Chick Webb Biography

William Henry Webb, 10 February 1909, Baltimore, Maryland, USA, d. 19 June 1939, Baltimore, Maryland, USA. Although crippled soon after his birth, Webb’s determination to be a drummer overcame his physical infirmities. After playing in local bands, he travelled to New York while still a teenager and soon formed his own band there. By 1927 he had played at the Savoy Ballroom and other prestigious dance halls. In 1931 he began a residency at the Savoy and quickly became this famous venue’s favourite act. His disability was that he had severely restricted growth, and developed a hunchback. To compensate this he had a specially modified kit. He hired fine musicians, among them Johnny Hodges (whom he generously encouraged to take up an offer from Duke Ellington), Benny Carter, Jimmy Harrison, Mario Bauza, Wayman Carver, Taft Jordan, Louis Jordan and Bobby Stark. He also employed a succession of excellent arrangers, including Charlie Dixon, Carter and the outstandingly talented Edgar Sampson.

Webb’s popularity at the Savoy and through records and radio broadcasts was further enhanced when, in 1935, at the suggestion of Charles Linton he hired the recently-discovered Ella Fitzgerald. From this point until Webb’s untimely death four years later, the band remained at a musical and commercial peak. Hits included ‘Sing Me A Swing Song’, ‘Oh, Yes, Take Another Guess’, ‘The Dipsy Doodle’, ‘If Dreams Come True’, ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket’ (a song on which Fitzgerald collaborated on the lyric and was her first number 1 in 1938), ‘F.D.R. Jones’ ‘Wacky Dust’, ‘I Found My Yellow Basket’ and ‘Undecided’. Throughout his career Webb’s physical condition had given cause for concern; he underwent several spinal operations at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, but died there on 19 June 1939. (Reputedly, his last words were, ‘I’m sorry, I gotta go now.’) One of the outstanding big band drummers, Webb’s technical skills and driving yet uplifting beat were essential components of his band’s success with audiences, especially the hard-to-please dancers at the Savoy who loved him. Although Jo Jones was concurrently changing perceptions of how big band drummers should play, Webb continued to exert influence and his most enthusiastic successor was Gene Krupa, who altered his style completely after first hearing Webb. As he, in turn, influenced countless thousands of drummers around the world, the Webb style even spread among musicians who perhaps had never heard of him.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.