William Henry “Chick” Webb was born February 10, 1905, in Baltimore, Maryland. From early childhood he was afflicted with tuberculosis of the spine. Owing to this disease, his backbone was deformed and he was short of stature, even in adulthood. His doctor suggested that he take up an instrument to “loosen up his bones” and aid in his mobility. He earned enough money selling newspapers to purchase a kit of drums, and became proficient enough as a percussionist to play professionally by the age of eleven.
He moved to New York City when he was 17, was leading his own band in Harlem by the age of 21. Harlem became his home base, to which he would return between touring engagements. He was well-regarded enough as a bandleader by 1931 to be hired to lead the house band at the Savoy Ballroom. His propulsive, virtuosic drumming was the foundation of one of the first real swing bands, years in advance of the Swing Era.
Webb never learned to read music, but he knew the band’s charts by heart and conducted with aplomb, seated at his drums on a platform front and center of the bandstand. As the Swing Era proceeded, “Battles of the Bands” were featured at the Savoy, and Webb’s band would trounce better known big bands, such as those led by Benny Goodman or Count Basie. The Savoy’s dancing patrons almost unfailingly voted Chick Webb’s band to be the winner. Only Duke Ellington, in 1937, managed to eke out a victory over the mighty Webb.
By 1935, Chick Webb began to feature vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, who would help propel his band to national prominence. The light novelties Ella recorded with the band sold handsomely, though her musicianship and impeccable sense of swing shone through the commercial drivel.
At the same time he was achieving his greatest fame, Chick Webb’s health began to fail. Despite increasing discomfort and fatigue, he continued to lead the band. Spinal tuberculosis, his life-long nemesis, finally took Chick Webb’s life on June 16, 1939, in Baltimore. —Andy Senior