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Baltimore-born Chick Webb’s amazing life in jazz — and early death

Hundreds of people show up on June 22, 1939, for the funeral of noted jazz drummer Chick Webb, who was born in Baltimore and died at age 34.
Hundreds of people show up on June 22, 1939, for the funeral of noted jazz drummer Chick Webb, who was born in Baltimore and died at age 34. (Baltimore Sun files)

My memory got me in trouble last week when I wrote that the great song stylist Ella Fitzgerald was married to the Baltimore-born band leader and drummer Chick Webb. I was wrong. He was married to Martha Loretta Ferguson, who was known as Sally.

Chick Webb was indeed a mentor to Ella Fitzgerald. Some sources, including his Baltimore family, say she was adopted by Webb because of her young age when she burst on the musical scene in the 1930s. Others dispute this and say he merely promoted her and guided her meteoric career.

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Webb’s family still lives in Baltimore. I heard from his second cousin, Mary Williams, who related her family’s perspective.

She said Webb was born here and lived in East Baltimore on Ashland Avenue. His father was William H. Webb, and his mother was Marie Johnson.

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“We were very proud of him because of his handicap,” Williams said. “He was disabled because of a childhood fall. When he walked, the neighborhood children called him ‘Chicken,’ which was shortened to ‘Chick.’ His mother refused to use that name and always called him William. Today calling a disabled child by such a nickname would be considered bullying.”

He played the drums as a young man and was a self-taught musician. He was never a runaway and asked his mother’s permission to move to New York City. In Harlem, he organized a band and married, but had no children, she said.

Webb, who did not read music, memorized the band arrangements and engaged in a famous battle of the bands with rivals. Webb flourished musically in the 1930s, when radio stations broadcast his band and his fans loved his drumming.

”He discovered and became legal guardian to Ella Fitzgerald, the famous jazz singer,” Williams said. “My family members remembered when he returned to Baltimore as a star and played at the Hippodrome. The family could be not seated because of segregation. As a negro performer, he could play on the stage. His mother and aunts were not allowed in a seat. They stood backstage, at the edge of the stage, to see him perform.”

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She said he played at New York’s Savoy Ballroom and contributed funds to various civil rights causes, including the Scottsboro Boys Defense Fund.

“He acquired fame but little fortune,” she said. “Chick had a desire to build a community center in his East Baltimore neighborhood.”

The Chick Webb Memorial Recreation Center remains on North Eden Street near Monument Street in East Baltimore.

Webb died in June 16, 1939, at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

His funeral was held at the family church, Baltimore’s Waters African Methodist Church on Aisquith Street near what later became the Oldtown Mall.

“Swing Yields Sway to Dirge at Chick Webb Funeral Rites,” said a headline in The Sun, June 21, 1939. The story said that many persons regarded Webb as the world’s finest drummer.

“There must have been 8,000 to 10,000 there at one time or another, pushing, straining, leaning out of windows straddling ridgepoles of brick houses. It was the largest funeral in recent memory,” the newspaper account said.

Ella Fitzgerald mourned the loss of her mentor and was brave enough to sing at his funeral. She tried to get through the sentimental song, “My Buddy.” She sang two choruses and started sobbing, “sobbing without restraint,” the newspaper account said.

His own band was too emotional to play at the funeral. The choir sang, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.”

“Here was the music which everyone knew and everyone joined in the singing, draining ever bit of emotion out of the endless verses,” the paper said. “Swing of the hottest beat — Chick was king of it.”

In Webb’s absence the band was renamed “Ella Fitzgerald and Her Famous Band.” She ran the band and later struck out on her own.

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