Rhythm Man: Chick Webb and the Beat that Changed America is the first full biography of the innovative 1930s Swing Era drummer/bandleader, known as the “Savoy King.” Rhythm Man traces Webb’s footsteps from his birthplace in East Baltimore to Harlem and on to national fame, with his popular big band and a young vocalist named Ella Fitzgerald, who went on to become the “First Lady of Song.”
Listen to the playlist and read on to trace Webb’s legacy on records and radio, from 1929 to 1939:
1. “Dog Bottom”
Recorded in 1929, “Dog Bottom” is one of Chick Webb’s first records with his Harlem Stompers (the record label used “Jungle Band” as a pseudonym on record by several Black bands at the time). Webb and his 10-piece dance band are playing a Charleston-style stomp, driven by banjo, tuba, and Webb’s steady drumming, a vivid example of pre-swing jazz played by Harlem’s finest young musicians.
2. “Let’s Get Together”
By 1933, Chick Webb’s Savoy Orchestra was playing a full-out, forward-moving swing rhythm. This arrangement by composer/arranger/alto player Edgar Sampson sets off a clever riff-based call-and response—Sampson’s specialty. This tune became the Webb Orchestra’s theme song soon after the record’s release in early 1934.
3. “Stompin’ at the Savoy”
“Stompin’ at the Savoy” was also by Edgar Sampson, whose arranging style helped define the sound of Chick Webb’s band as it expanded into a powerhouse swing dance band. This tune became a staple of the Webb Orchestra’s repertoire at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, where the band reigned for the rest of the decade.
4. “Don’t Be That Way”
This tune, also by Sampson, was another signature piece for Webb’s band, especially when performed by Ella Fitzgerald after lyrics were added later. The song was soon covered by Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and other popular white big band leaders, raising still-controversial issues of race and appropriation in the music business, themes explored in Rhythm Man.
5. “(If You Can’t Sing It) You’ll Have to Swing It”
This 1936 recording—better known as “Mr. Paganini”—was one of Ella Fitzgerald’s first solid hits for the band. It’s got the lyrics of a 1930s novelty number—“Mr. Paganini, don’t you be a meanie…”—and shows off Ella’s talent as one of the first swing vocalists at the moment that swing rhythm and dance—the Lindy Hop—were sweeping the country.
6. “Go Harlem”
“Go Harlem” displays Webb’s command of the band from his drummer’s throne. His playing delineates all the music’s phrases and dynamics of Sampson’s arrangement; meanwhile Webb is the perfect complement for the successions of soloists. He brings everyone together at the end, closing with cascading cowbells.
7. “Vote for Mr. Rhythm”
Webb’s band swings out on this 1936 election year novelty, hitting all the right notes as Ella sings: “Now when I say vote for Mr. Rhythm, you all know I mean Chick Webb!” and that victory means, “Soon we’ll all be singing, ‘Of Thee I Swing.’”
8. “Harlem Congo”
Recorded in fall 1937, this track displays the innovative virtuosity of Chick Webb throughout. He swings the band like crazy, and for the first time on records lets loose a 24-bar drum solo. He brings down the tempo and pace of the piece majestically, and concludes with a startling, yet also gorgeous, cymbal crash.
9. “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön”
This song has an extraordinary history. It began as a Yiddish song written for a musical comedy, then became a major hit by the Andrews Sisters sung in English, though it was banned in Nazi Germany when its Jewish origin was discovered. Chick Webb’s Orchestra swings klezmer, while Ella’s voice soars with a bit of Yiddish lilt in her scatting.
10. “Liza (All the Clouds Will Roll Away)”
This is Webb’s third recorded version of George Gershwin’s “Liza,” from a January 1939 radio transcription. Like “Harlem Congo,” here is the virtuosic Webb— an orchestra all by himself! Playing across his instruments —drums, cowbells, woodblocks, bells, and more— he pulls out all the stops, a blueprint for future drummers in big bands, rock bands, and beyond.
11. “A-Tisket, A-Tasket”
Ella Fitzgerald started fooling around with rocking this nursery rhyme when the band was at a Boston nightclub in 1938. Van Alexander, Ella’s main arranger for Webb, crafted it into the band’s biggest hit ever. Ella and the band transformed this rhyme to gold with Ella’s buoyant swing, and a shuffle rhythm bordering on early rock’n’roll.
12. “One O’Clock Jump”
Webb often paid tribute to other bandleaders, covering their best tunes. It was a challenge to compete with Count Basie’s band, which Webb and Basie did in an epic band battle in 1938. Here, Webb pushes the beat and so do his soloists—to the delight of generations of Lindy Hoppers.
13. “T’Aint What You Do but the Way That You Do it”
Webb’s band swings out on this Jimmie Lunceford hit, while Ella wittily mangles the lyrics—“You’ll learn your ABCs, and then your DFGs.” A perfect snapshot of the era, Ella takes one of her lengthiest scat solos on record to date—upbeat and adorable.
14. “Let’s Get Together”
This playlist closes with two broadcast recordings from the Southland Cafe in Boston, in May 1939. On this clip from the band’s theme song, Webb pounds out a forceful beat, encouraged by the wild crowd. Nobody on the dance floor could have suspected that Webb’s health was failing, and he would pass away a few weeks later.
15. “My Wild Irish Rose”
Also recorded at Southland, Webb takes this sentimental popular song to stratospheric heights, playing it at what the Lindy Hoppers called his “killer tempo.” Webb’s stupendously musical pyrotechnics are aimed to whirl into everyone’s heart.
For more information on the life and legacy of Chick Webb, read Stephanie Stein Crease’s Rhythm Man: Chick Webb and the Beat that Changed America.
Let’s hear the music.