant two feeling of players before him. His interplay between drums and cymbals and a sharp ear for coloration in timbre was nothing short of brilliant. Though not a great technician, he could propel a band with an infectious drive by laying down nearly perfect time, exploding in just the right places. Even though he lacked in physical power and endurance, this inimitable mixture of style and energy would charge the atmosphere of any place he played.

Perhaps the best summation to any profile in memoriam to Chick Webb could best be taken from one writers poignant observation. “Chick was perhaps the greatest of jazz drummers, a gallant little man who made his contribution to jazz within an extraordinary framework of pain and suffering.”