This Virtual Victrola "Swinging At Decca" entry spotlights the diminutive Chick Webb who, despite his painful physical handicaps, led the most exciting swing band in Harlem during the 1930's
Webb was born in Baltimore, MD in 1909. At an early age he contracted tuberculosis of the spine, which left his spine curved and stunted the growth of his legs. Webb took up drumming with hopes that it would strengthen his legs and help his stiff joints. His drum set included special pedals and other devices that allowed him to play the bass drum and high-hat cymbals with his feet, just like other drummers. In his late teens, he moved to New York and began sitting in during jam sessions with other Harlem musicians.
At the urging of Duke Ellington, Webb formed his own band when he was just eighteen years old. The band was a hit at Harlem's famous Savoy Ballroom, and would continue to be the top band at the Savoy throughout the Swing Era. Though Webb was small in stature, he was a tough leader and an astute businessman. He drilled his band thoroughly and inspired them with his energetic drumming. Although he had no formal training and could not read music, his dynamic playing, exciting fills, and powerful solos were a force to be reckoned with.
Webb also enjoyed competition immensely, and during the 1930's the Savoy Ballroom booked the nation's top swing bands, including the bands led by Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman, and Count Basie, in a series of "battles" against the Webb band. Needless to say, Webb's "homefield advantage" led to a string of consistent victories as judged by the Savoy's enthusiastic patrons. But numerous musicians continually testified as to Webb's greatness and the superior quality of his band. Benny Goodman's drummer Gene Krupa later remembered:
I'll never forget that night, the night Benny's band 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.
Webb's other important asset, and the one thing that directly led to his commercial success, was his girl singer, a shy teenager discovered by one of Webb's friends at a local talent competition -- Ella Fitzgerald. At first Webb was hesitant about hiring her -- she was not particularly attractive and she could not dance. But after she wowed the dancers at a Yale prom, she was in. The band loved her as much as their audiences did, and she continually turned out superior vocal performances that culminated with two huge hit records: "A Tisket A Tasket" in 1938 and "Undecided" the following year.
Jack Kapp signed the up-and-coming Webb orchestra to an exclusive
Decca recording contract in the fall of 1934, and Webb recorded dozens
of sides for Decca during the next five years. Here are four of them:
Our first Webb effort comes from September 1934 and is Edgar Sampson's famous tune "Don't Be That Way."
The treatment that Webb's band gives this famous big band warhorse is
very different than the more familiar version recorded by Benny Goodman
over three years later. While Goodman's record lopes along at a modest
tempo, Webb's performance jumps right from the introduction. Edgar
Sampson was a tenor saxophonist with the Webb orchestra when this
record was cut, and his arranging was admired and used extensively by
Benny Goodman. Soloists are Elmer Williams on alto sax, Sampson,
trombonist Claude Jones, and trumpeter Taft Jordan.
The Webb band continues to blow on "Harlem Congo,"
a terriffic "barnburner" that typifies the kind of electrified
performance that the Webb band could generate. Tunes like this one
propelled the thrilling "Lindy Hoppers"
whose stunning acrobatic dancing was a fixture at the Savoy. Soloists:
Taft Jordan, clarinetist Chauncey Haughton, trombonist Sandy Williams,
and Chick Webb in a maddening display of drum pyrotechnics.
The old Fats Waller standard "Squeeze Me"
is really a feature for trumpeter Taft Jordan, but it is also a good
example of the versatility of the Webb orchestra. Many swing bands,
even the good ones, had trouble with ballads. But Webb's drumming
fuels the band's intensity and keeps the group swinging, even at
slow-dance speed. And this record also shows that the crowds at the
Savoy liked all the dance tempos, not just the "killer-diller" swing
Our final Webb number is one of the big hits that singer Ella Fitzgerald recorded for him, "Undecided".
The tune was originally conceived as an instrumental by trumpeter
Charlie Shavers, who recorded it with the John Kirby Orchestra.
Lyricist Sid Robin added words and Ella's vocal became the focal point
of the band's performance. Although Webb's health was failing when
this recording was made, he still sparks the band with his fills and
powerful single-stroke roll.
Webb continued to lead his band and play the drums even though his stamina suffered and his performances became erratic. After a matinee engagement at the Paramount Theater in early 1939, Chick passed out and had to be carried off stage. Doctors soon determined that his spinal tuberculosis had relapsed, and in June 1939 Webb was admitted to Johns Hopkins hospital to undergo spinal surgery. He never recovered from the operation and died soon after, telling those keeping vigil around him, "I'm sorry, I gotta go."
Upon Chick's death, Ella Fitzgerald took over leadership of the band, with saxophonists Teddy McCrea and Eddie Barefield acting as musical directors. Ella Fitzgerald and her Famous Orchestra continued to record and tour until the group broke up in 1942. Needless to say, Ella went on to become one of the most popular singers of the post-war era and one of the most admired jazz vocalists of the Twentieth Century.