We all know and love a storied musical rivalry or two. Be it Beatles vs. Stones, Liam vs. Noel, or even the rap battle scene at the end of Eminem’s biopic 8 Mile. While all of these examples date back a good few decades, music rivalries and showdowns of skill have been appreciated long before those examples took place.
Harlem in the 1920s and ’30s was no different. One venue frequented by dancers and good-time-seekers anticipating electrifying musical sparring was called the Savoy Ballroom. Throughout that time period music at the Savoy was dominated by the powerhouse drummer and bandleader, Chick Webb.
William Henry “Chick” Webb was born shortly after the turn of the century in Baltimore, Maryland. As an infant he took a dramatic fall down a flight of stairs resulting in several crushed vertebrae, leading to tuberculosis of the spine. While a surgery allowed William Henry to regain full mobility, the accident left lifetime physical impairment of a contorted spine and the appearance of a hunchback, never standing taller than 4’1. His small size earned him his childhood nickname “Chick”. As a means of exercising his body, doctors suggested Chick begin playing drums, which he took to like a fish in water.
At age 11 Chick had earner his first gig as a professional musician playing on segregated excursion boats, and by 1924 with guitarist, friend, and collaborator John Trueheart moved to New York City to make it in the big times. In 1926, at the encouragement of friend and supporter Duke Ellington, Chick formed and led the jazz band Harlem Stompers, first signing on to be the house band at The Paddock Club. A year after starting their residency at Paddock, the club burned down leading Chick and his group to sign a contract at the now famous Savoy Ballroom in Harlem.
The partnership between Chick and the Savoy proved beneficial to all involved as the club regularly saw massive crowds and Chick’s popularity rose, being noted for his commanding drumming and unmatched showmanship. The club owners also noticed how busy their dancefloor had become and decided to add a second bandstand, allowing one group to start a set as soon as the other finished, resulting in non-stop music and non-stop dancing. Following this decision, the club owners began advertising events called “Battle of Jazz”, booking up to four bands in an evening, allowing event attendees to crown their favourite group as the night’s champion based on applause. These jazz band showdowns became commonplace throughout the United States and worked hand-in-hand with the rising popularity of Swing music and the dawn of The Swing Era.
Fast-forward several years and Swing music was an absolute craze in the US. Chick and his band, then known as The Chick Webb Orchestra, had only become tighter and stronger, in part due to the addition of then little-known teenage singer Ella Fitzgerald (later to be known as the Queen of Jazz). While Chick and his band were doing well, other groups were also making their mark on the scene, and none were better known nationally than the jazz clarinetist and bandleader, Benny Goodman and his Orchestra. Based on his performance and regular radio airplay, Benny Goodman is known as the “King of Swing”; though some may debate his claim to the title.
There’s no doubt Benny Goodman and his Orchestra had chops – one notable factor in their powerful presence was the man sitting on their drum stool, Gene Krupa. With the band’s immense popularity, Gene himself became a national celebrity, known for his drum solo interludes, lively performance style, and good looks to match.
Naturally Chick and his band wanted a shot at taking on the Benny Goodman Orchestra, and on May 11th, 1937 they got their chance. Goodman and his band agreed to square off on Chick’s home turf of the Savoy Ballroom for a night to be remembered. The local media created such hype that 4,000 concert-goers managed to cram into the Savoy while another 5,000 hopeful attendees had to be turned away. The scene outside was so wild that club management had to call in the riot squad, fire department and the police to keep the scene outside in check.
After a night of fierce competition, swinging solos and a beating on the dancefloor, music magazine Metronome ran the June 1937 headline “Chick Webb Defeats Benny Goodman!”. Gene Krupa admitted to the loss, even bowing down from his drum riser to acknowledge Chick’s victorious prowess. Years later speaking on that night at the Savoy, Gene Krupa is quoted saying:
“I’ll never forget that night – he [Chick Webb] just cut me to ribbons – made me feel awfully small. That man was dynamic; he could reach the most amazing heights. When he really let go, you had the feeling that the entire atmosphere in the place was charged. When he felt like it, he could cut down any of us.”
In the time following the legendary battle with Benny and Gene, Webb continued performing but realized he had a seismic star in Ella Fitzgerald. Chick began taking a backseat and allowing her talents to prevail, often at odds with the opinions of his fellow bandmates.
Sadly Chick’s story ended not long after, eventually succumbing to his spinal tuberculosis (also know as Pott disease) on June 16, 1939. Attending his Baltimore funeral to pay their final respects included Jazz greats Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Fletcher Henderson, Ella Fitzgerald and his one-time musical rival, Gene Krupa. Ella sang a slowed down tempo rendition of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket”, a song made famous by she and Chick.
Chick has been named a major influence by better remembered Jazz drummers such as Buddy Rich, Art Blakey, Max Roach and Gene Krupa.
While he may not have been bestowed the name “King of Swing”, Chick is now and will forever be known as “King of The Savoy”.