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Chick Webb 



Chick Webb, in the center, with his orchestra 



William Henry "Chick" Webb, despite being under five feet tall, was one of the giants of swing and taught us all a lesson about overcoming handicaps.  He was born February 10, 1909 in Baltimore.  At a young age, he contracted spinal tuberculosis that left him with a hunchback and little use of his legs.  Doctors recommended he take up drumming as a remedy for stiff joints.  From then on, he took to drumming.  First on pots and pans and oil drums.  After selling newspapers, he saved enough to buy a drum set, which used special custom-pedals, so that he could reach them, due to his small stature.  He moved to New York at the age of 17 and started playing with Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, and Duke Ellington.

In 1927, on the advise of Ellington, Webb formed a quintet called the Harlem Stompers.  He started playing at one of Harlem's largest night clubs, the Savoy, and won over crowds with his flamboyant style.  In 1931, he formed the Chick Webb Orchestra.  The band became the house band for the Savoy, with such songs as Stompin At The Savoy, If Dreams Come True, and Blue Lou.  Although Webb could not read music, he memorized every piece and led the band from a raised platform, cueing in the sections with his drumming.  He was the consummate showman and because of his fluid and rhythmic style, he was perfectly suited for the swing era. He was also a major competitor.  His orchestra owned the Savoy and faced down many challenges in "battle of the bands" contests, from the likes of Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington.  Gene Krupa reportedly spoke in shell-shocked tones of being in awe of Webb, after Webb blew him away when his orchestra dueled Benny Goodman's, which occurred only a few months before Webb died at the age of 30 of the Spinal Tuberculosis in 1939.  Art Blakey and Ellington both credit Webb with influencing their music.  Krupa credited Webb with raising drummer awareness and paving the way for drummer-led bands, which Krupa would later employ.  His thundering solos created a complexity and an energy that paved the way for Buddy Rich (who studied Webb intensely) and Louie Bellson.

Recordings never did Webb justice, because the technology was just too primitive.  He sought more fame than simply being the "King of the Savoy."  In 1935, he hired 17 year old Ella Fitzgerald as vocalist.  Shortly thereafter, he adopted the orphaned Fitzgerald.  Together, they formed a powerful partnership and recorded over 60 songs in the next 3 years, including A Tisket, A-Tasket, which remained at the top of the charts for 17 weeks.  After Webb died, Ella Fitzgerald took over the orchestra for two years, before they finally broke up.

By 1938, Webb's health began to fail him.  Although his health declined, he continued to play, refusing to give up touring, so that his band could remain employed during the Great Depression, disregarding 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 and died shortly thereafter.  His last reported words were "I'm sorry, I've got to go." 

To learn more about Chick Webb, check out these sites:

The life and music of Chick Webb - A fan's site

Chick Webb - from

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