The King of Swing


No one studying the history of drums could dispute the remarkable influence and legacy left behind by the amazing Chick Webb. According to a blog post at titled “Chick Webb the Savoy King” Chick was probably the first real drumming star to be promoted as a Gretsch artist. The 1939 Gretsch catalog features a great photo of Chick—touted as “the king of the drums”—enthusiastically swinging behind a Gretsch-Gladstone drum kit.

“If Gretsch-Gladstone drums were unusual, Chick’s kit was downright unique. It was a combination of drums and “traps”—percussive sound effects including temple blocks—all mounted on a rolling console frame. The bass drum was 28” in diameter; the “rack” tom was 9×13, and the floor tom was 14×16. Zildjian cymbals–one large on Chick’s right and one small on his left–were hung on loop hangers from gooseneck stands attached to the bass drum. The drums were covered in a striking oriental pearl finish inlayed with contrasting green sparkle “chicks” around the center of each drum.”

This configuration enabled Chick to swing like no other despite having physical limitations from contracting spinal tuberculosis shortly after his birth. Anyone listening to Chick’s playing would never know otherwise. His keen ability to swing in a way that truly complimented the other musicians or singers around him was second to none. Chick knew when to play time and when to stand out. Many drummers today could take a lesson from listening to the remarkable “Stomping at the Savoy” or “Blue Lou.” The Savoy regularly featured battles between the name big bands of the day, with Chick Webb’s band taking on the likes of Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie. Chick usually came out on top and is said to have put Gene Krupa in his place.

Over the course of his career Chick spread the popularity of contemporary big band music among the black community by becoming their champion. Unfortunately Chick passed away on June 16, 1939, at the age of thirty-four. His last words reportedly were “I’m sorry, I’ve got to go.”

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