Thursday, January 22, 2015

Game Changers: "Little Giant" - Chick Webb (1905 - 1939)

I thought it might be fun, from time to time, to profile some of the great drummers, the true originals. It's a long list so I'll keep it brief.

Although barely more than four feet tall (a result of spinal tuberculosis as a child), William Henry “Chick” Webb was one of the most powerful and influential drummers of his era -- the ‘John Bonham of Swing’ if you will.

Chick Webb originally took up drums with the idea that it might improve his flexibility. He played his first professional gig at age 11, and by age 17 was a full-time pro. Webb eventually formed his own band under his own name, which went on to become one the top bands of the swing era. The orchestra handily defeated all comers at the famous Savoy Ballroom “Battle of the Big Bands”, including the Duke Ellington and Count Basie bands.

Check Webb

Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa and Louie Bellson all pointed to Webb as a major influence. Rich in particular studied Webb’s technique closely. But Webb's influence reached far beyond mere drumming. He was a consummate showman, and one of the first drummers to use a drum riser which, along with his fiery solos, raised the public's awareness of the star power of drummers. He continually added components to his drum set, making him a pioneer in extended sets. He was also a master of dynamics, polyrhythms and 'power fills'. As a band leader, he aggressively pursued gigs through the Depression to ensure his band members had work.

There are, unfortunately, few recordings of Webb's playing and music, but the recordings that do exist show him at his finest. Check out:

  • “A Tisket A Tasket”, with Ella Fitzgerald, a member of Webb’s band from 1935 until Webb’s death in to 1939.
  • “Stompin' at the Savoy”, a collection of 4 CDs.
  • A video documentary of  Webb, titled ”The Savoy King”, is also available (see

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