EEEEK! The Big Geez is knocking Glenn Miller? No, I love him and his music. As a teenager, sitting in my pal Louie’s basement while spinning records and reinforcing my newly-discovered fondness for Swing music, I realized he was one of my favorite bandleaders. But although the average listener is familiar with him, Goodman, and Dorsey, a lot of other bandleaders are overlooked and even forgotten. That’s about to change – that is, you know, if you’re reading this.
I grew up in the Midwest but I know that native New Yorkers have always been fiercely proud of their city, and it must have been exciting to be there in the thirties, when popular music was evolving. Although other cities have strong claims too, New York was really where it was happening for musicians of the day, and Harlem was at its center…and to get even more specific, the Savoy Ballroom was the “cat’s pajamas” for “hot music” fans. It was a place where it didn’t matter if you were rich or poor, black or white, sophisticated or just fell off the turnip truck, all differences were put aside for the evening. Although it would be naive to just try to explain it away as being a simpler time, that’s how it was.
The Savoy was regularly mobbed with huge crowds, not only for dancing but also for the occasional “battle of the bands”, and that’s where a driving group led by William Henry “Chick” Webb reigned supreme. Webb was a drummer who didn’t read music, but he also had to overcome tremendous physical difficulties. Barely five feet tall and afflicted with congenital tuberculosis of the spine, he had to play his custom-made drums and cymbals on a specially constructed platform, but he performed with a skill and complexity that his peers envied and tried to emulate, usually without success.
His was the band most identified with the Savoy, and he took on all comers in the battles with other groups. You can almost see it…devotees of both bands cramming into every space (and no air conditioning in those days) cheering and applauding wildly for every solo as the bands alternated sets. One night Benny Goodman brought his group in for an unforgettable marathon that left listeners amazed. The story is that Chick’s band won, but does it matter? The music was the thing. (Goodman did take one thing away though – “Stompin’ At The Savoy” – a song co-written by Webb and one that became a big hit for Benny.)
Webb introduced a lot of future stars during those years that he ruled the Savoy – for example, a 17 year old named Ella Fitzgerald, who made her name on his band’s biggest hit, “A Tisket A Tasket” – but his ongoing physical ills caught up to him and he died before the decade ended, at the young age of 37.