to Webb's "Go Harlem" and "Liza," both played at the Battle
of the Bands.
Unable to read sheet music and hunchbacked from tuberculosis of the
spine, drummer Wiliam Henry "Chick" Webb stood less than five
feet tall but towered over his rivals.
Webb's superb memory propelled him to the heights of showmanship, making him
a famous and influential musician. His total recall enabled him to
play impeccably just about any musical composition. Webb used custom-made
pedals, a 28-inch bass drum, and other modified percussion devices
to create powerful, multi-layered drum solos. His impressive technique,
imaginative breaks, and sense of swing set the tone (and the beat)
for many drummers to follow.
By age 20 he was bandleader at the Savoy Ballroom, where his group
regularly bested all comers in the Battle of the Bands. At the 1937
event—an intense showdown before a record-breaking crowd of
4,000—Webb's band outplayed the Benny Goodman orchestra.
Fellow band members never quite matched Webb's musical mastery, and
the group's recordings have not endured as well as those of his contemporaries.
In the band's Swing Era heyday, though, Edgar Sampson's arrangements
spotlighted Webb's drum pyrotechnics in a distinctive style that proved
Webb's jamming with singer Ella Fitzgerald amplified the renown of
both. In 1935 he backed Ella on her biggest-selling record to date,
"A Tisket, a Tasket."