William Henry "Chick" Webb was born in 1909 in Baltimore, Maryland. He contracted spinal tuberculosis in his first years of life, leaving him with a hunchback, stiff joints, and weak legs. Doctors could only do so much at that time, especially on someone so young, and the prescription to loosen up his stiff joints was drumming.
Chick took to it enthusiastically, banging on pots, pans and oil drums wherever he found them, in or out of the house. By the age of nine, he began selling newspapers to raise money for a drum set of his own. By the age of eleven, he'd bought them and began playing with his friends and in steamboat bands. By seventeen, he had moved to New York City with his friend and fellow jazz lover John Truehart. By eighteen he had, on the advice of Duke Ellington, formed his own quintet called the Harlem Stompers and began playing in clubs throughout Harlem, including the Savoy Ballroom.
By 1931 his group, now named the Chick Webb Orchestra, was the house band at the Savoy and Chick was "the King of Savoy." The title attracted challengers, all of them nationally-known -- Duke Ellington, the Count Basie Orchestra, and the King of Swing himself, Benny Goodman. In the Savoy, they would play head-to-head, usually with the same arrangements of popular jazz and swing tunes. The Chick Webb Orchestra beat all of them handily, and even legendary drummer Gene Krupa was in awe of Chick's talent and showmanship and credited him as an influence.
Chick Webb is mainly known for being the first to employ Ella Fitzgerald as a jazz vocalist in 1935, when Ella was seventeen years old, an orphan, and completely unknown. (She snuck into his dressing room with the help of one of Chick's own bandmembers and was hired after a one-song audition.) He and his wife adopted her shortly thereafter. Ella and Chick's orchestra were recorded for the first time that year performing "Love and Kisses", and over the next three years continued to record over sixty songs together.
During those years, Chick Webb's affliction worsened, but he continued to tour and perform out of love for the music and a desire to keep his band employed. Despite several spinal operations, he died on June 19, 1939, only five feet tall but a giant in the world of jazz.