We live in what we congratulate ourselves to be tolerant times, but we have nothing today to compare to William Henry “Chick” Webb, who lived in the first four decades of the twentieth century, which are now recalled as some sort of dark ages compared to the present.
Webb was hunchbacked, abnormally short–almost a dwarf–with a large head and shoulders, the outward signs of congenital tuberculosis of the spine that had ravaged his body. He was also the hottest jazz drummer of his time, a model for the hyperkinetic white drummers of the next generation such as Buddy Rich and Louis Bellson, who studied him as if they were cramming for a final. His orchestra was less well-known than those of the kings of the swing era, but to a man his competitors dreaded the thought of going head-to-head with him in a Battle of the Bands.
Ella Fitzgerald was eight years younger, at least a head taller and, to be fair, plain, if not homely. She also possessed the purest voice of the swing era; she looked like a square, but she could swing. She wrote the New Testament of scat-singing, a derivation from but elaboration on the Old Testament of Louis Armstrong.
Her mother died when she was a teenager, and she lived a catch-as-catch-can life for awhile, working as a lookout at a bordello and as a numbers runner with the Mafia before being sent to reform school. She escaped but was eventually placed in the Colored Orphan Asylum in the Bronx after living on the streets for awhile.
At the age of 17 she began performing at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, and in 1934 she won the opportunity to compete in one of its famous “Amateur Nights,” the American Idol of the time. She had intended to dance but, intimidated by a local duo of terpsichorean sisters, she opted to sing in the style of Connee Boswell. She won first prize–$25.
After performing for awhile with Tiny Bradshaw, she was brought to the attention of Webb by Benny Carter. Webb was unimpressed, but was persuaded to let her sing for one night. She was a hit with the audience and was invited to join Webb’s orchestra; he eventually became her legal guardian. Within two years, she was the star of the show, and in 1938 had a huge hit with “A Tisket, A Tasket.” Five years earlier she had been homeless.
So there they were; a hunchbacked dwarf and a woman who towered over him at the top of the pop charts and producing hot jazz that can be listened to with delight today.
Webb’s health had always been precarious and, like many whose bodies have been shrunken by disease, he was not long for the world. He died in 1939 at the age of 30. His last words were “I’m sorry, I’ve got to go.”
Ella fronted Webb’s band until 1942 when it broke up. She recorded for Decca for two decades, but her best recordings were made in the autumn of her life; the Verve songbooks, which featured her surrounded by elite jazz musicians singing the works of one composer or composing team per album–Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Rogers and Hart.
She made four albums with Louis Armstrong, all of which are candidates for records you’d take with you to a desert island. Her final years were spent recording for Norman Granz’s Pablo label, and on these senior citizen sets her voice has diminished somewhat, but is still as clear as the water at the edge of a creek bank.
She lived four decades longer than Webb, and we are left to wonder what might have been had he aged with her; her middle period would have been more hot than sweet, and the beat behind her might have been more urgent. Her candle might have burned out sooner, so perhaps we should be thankful that instead it faded to a low, blue flame before she died.