Chick Webb was one of the great swing drummers of the Jazz Age, and an improbable success story. Webb suffered from spinal tuberculosis from childhood and developed with a permanent hunchbacked stoop. But Webb was determined to follow his dream of being a musician. He bought a drum kit with his earnings as a newsboy and moved to New York in 1925, playing gigs all over town. But when he really came into his own was when his band was hired at the Savoy Ballroom in 1931. While he was not a trained musician and couldn't read sheet music, Webb and his band pounded out swing with force and abandon that perfectly suited the nonstop dance scene at the Savoy. Sadly, there's very little footage of Webb in action. This video shows a short clip about 40 seconds in of Webb's band swinging and the dancers tearing up the floor.
Extremely rare footage of Chick Webb and Gene Krupa from Tom Castagna on Vimeo.
The Savoy Ballroom where Webb's band found a home was one of the great performance venues in New York's history. It was opened in 1926 on Lenox Avenue between 140th and 141st Street in the heart of Harlem's Jazz Age nightlife. Lines formed to get in the door from the first week it opened. The dance floor was big enough to bring a crowd, but small enough to still feel intimate. The floor was flanked by two bandstands so that when one band got tired, the other started up and the music never stopped. Dances like the Lindy Hop spread to the far corners of the world from the dance floor at the Savoy. In stark contrast to high-end clubs like the Cotton Club next door, the Savoy was an integrated club that drew Black and White dancers. And while the primary clientele was Black, the dancers had no qualms about Black and White dancing together. It was a model of racial harmony in an era when even forward thinking bandleaders like Goodman and Ellington struggled with segregation and racism.
And it was Webb that drove the party every night. In 1935, he was introduced to a young 16 year-old singer. She had been through orphanages, reform schools, and even homelessness. She had won one of the first Amateur Night performances at the newly integrated Apollo Theater a year earlier. And Webb thought she could be the missing piece of his band. Her name was Ella Fitzgerald. She became the voice of Webb's band and the Savoy until Webb's early death from his lifelong health issues in 1939.
But Webb's greatest fame came from the famous Battle of the Bands the Savoy hosted in the late 30s. From the 10s and 20s on, Harlem's pianists had challenged each other to battles called cutting contests. By the 30s the battles had been taken full scale and the Savoy's double bandstand made a perfect venue. In 1937, Benny Goodman was the most famous bandleader in America. He was the most popular musician in the country and his drummer Gene Krupa is often considered the greatest Jazz drummer in history. On a May night in '37 they came to the Savoy to duel with Webb. In the words of Gene Krupa, "Webb cut me to ribbons." It wasn't even close.
January 16th, the next year, was one of the greatest nights of Jazz in history. Benny Goodman's orchestra started the night by playing the first Jazz concert ever at the pinnacle of classical music: Carnegie Hall. Goodman's concert is often considered the most important performance in the history of Jazz, but for the Jazz fiends of 1938 it wasn't even the biggest concert of that night. After the show at Carnegie Hall ended, the whole band, along with Duke Ellington and other luminaries, went uptown to be the battle at the Savoy between Chick Webb (with Ella Fitzgerald) and Count Basie (with Billie Holliday). I already talked about this concert in the post about Basie's Jumpin' at the Woodside. The opinions of the dancers favored Webb but many of the jazz men in the audience favored Basie. Either way, it was the pinnacle of Webb's career before his death a year later.
Stompin' at the Savoy was one of Webb's greatest hits. It was written by his alto saxophonist Edgar Sampson. The first recordings were instrumentals by Chick Webb and later by Benny Goodman. Andy Razaf later added lyrics. The original recording just makes you want to get on your feet and join the crowd on the dance floor!