Of the two biggest influences on Ella Fitzgerald's professional life,
Chick Webb was the first and foremost. He recognised her awesome talent
at a young age and made her the vocal soloist of his band. Since she was
officially underage to tour, he adopted her and also guided her to greatness.
William Henry "Chick" Webb was born February 10, 1909 in Baltimore. At a young age he contracted spinal tuberculosis that left him with a hunchback and little use of his legs. Doctors recommended he take up drumming as a remedy for stiff joints. First on pots and pans and oil drums, then after selling newspapers, he saved enough money to buy a drum set, which used special custom-pedals, so that he could reach them, due to his small stature. He moved to New York at the age of 17 and started playing with Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, and Duke Ellington.
In 1927, on the advice of Ellington, Webb formed a quintet called the Harlem Stompers. He started playing at one of Harlem's largest night clubs, the Savoy, and won over crowds with his flamboyant style. In 1931, he formed the Chick Webb Orchestra. The band became the house band for the Savoy, with such songs as Stompin At The Savoy, If Dreams Come True, and Blue Lou. Although Webb could not read music, he memorized every piece and led the band from a raised platform, cueing in the sections with his drumming. He was the consummate showman and because of his fluid and rhythmic style, he was perfectly suited for the swing era. Art Blakey and Ellington both credit Webb with influencing their music. Krupa credited Webb with raising drummer awareness and paving the way for drummer-led bands, which Krupa would later employ.
Recordings never did Webb justice, because the technology was just too primitive. He sought more fame than simply being the "King of the Savoy." In 1935, he hired 17 year old Ella Fitzgerald as vocalist. Together, they formed a powerful partnership and recorded over 60 songs in the next 3 years, including A Tisket, A-Tasket, which remained at the top of the charts for 17 weeks. After Webb died, Ella Fitzgerald took over the orchestra for two years, before they finally broke up.
By 1938, Webb's health began to fail him. Although his health declined, he continued to play, refusing to give up touring, so that his band could remain employed during the Great Depression, disregarding 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 and died shortly thereafter.
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