Composed by Ella Fitzgerald and Al Feldman; arranged by Al Feldman.*
Recorded by Chick Webb and His Orchestra for Decca on May 2, 1938 in New York.
Chick Webb, drums, directing: Mario Bauza, first trumpet; Bobby Stark and Taft Jordan, trumpets; Nat Story, first trombone; Sandy Williams and George Matthews, trombones; Garvin Bushell, first alto saxophone; Louis Jordan, alto saxophone; Teddy McRae and Wayman Carver, tenor saxophones (Carver doubles on baritone saxophone); Tommy Fulford, piano; Bobby Johnson, guitar; Beverly Peer, bass; Ella Fitzgerald, vocal.
(*) Arranger Alexander Van Vliet Feldman was known professionally as Al Feldman until he became a bandleader after Chick Webb’s death in 1939. He then began calling himself Van Alexander after Eli Oberstein, an a and r man (producer) at RCA Victor Records, suggested that he adopt a more “marketable” name.
The story of the beginnings of the Chick Webb band are told in another post here at swingandbeyond.com, A link to that can be found at the end of this post.
By 1934, Chick Webb (shown at left) had built a solid band, despite the major handicaps facing him, which included a severe physical disability, a chronic life-threatening illness, and being black in an America where virulent racism and Jim Crow limited opportunities for all black people. Webb coped with his disability by working as hard as he could as a drummer, despite being only four feet tall, having a hunchback, and being in pain much of the time. The chronic disease which underlay all of Webb’s physical problems was tuberculosis of the spine/Pott’s disease. This disease ultimately caused Webb’s death in 1939 when he was only 34 years old. Webb lived his life impatiently, as though a sword of Damocles hung over his head. Throughout his short life, his iron willpower and burning desire to succeed in the highly competitive world of dance music, in addition to his great talent as a drummer, were resources he drew on constantly. After more than a decade of professional activity, his hard work was paying off, but success was still slow in coming. Webb undoubtedly realized that he needed to get wherever he was going to go in the music business as quickly as possible. Time was of the essence.
In the early 1920s, Webb found a place where he could flourish as both a musician and as a human being, Harlem, the teeming Afro-American ghetto of New York City. Harlem in the 1930s was an incredible hotbed of music situated inside of an even larger hotbed of music, New York City itself. The number of places where live music was presented in Harlem in the 1930s had to number in the hundreds. But the two preeminent Harlem showcases for black musical talent at the time were the Apollo Theater, located at 253 West 125th Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, and the Savoy Ballroom, located at 596 Lenox Avenue, between 140th and 141st Streets. (Below right: Chick Webb on the bandstand of the Savoy Ballroom, photographed from the rear. Note the back brace on his drummer’s stool. The bassist to his left is Beverly Peer.)
In the early 1930s, there were three black musicians who were tops in terms of popularity with audiences: the flashy singer and dynamic stage personality Cab Calloway, who at that time led a fair but far from great band (which got much better through the 1930s); the suave and talented songwriter and pianist Duke Ellington, who lead brilliant band; and the singer/entertainer, songwriter and pianist extraordinaire, Thomas “Fats” Waller, who led groups of various sizes. In terms of money earned, Calloway was number one, followed closely by Waller. Ellington earned slightly less than his singing competitors, but still, as a result of always carrying an incredible work load, and the royalties generated by his many hit tunes, he made a lot of money. (Louis Armstrong, though possessed of enormous talent, was sorting out various business issues in the early 1930s, and didn’t move into the serious money until he formed his business relationship with manager Joe Glaser in 1935.)
In 1934, despite having a good band that was successful in Harlem, Webb was simply not in the same league as Calloway, Waller and Ellington. But Webb wanted to be in their league. He saw how his well-disciplined and exciting band pleased audiences. He knew that he could outdrum just about anyone who dared to cross his path in the various “battles of music” at the Savoy Ballroom (and elsewhere), which would pit a visiting band against Webb’s band. Throughout most of the 1930s, Webb and his musicians considered the Savoy to be their home. But try as he might, he just could not crack the invisible barrier that separated his band, good as it was and as popular as it was In Harlem, from the true big-leaguers, the national headliners. Still, he bore down and worked harder. He rehearsed more. He constantly sought out new and better music for his band to play, and added stronger musicians. The band got even better, but he was still running in place.
