The Chick Webb orchestra was the house band at the Savoy Ballroom, a famous club in New York. Considered by many as a drum virtuoso, Chick Webb was "King of Swing" and became an icon of the new "swing style". There were frequent "big band battles" at the Savoy, where the greatest bands in town competed with one another (Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington). Ella Fitzgerald made her debut with the Chick Webb orchestra.
William Henry Webb bought his first set of drums with his earnings as a newsboy, and he began playing in bands on pleasure boats. After moving to New York in 1925, he led bands in various clubs before settling in for long regular runs at the Savoy beginning in 1931. Although Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges played with the band early on, the Webb band was oddly short on major soloists during its heyday from the mid-'30s onward; the young alto sax player Louis Jordan made the biggest impression after leaving the band.
But the band made up for it with a crisp ensemble sound, Webb's disciplined, ferociously driving drum pyrotechnics, trumpeter Taft Jordan's impressions of Louis Armstrong, and most of all, a series of strong compositions and charts by Edgar Sampson ("Blue Lou" and "Stomping at the Savoy" among them). In 1935, Webb hired the teenaged Ella Fitzgerald after she won a talent contest at the Apollo Theatre, became her legal guardian, and rebuilt his show around the singer, who provided him with his biggest hit record, "A Tisket-A-Tasket," in 1938.
In 1935 Savoy manager Charlie Buchanan called upon Webb to find a popular singer to boost the commercial potential of his group. Though Webb had featured several singers, including handsome balladeer Charles Linton, Buchanan pressured him to find a young female vocalist versed in the modern swing style. Linton learned of a 17-year-old singer, Ella Fitzgerald, who had won first prize at the Apollo Theater’s amateur show.
At first reluctant to hire the young singer, Webb soon added Fitzgerald to the band’s payroll. The singer became an instant success with Harlem crowds and within a few weeks of joining the band—in June of 1935—she recorded the sides "Are You Here to Stay" and "Love and Kisses." Many of the Webb/Fitzgerald recordings bordered on commercial novelty numbers, but the pair did bring the band nationwide fame and first-rate bookings. "Despite the trite material Ella chose (or was obliged) to sing," wrote Gunther Schuller in The Swing Era, "her innate talent shone through. Indeed, she lifted these banal songs to heights they did not deserve by her impeccable pitch."
For the next three years, Webb recorded 60 numbers featuring Fitzgerald, while only producing 14 instrumental recordings, including the critically acclaimed "Clap Hands! Here Comes Charlie" and "Harlem Congo," arranged by guitarist Charlie Dixon. These instrumentals exhibit Webb’s flawless drumming—his complete control over timing and the tasteful use of fills. On these recordings one can hear his use of cowbell, cymbal, wood block, snare-drum, tom-toms, and bass drum, on which he pounded out steady four-four time.