William Henry Webb, usually known as Chick Webb (February 10, 1905 - June 16, 1939) was an American jazz and swing music drummer as well as a band leader.


Webb was born in Baltimore, Maryland to William H. and Marie Johnson Webb. From childhood, he suffered from tuberculosis of the spine, leaving him with short stature and a badly deformed spine. He supported himself as a newspaper boy to save enough money to buy drums, and first played professionally at age 11.

At the age of 17 he moved to New York City and by 1926, he was leading his own band in Harlem. Jazz drummer Tommy Benford said he gave Webb drum lessons when he first reached New York.

He alternated between band tours and residencies at New York City clubs through the late 1920s. In 1931, his band became the house band at the Savoy Ballroom. He became one of the best-regarded bandleaders and drummers of the new "Swing" style. Drumming legend Buddy Rich cited Webb's powerful technique and virtuoso performances as heavily influential on his own drumming, and even referred to Webb as "the daddy of them all". The Savoy often featured "Battle of the Bands" where Webb's band would compete with other top bands (such as the Benny Goodman Orchestra or the Count Basie Orchestra) from opposing bandstands. By the end of the night's battles the dancers seemed always to have voted Chick's band as the best. As a result Webb was deemed the most worthy recipient to be crowned the first "King of Swing." Notably, Webb lost to Duke Ellington in 1937. Although a judge declared Webb's band the official winner in 1938 over Count Basie's, and Basie himself said he was just relieved to come away from the contest without embarrassing himself, surviving musicians continued to dispute the ruling for decades to follow.{}

Webb married Martha Loretta Ferguson (also known as "Sallye"), and in 1935 he began featuring a teenaged Ella Fitzgerald as vocalist. Despite rumors to the contrary, "Ella was not adopted by Webb, nor did she live with him and his wife, Sallye," according to Stuart Nicholson in his Fitzgerald biography. Charles Linton, who was with the Chick Webb band, told Nicholson, "He didn't adopt her. Later he said to me, 'I'll say that I adopted her, for the press people.'"

Recording career:

In 1927, at the beginning of his career, Webb recorded a solitary unissued title for Vocalion. It was possibly a 'pickup' group consisting of 7 musicians. In 1931, his band recorded 3 sides for Vocalion/Brunswick. He subsequently signed with Columbia in December 1933 and recorded 14 sides for the label in 1934, the last 4 appearing on Columbia's subsidiary OKeh. In September 1934 he signed with the new Decca label, and through the remainder of his life recorded prolifically for them; many of his records were best-sellers.

Last years and death:

In November 1938, Webb's health began to decline, although for a time 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. William Henry "Chick" Webb died on June 16, 1939, in Baltimore. Reportedly his last words were "I'm sorry, I've got to go." He was just 34 years old. Webb was buried just outside Baltimore, in Arbutus Memorial Park, in Arbutus, Maryland.

Webb's death hit the jazz/swing community very hard. After his death, Ella Fitzgerald led the Chick Webb band, until she left to focus on her solo career in 1942. Art Blakey and Duke Ellington both credited Webb with influencing their music. Gene Krupa credited Webb with raising drummer awareness and paving the way for drummer-led bands like his own. Webb's thundering solos created a complexity and an energy that paved the way for Buddy Rich (who studied him intensely) and Louie Bellson.

Disputed year of birth

Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Earl Hines and Coleman Hawkins are among several early jazz musicians whose birthdates have been disputed. Many sources give Webb's birth year as 1909; however there is research that shows this may be incorrect. The Encyclopædia Britannica Online gives two possible years for his birthdate, 1902 and 1909. Still other publications claim other years. The New York Times reported in 1939 that Webb was born in 1907. Eric B. Borgman claims that he has proven that Webb was actually born in 1905, based on the 1910 and 1920 United States censuses. The Internet Movie Database has since adopted the 1905 year. It appears that both his death certificate and his grave marker give his birth year as 1909. During his lifetime a book entitled Rhythm on Record by Hilton Schleman stated his birth year was 1907.