The Little Giant
Born William Henry Webb 1 in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, Chick Webb suffered early from spinal tuberculosis (a disease which would cause him to not grow normally and left him in poor health).
Fighting against his condition, he started playing drums professionally at a very early age, featuring in the Jazzola Orchestra along with John Truehart, with whom he eventually went to New-York in 1924, appearing in the Black Bottom and the Paddock Club, thanks to Ellington's patronage, who also encouraged him to form a quintet, the Harlem Stoppers.
He also formed the Jungle Band with his cousin Johnny Hodges, which made a first record for Brunswick in 1929 (Dog Bottom / Jungle Mama). Note that this release was later inaccurately reissued by Brunswick under Ellington's name.
The quintet/jungle-band would soon evolve into the feared Chick Webb Orchestra that would house the Savoy Ballroom in the early 30s, featuring such stars as Benny Carter or Johnny Hodges (though stars were not legions in Webb's fomation). These were the Swing years, and band battles were all the rage (the Webb Orchestra "battled" with - and "defeated" - many other renowned formations, including Basie, Henderson or the Goodman's orchestras who was left torn to pieces by Webb intense playing, with an amazed and sorry Gene Kruppa on the drummer seat), winning Webb the title of King of the Savoy.
King of the Savoy
Already mythical as a band (being regular at the Savoy, the Roseland, the Casino de Paris, the Coconut Grove and the Park Central Hotel), Edgar Sampson arrangements would further improve his popularity, and at its peak, Webb replaced Charles Linton with the very young Ella Fitzgerald.
Various rumors still circulate about these debuts, some suggesting that Fitzgerald sneaked into Webb's bed to obtain the place, others that Webb adopted Ella. Both are unlikely, though, the second certainly being a hoax possibly spread by Webb himself.
Fitzgerald will acknowledge Webb importance all her life, calling him her first and foremost influence.
After a handful of revolutionary swing cuts (A-Tisket, A-Tasket), in 1938, Webb's health declined rapidly and he passed in 1939, leaving Fitzgerald handling the band for a couple more years before it fell apart.
Webb has been reported to declare to his friends, minutes before his death, that I'm sorry I got to go!. 2
Though Webb was (and is still, as suggested in the movie Taxi Driver) a highly influential drummer (as acknowledged by such artists as Art Blakey, Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson, or Duke Ellington), he is nowadays largely forgotten by the general audience (when remembered, he is in the shadow of Fitzgerald).
The lack of recorded material (but the Decca 78rpms singles with Fitzgerald) is one of the reasons for this sorry state, the most "glorious" events at the Savoy either being not recorded, or in such poor technical conditions that they are barely audible, not to mention the 78rpms are now quite hard/expensive to dig.
Though, given the 50 years copyright expiration limit had been reached in Europe, most of what's available has been reissued on cds - be aware that both decent and not-that-decent labels made their way through the vaults.
There are two highly recommended sets (under Webb Orchestra):
- Classics' Chronological serie: 1929-1934 1935-1938
- Proper's four disc Stomping at the Savoy: disc 1: Don't Be That Way, disc 2: Go Harlem, disc 3: Strictly Jive, disc 4: Spinnin' the Webb
Be aware that the Classics' releases do not include the cuts with Fitzgerald (these are found in the corresponding Chronological Fitzgerald releases), while the Proper's set do include them - but the later don't include the very first pair of Jungle Band takes.
The GRP's Decca years Spinnin' the Webb release is definitely a decent dig for non completion-obsessed listeners, or newcomers, and so usually are the releases from Frémeaux & Associés (under Webb & Fitzgerald).
Pretty much everything else consist of dubious budget bundles at best.
1 There is a lot of controversy about his exact year of birth. It has been argued a lot, and serious resources still can't agree (1902, 1905, 1907, 1909). Apparently, 1905 nowadays is the choice of the imdb and Wackypedia (see Setting the record straight). Note that Wacky hasn't yet correctly integrated that fact into the rest of their article, and continues to mention ages that don't fit their birth year choice.
2 A History of Jazz (Barry Ulanov)