Chick Webb: The Savoy King
Reflections On A Little Giant
by Fred W. Gretsch
I recently learned that a film titled The Savoy King: Chick Webb And The Music That Changed America has been selected for the 50th annual New York Film Festival. . . The documentary brings alive the untold story of drummer/bandleader William Henry “Chick” Webb, the “little giant” who taught himself to drum and taught the rest of the world to swing. I earnestly encourage anyone with an interest in drumming, in jazz, or just generally in music to attend a screening if at all possible.
Music and film critic Garry Giddins wrote, “The Savoy King is a wonderful film—dynamic and true to the spirit of its subject. If Chick Webb’s life had been a novel, filmmakers would have lined up to option it. Through genius and a fabled will, Chick became a true titan in American music. This remarkable story of an indispensable man is one of the great musical documentaries of our time.”
Chick Webb and Gretsch Drums
The occasion of this important film screening got me to thinking about the historic connection between Chick Webb and Gretsch drums. The fact is, Chick was probably the first real drumming star to be promoted as a Gretsch artist. The 1939 Gretsch catalog features a great photo of Chick—touted as “the king of the drums”—enthusiastically swinging behind a Gretsch-Gladstone drumkit.
That 1939 catalog was the first to include Gretsch-Gladstone drums. They were a collaboration between the Fred Gretsch Manufacturing Company (then run by my grandfather, Fred Gretsch Sr.) and legendary Radio City Music Hall drummer and inventor Billy Gladstone. Billy had devised a tuning system for snare drums that allowed tensioning of the batter head, the bottom head, or both—all without lifting the drum off its stand. According to Chet Falzerano in Gretsch Drums: The Legacy Of “That Great Gretsch Sound,” Gretsch-Gladstone drums debuted in 1937 and shortly became the choice of prominent drummers of the day. And the “paramount endorser among this group” was Chick Webb.
If Gretsch-Gladstone drums were unusual, Chick’s kit was downright unique. It was a combination of drums and “traps”—percussive sound effects including temple blocks—all mounted on a rolling console frame. The bass drum was 28″ in diameter; the “rack” tom was 9×13, and the floor tom was 14×16. Zildjian cymbals–one large on Chick’s right and one small on his left–were hung on loop hangers from gooseneck stands attached to the bass drum. The drums were covered in a striking oriental pearl finish inlayed with contrasting green sparkle “chicks” around the center of each drum.
The unique nature of Chick’s drumkit mirrored his unique qualities as a drummer. No less a drum giant than Buddy Rich revered Chick, saying that Chick “represented true hipness. His playing was original, different, completely his own. If he were alive now, most drummers would be trying to figure out why they decided to play drums. That’s how good he was.”
Chick’s Extraordinary Background
Chick’s abilities as a drummer were made all the more astounding by the fact that he was physically handicapped. Shortly after his birth (in 1905 in Baltimore) he contracted spinal tuberculosis. The debilitating illness left him with a hunchback and little use of his legs. Doctors suggested that he take up drumming as a remedy for stiff joints. Chick worked as a paperboy to earn enough to buy a drumset that was fitted with special custom-pedals so that he could reach them. He taught himself to play, and he made his professional debut at the age of eleven.
When Chick was seventeen he moved to New York, where he started playing with such jazz notables as Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, and Duke Ellington. At less than five feet tall, he could barely be seen when seated behind his drums. But he could certainly be heard. His forceful sense of swing, accurate technique, control of dynamics, and imaginative breaks and fills gained him the respect of his peers and the admiration of fans. As a result, by 1926 Chick was leading his own band. Although he was unable to read music, he easily memorized the arrangements played by the band. This, in turn, allowed him to direct performances from a raised platform in the center of the ensemble, giving cues with his drumming.
Chick’s band alternated between road tours and long-term stands at New York City clubs through the late 1920s. In 1931, his group became the house band at Harlem’s legendary Savoy Ballroom. There the band delighted dance-crazy audiences with songs like “Stomping At The Savoy” and “Blue Lou.”
Legendary Band Battles
The Savoy regularly featured “battles” between the name big bands of the day, with Chick Webb’s band taking on the likes of Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie. On one such occasion in 1937, Chick’s band faced the high-flying Goodman band at its peak, with popular superstar Gene Krupa in the drummer’s chair. According to all reports, Chick’s band left Benny’s group drained and defeated. And as for the drumming, Gene Krupa himself put it succinctly: “Chick cut me to ribbons.”
Chick’s Later Career
In 1935, Chick hired a seventeen-year-old vocalist who’d just won a talent contest at the Apollo Theater. Her name was Ella Fitzgerald, and Chick recognized her amazing talent immediately—to the point that he rebuilt his show around her. They formed a powerful partnership and recorded over sixty songs in the next three years. These included “A Tisket-A-Tasket,” which remained at the top of the charts for seventeen weeks in 1938.
The fame of Chick Webb and his band continued to grow, fueled by the group’s reputation as a giant-killer in the Savoy battles and a continuous string of record hits like “T’aint What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It)” and “Liza.” But sadly, Chick’s always-precarious health began to give way, and he started to have difficulty finishing performances.
Despite his health problems, Chick continued to tour and record with his orchestra in order to keep them employed during the Depression. But in June of 1939 he became seriously ill, and he entered Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. After undergoing a major operation, he passed away on June 16, 1939, at the age of thirty-four. His last words reportedly were, “I’m sorry, I’ve got to go.”
With the passing of Chick Webb the world lost a legend…and Gretsch lost an association that was more than just an endorsement deal. Still, though Chick is gone, his legacy remains. Drummers everywhere who appreciate the history of the instrument know that Chick Webb stands as one of the great innovators. According to Barry Ulanov in A History Of Jazz In America, he was, “perhaps the greatest of jazz drummers—a gallant little man who made his contribution to jazz within a framework of pain and suffering.”