William Henry “Chick” Webb, February 10, 1905 – June 16, 1939, was an American jazz and swing music drummer and bandleader.
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Webb was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to William H. and Marie Webb. The year of his birth is disputed. The Encyclopædia Britannica and Allmusic indicate 1905, and this seems to be supported by census information.
Other publications claim other years. During Webb’s lifetime, a December 1937 Down Beat magazine article, “The Rise of a Crippled Genius”, stated he was born in 1909, which is the year that appears on his grave marker.
In 1939, The New York Times stated that Webb was born in 1907, the year also suggested in Rhythm on Record by Hilton Schleman.
Webb was one of four children; the other three were sisters (Bessie, Mabel, and Ethel). His sister Mabel married Wilbur Porter around 1928.
When an infant, he fell down some stairsteps in his family’s home, crushing several vertebrae and requiring surgery, from which he never regained full mobility.
The injury progressed to tuberculosis of the spine, leaving him with short stature and a badly deformed spine which caused him to appear hunchbacked.
The idea of playing an instrument was suggested by his doctor to “loosen up” his bones. He supported himself as a newspaper boy to save enough money to buy drums, and first played professionally at age 11.
At the age of 17 he moved to New York City and by 1926 was leading his own band in Harlem.
Jazz drummer Tommy Benford said he gave Webb drum lessons when he first reached New York.
He alternated between band tours and residencies at New York City clubs through the late 1920s.
In 1931, his band became the house band at the Savoy Ballroom.
He became one of the best-regarded bandleaders and drummers of the new “swing” style. Drummer Buddy Rich cited Webb’s powerful technique and virtuoso performances as heavily influential on his own drumming, and even referred to Webb as “the daddy of them all”.
Webb was unable to read music, and instead memorized the arrangements played by the band and conducted from a platform in the center.
He used custom-made pedals, goose-neck cymbal holders, a 28-inch bass drum and other percussion instruments.
At the Savoy, Webb competed in a battle of the band’s contests with the Benny Goodman Orchestra and the Count Basie Orchestra. Webb lost to Duke Ellington in 1937.
Although a judge declared Webb’s band the winner in 1938 over Count Basie’s, and Basie himself said he was relieved to come away from the contest without embarrassing himself, musicians debated the result for decades.
Webb married Martha Loretta Ferguson (also known as “Sally”), and in 1935 he began featuring a teenage Ella Fitzgerald as a vocalist.
In 1934 he recorded “I Can’t Dance (I Got Ants In My Pants)”::
Webb and Fitzgerald performed hits such as “A-Tisket, A-Tasket”, which was composed by Van Alexander at Fitzgerald’s request.
Despite rumors to the contrary, “Ella was not adopted by Webb, nor did she live with him and his wife, Sally,” according to Stuart Nicholson in his Fitzgerald biography.
Declining health and death
In November 1938, Webb’s health began to decline; for a time, however, he continued to play, refusing to give up touring so that his band could remain employed during the Great Depression.
He disregarded 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. Webb died from Pott disease on June 16, 1939, in Baltimore.
Reportedly his last words were, “I’m sorry, I’ve got to go.” Webb was buried in Baltimore County, in Arbutus Memorial Park, in Arbutus, Maryland.
Webb’s death hit the jazz/swing community very hard. After his death, Ella Fitzgerald led the Chick Webb band until she left to focus on her solo career in 1942 and caused the band to break up.
Art Blakey and Duke Ellington both credited Webb with influencing their music.
Gene Krupa credited Webb with raising drummer awareness and paving the way for drummer-led bands like his own. Webb’s thundering solos created complexity and energy that paved the way for Rich (who studied him intensely) and Louie Bellson.
On February 12, 1940, a crowd of about 7,500 people attended a Chick Webb Benefit in Baltimore, Maryland. In attendance were Sally Webb, Chick’s widow, his mother Marie Webb, his sister Mabel Porter, Governor Herbert R. O’Conor, Fitzgerald, and boxing champion Joe Louis.
Photo credit: Wikipedia.