Webb's rhythms got crowds moving and shaking
Baltimore drummer became jazz legend
When Chick Webb - the nationally famous swing-era jazz drummer whose "Stompin' at the Savoy" was defined by long and furious riffs that drove crowds wild - died in 1939, his obituary in The Evening Sun rated a two-column headline.
At the time, this was a rare honor generally accorded only those of social prominence, professional attainment or other movers and shakers.
In truth, if anyone got crowds moving and shaking when he sat down to play the drums, it was Webb.
He was born William Henry Webb in Baltimore in either 1902 or 1909 - there is some discrepancy as to which year is correct - and raised in poverty near Madison Street and Ashland Avenue. As a youth, he dropped out of school, did odd jobs and sold newspapers.
Webb also suffered from a lasting physical deformity that resulted from a childhood fall down a flight of stairs that left him with limited use of his legs and shoulders.
But not his hands.
When he was 3, he began playing on pots and pans and as he grew older began beating rhythms on iron railings and marble steps as he walked around his East Baltimore neighborhood.
With money earned from his newspaper job, Webb was able to buy a drum set and begin performing with local musicians. He later joined the Jazzola Orchestra, where he played with John Truehart, a Baltimore-born banjo player and guitarist, aboard Chesapeake Bay steamers.
The two musicians went to New York in 1924, and two years later Webb formed the Jungle Band. In that first combo was his cousin Johnny Hodges, who would go on to become one of the most acclaimed alto saxophonists in jazz as a member of Duke Ellington's orchestra.
In 1929, Webb cut his first record for Brunswick, playing "Dog Bottom" and "Jungle Man," and by the 1930s had become so popular that he was a regular at such posh venues as the Savoy and Roseland ballrooms, the Casino de Paree, the Coconut Grove and the Park Central Hotel.
"Surmounting the handicaps of Jim Crow and of his own physical deformity, Webb rose to become one of the most dynamic figures in jazz, a powerful, pulsating drummer whose magnificent control of bass drums and cymbals lent the band much of its personality, both in ensemble work and in his occasional solos," wrote jazz historian Leonard Feather.
The year 1934 proved to be an important one for Chick Webb's Savoy Orchestra. That same year he had recorded "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "Blue Minor," "Don't Be That Way" and "Blue Lou." And Webb was advised to find a popular female vocalist.
In 1935, Webb hired Ella Fitzgerald, a young, struggling singer from Newport News, Va., who had won first prize at an amateur talent show at Harlem's Apollo Theater.
The band's popularity soared with her arrival and, in addition to live performances, was heard over coast-to-coast radio hookups.
"Despite the trite material Ella chose (or was obliged) to sing, her innate talent shone through. Indeed, she lifted these banal songs to heights they did not deserve by her impeccable pitch," wrote Gunther Schuller in The Swing Era.
One novelty song rendered in her then-girlish voice that became a hit for the 21-year-old singer and the band was "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," recorded in 1938.
Other hits she recorded with Webb's orchestra included "F.D.R. Jones," "I Want to Be Happy," "Organ Grinder's Swing," "Little White Lies" and "I'll Choose the Blues Anyway."
"The King of the Drums" was playing an engagement on a steamboat near Washington when he collapsed. He was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where it was found that tuberculosis had spread to his kidneys. He died June 16, 1939.
With relatives surrounding his sickbed, Webb asked his mother to raise him up.
"Raised up, he faced everybody in the room, grinned, jutted [out] his jaw, and announced cockily, `I'm sorry I got to go!' and died," wrote Barry Ulanov, a jazz critic, in his book, A History of Jazz.
His funeral at Waters African Methodist Episcopal Church on Aisquith Street drew such musical notables as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Gene Krupa, Jimmie Lunceford and Fletcher Henderson, while thousands more crowded the church and surrounding streets.
"It was all that Ella Fitzgerald could do to sing two choruses of `My Buddy.' She was sobbing without restraint when she finished - this sultry voiced vocalist whose rise to the top of swing fame was due to Chick's band," reported The Sun.
Fitzgerald became the nominal leader of the band until 1942, when she left to pursue a solo career.
Webb is commemorated by Baltimore's Chick Webb Memorial Recreation Center. In 1974, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore named its arts center the Ella Fitzgerald Center for the Performing Arts.
--Frederick N. Rasmussen
Originally published Fe. 19, 2005