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(1909 - 1939)

Chick Webb was hugely admired by drummers such as Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, and Art Blakey for his power, musicianship and impeccable rhythm. He was a master at swinging a big band.

Webb was born with spinal tuberculosis which left him a hunchback and led to his early death. He took up drums on the advice of his doctor as a way of loosening up his limbs, and with money saved from menial jobs he bought a drum set fitted with custom pedals to accommodate his small stature. At age 17 he left Baltimore for New York and on the advice of Duke Ellington, who was struck by his talent, formed a quintet that would eventually expand to become the Chick Webb Orchestra, the house band at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. In legendary band battles there, Webb’s crowd-pleasing style and power overwhelmed such ensembles as Count Basie’s, Fletcher Henderson’s and Benny Goodman’s. Although Webb could not read music, he learned arrangements quickly and led the band from his drums on a raised platform.

Webb introduced “Stompin’ at the Savoy” in 1934 and had hits with “If Dreams Come True” and “Blue Lou,” all compositions of his lead alto saxophonist, Edgar Sampson. In 1935 he hired a young, unknown vocalist, Ella Fitzgerald, with whom he recorded over 60 songs, most notably “A Tisket, A Tasket” (Fitzgerald’s own composition) which went to the top of the charts.

On a number of his recordings his playing is very subdued, using brushes, at times seemingly inaudible. But his remarkably drive is readily apparent, and on those tracks where he uses sticks, his masterful technique is clearly in evidence. Some of the best recorded examples of his abilities are “Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie,” “Liza,” “Go Harlem” and “Harlem Congo.”

As Webb’s health began to deteriorate, he continued to perform with indomitable spirit, often passing out after a set. Upon his death Fitzgerald took over the orchestra for two years until it became too much for her, and the orchestra disbanded.

The much-loved Webb was eulogized by Fitzgerald singing “My Buddy” at his funeral, the church being unable to accommodate all the mourners.

-- Sandra Burlingame

Courtesy of JazzStandards.com

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