Like all other top-line Afro-American artists in the 1930s, Webb had a white manager, the aggressive Moe Gale. We should not regard Gale as either a “white savior,” as that term has developed in literature and cinema, or as a “Simon Legree,” as that character was used in the nineteenth century novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He was first and foremost a businessman, and his business interests were centered in Harlem. That, perforce, led him to involvement with Afro-Americans. His primary interest as a businessman was to make money. He was not necessarily a crusader in the area of seeking equality in race relations. Nevertheless, his exploitation of black talent, something his clients knowingly participated in, led him and them to monetary success, if not racial parity. (At left: Moe Gale, seated at desk, with Helen Oakley over his shoulder – late 1930s. Ms. Oakley did public relations work for Gale’s stable of clients, and the Savoy Ballroom. She was particularly successful in promoting well-attended battles of music at the Savoy between the Webb band, and those led by Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Bunny Berigan.(**)
Before aligning with Gale, Webb’s band was almost always underemployed. “A change in Webb’s fortunes came when he signed with the Moe Gale office, then known as Consolidated Radio Artists, 48 West 48th Street, in late 1929. Gale, one of the owners of the Savoy Ballroom, would now play a key role in shaping Webb’s career that (to that point) had been marked by a spectacular lack of business acumen.” (1) Gale was able to land an occasional good-paying job for the Webb band, but to maintain a band of quality, Webb had to have work for his musicians 52 weeks a year. It appears that Gale began using Webb’s band occasionally at the Savoy Ballroom as early as 1931. But there was clearly work done by it in many other venues through the early 1930s, including at the Apollo Theater. By 1934, Webb was making $950 a week (for him and his entire band) at the Apollo. In the same year, Ellington was getting $4,700 weekly at the same venue.(2)
In 1934, to improve the Webb band’s commercial possibilities, Chick hired a good-looking male vocalist, Charles Linton, who also sang well, though only on ballads. Linton did not move the needle of popularity for the Webb band. A bit earlier, Webb had added Bardu Ali to act as the front-man for his band, as it was difficult for Webb to handle the job of emceeing from his drummer’s perch in back of the band, especially with his disabilities. Ali handled these tasks well for Webb, and developed his own shtick by combining “…conducting with tumbling, to crowd-pleasing effect.” (3) Still, the Webb band did not move up the popularity list in any appreciable way. Nevertheless, Webb was well pleased with both Linton and Ali.
Moe Gale, and Charlie Buchanan, the manager of the Savoy (4), began to float the idea of putting a girl singer with the Webb band. They called Linton aside and asked him to find a beautiful girl who would be able to sing the swing tunes. He began looking around Harlem. Linton later recalled what happened: “At the theater (this is a reference to the Harlem Opera House, a theater on 125th Street near the Apollo), I knew an Italian girl in the chorus, so I asked her, ‘Do you know of a beautiful girl that does swing tunes?’ ‘No, I don’t ,’ she said, ‘but there’s that little girl who won first prize at the Apollo, and her name’s Ella.’ And I said, ‘All right, do you have a telephone number?’ She said, ‘No.’ I asked for her address and she said ‘She doesn’t have a place to go. She plays out on 125th Street every day, so she’s out there every day.’ So I said, ‘When you see her, bring her to me.'” (4) Soon thereafter, the girl named Ella was brought to Linton, who conducted a brief singing audition. Linton listened to the girl sing a tune or two and understood immediately that she could sing. He then took the girl, whose appearance was rather unkempt, to Webb, who joked with Linton about her being so young and disheveled. Linton brushed aside the joking and said to Webb, “I want you to listen to her sing.” Webb “…came over real close and (whispered) ‘You’re not putting that on my bandstand. No, no, no – out!”
At this very moment, Charlie Buchanan entered the room where all of this was going on. “So Chick looked at Buchanan and said, ‘Look what Charles wants to put on my bandstand.’ Buchanan took a look and …he didn’t want her either.” When Buchanan turned to leave the room, Linton said to him, “If you don’t listen to her, I will quit!'” This got Buchanan’s attention. He said, “…Okay, okay! When you (the Webb band) finish at the theater, you’ve got two weeks at the Savoy. Bring her up and let her sing along with the band. If the public likes her, we’ll keep her. And if not, out! With no pay!” (5) (At left: Moe Gale – foreground, and Charlie Buchanan at the Savoy.)
At that time, it is unclear where Ella was living. Linton secured a room for her at the rooming house where he lived in Harlem, and agreed to pay for her lodging, and meals at a nearby restaurant during the period of her tryout with the Webb band. He also took her to watch the band as it performed at the Harlem Opera House, and tried to coach her into what to do as a singer with a band. According to Linton, she learned quickly. Nevertheless, when she finally got the opportunity to sing with the Webb band, despite her good performances, she had a long way to go to gain some polish in both her vocal presentations and her appearance. Webb was ambivalent about adding her to the band. Within a short time however, Ella’s innate musicality and talent as a singer won over not only Savoy audiences, but various musicians both in and outside of the Webb band. By June of 1935, Ella Fitzgerald was the female vocalist with Chick Webb’s band.
Outside the Savoy Ballroom – June 25,1935, shortly after Ella Fitzgerald became a member of the Chick Webb band. L-R: Bobby Stark, Edgar Sampson, Sandy Williams, Wayman Carver, Mario Bauza, Taft Jordan, Ella Fitzgerald, who had just turned eighteen years old; Fernando Arbello.
To say that Ella Fitzgerald’s singing helped the commercial possibilities of the Webb band in the years 1935 to 1939 would be an understatement. As she settled in, she became more polished and assured, and audiences reacted very positively to her. Webb even used her in battles of music – she could and did swing. The orientation of the band moved ever more around her. Indeed, by 1938, the Webb band itself had essentially been subsumed by the singing and personality of Ella Fitzgerald. Chick Webb was very happy about that because it finally brought to him the success he had so long strived for. Jazz critics however, bemoaned the ever more commercial character of the band. Webb was not deeply concerned about this.
Webb’s tenor saxophonist Teddy McRae, who was also a fine arranger (6), recalled how Ella’s first big hit, and Chick Webb’s greatest hit recording “A-Tisket A-Tasket” came to be: “That was Ella’s own thing,” he said. “She (sang that) up in Yonkers (when she was a girl.) ‘A-Tisket A-Tasket’,’ that’s a nursery rhyme. We had nothing to do with that. (She asked) Van Alexander (then known as Al Feldman) to put it down on paper for her.” (7)
In a 2012 interview with Marc Myers at JazzWax, arranger Van Alexander (shown at right in 1940) provided the details: ”One day (while the Webb band was playing a long engagement in Boston) Ella Fitzgerald said to me, “Gee, I have a great idea for a song. What if you did something with the nursery rhyme ‘A-Tisket A-Tasket’? I took in what Ella said and went back to New York.The following week when I went up to Boston, Ella cornered me: ‘Al, did you think about the song?”’I told her that I hadn’t had the time yet but that I would turn to it soon. When I came back to Boston the following week, she asked me again. When I told her that I hadn’t done it yet, Ella said, ‘Listen, Al, if you’re not interested, tell me and I’ll ask [arranger] Edgar Sampson to do it.’ I told her, ‘Hold the phone, Ella. Give me one more week.’ I went home to New York and burned the midnight oil. There wasn’t much of a song to begin with. I put the children’s tune into a 32-bar song, adding a release, the bridge. I also wrote novelty lyrics, including the exchanges between Ella and the band. You know, the stuff where they ask, ‘Was it red? Was it blue?’ and Ella’s responding, ‘No, no, no, no.’ Ella loved it. And she gave it her own flavor. Originally, I had written lyrics in the middle part that were pretty straight—that she was ‘walkin’ on down the avenue.’ Ella changed it to ‘truckin’ down the avenue’—to make the song more hip. She also changed something else, and we shared credit on the lyrics. A few weeks later, Chick Webb’s band and Ella recorded it—on May 2, 1938, my 23d birthday.” (8)
“A-Tisket A-Tasket” became a hit almost immediately upon its release in early June, and stayed on the hit parade for a total of nineteen weeks. It was a novelty tune, and in those days, many swing fans liked novelty tunes because they were light-hearted and fun. It eventually became a million-seller. This hit record finally provided Chick Webb with the opportunity to achieve top-level, national success. The Webb band spent the summer and autumn of 1938 doing big-money theater dates, including two successful runs at the top band showcase in the nation, New York’s Paramount Theater.
Sadly, just as Chick Webb began to achieve success on the scale that he had worked so long and so hard for, his health began to disintegrate. After shows at the Paramount, Webb had to be carried off the stage by his body guard and valet Joe Saunders.(9) Helen Oakley Dance (pictured at right in the mid-1940s) much later recalled Chick’s overall health as 1938 wore on. “TB of the spine was a terminal illness. But he was brave. He hated to confess that anything was wrong and never complained. He was being overcome by pain and all that went with the disease. Many times after a show or a set, he would pass out. Hemmhoroids, a terrible case, made things even more difficult. He’d bleed profusely and lose tremendous amounts of blood.” (10) Still, he kept up the killing pace that exhausted everyone else in his band. On a tour that began in early 1939, Webb was frequently incapacitated by pain. He now had to rely on another drummer, Harold “Doc” West, to substitute for him. This was more painful for Webb than the increasing pain being caused by a flare-up of his spinal tuberculosis. In April, Webb was admitted for medical treatment to Johns Hopkins Hospital in his home town of Baltimore. Within a short time, he rejoined his band in far less than good condition. He struggled through a series of engagements in May and into June. On June 3, he was unable to perform with his band on a cruise boat near Washington D.C. He was again admitted to Johns Hopkins, where he died on June 16, 1939.
Here is a great instrumental recording by Chick Webb’s band that demonstrates what it was like to be in the Savoy Ballroom when he and his band were on the bandstand in full cry. In addition to Webb’s great drumming and Bobby Stark’s inspired trumpet solos, listen for Mario Bauza’s exciting first trumpet playing. This recording was on the “B” side of Decca record 1840. On the “A” side was “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.”
Composed by George Gershwin; arranged by Al Feldman (Van Alexander). (11)
Recorded the day after the Decca session as above. Same personnel. Trumpet solos by Bobby Stark; trombone solo by Sandy Williams..
The recordings presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
Here is the link to the story of how Chick Webb began as a bandleader: https://swingandbeyond.com/2016/10/24/spinnin-the-webb-1938-chick-webb/
(**) Helen Margaret Oakley Dance (1913-2001), was a pioneering woman in the world of jazz and swing in many ways. Her greatest successes came as a public relations catalyst who staged events that were directly a part of the early success of Benny Goodman, the ongoing success of Duke Ellington, and the two years of Chick Webb’s greatest success. Her story as it relates to jazz is a fascinating one, and is summarized in an interview that she gave to Monk Rowe in 1998. Here is a link to that interview during which her irrepressible spirit comes through: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8qzCYDdxY_A
(1) Ella Fitzgerald …A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz, by Stuart Nicholson (1993), 28. Hereafter Nicholson.
(2) Ibid. 32.
(3) Nicholson, 33-34.
(4) Here is the obituary for Charlie Buchanan that appeared in the New York Times: Charles P. Buchanan (1898-1984) , who managed the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem for 32 years, died of a stroke in December of 1984 at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center In New York. He was 86 years old.
The Savoy, immortalized in the swing standard ”Stompin’ at the Savoy,” helped launch the careers of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford and Chick Webb, Erskine Hawkins and many other big-band performers who often ”battled” each other from the club’s two bandstands.
Mr. Buchanan was also chairman, and later chairman emeritus, of the United Mutual Life Insurance Company, the only black-operated licensed mutual insurance company chartered in New York State.
Mr. Buchanan was born in Barbados and came to the United States when he was 6 years old. He attended Rhodes Business and Prep School and became a real estate broker. He joined the Savoy Ballroom in 1926. Until the ballroom closed in 1958, he was its secretary-treasurer and manager. With the Savoy’s booking agent, Moe Gale, he also managed Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots. He returned to the real estate business in the 1960’s, and became chairman of United Mutual in 1968.
His first wife, Bessie Buchanan, was the first black woman to serve in the New York State Legislature. She died in 1980.
(5) Nicholson, 35.
(6) Teddy McRae struck up a relationship with the up-and-coming bandleader Artie Shaw in early 1938 when both the Webb and Shaw bands were working in Boston. McRae placed an original composition/arrangement of his called “Back Bay Shuffle” with the Shaw band then. Artie recorded it at the same July 1938 Bluebird recording session that produced “Begin the Beguine.” It became a very successful record for Shaw. Looking for a follow-up to this success, McRae submitted a second swing special to Shaw, “Traffic Jam.” It became an even bigger hit for Shaw than “Back Bay Shuffle.” Paradoxically, McRae had no substantial successes as a composer or arranger with Chick Webb’s band.
(7) Nicholson, 53.
(8) I am indebted to Marc Myers of JazzWax for allowing me to use the words of Van Alexander. Here is a link to the entire interview Alexander gave to Marc Myers at JazzWax: https://www.jazzwax.com/2015/07/van-alexander-1915-2015.html
(9) Drummin’ Men, by Burt Korral (1990), 38. Hereafter Korral.
(10) Korral, 38.
(11) At some point after this recording of “Liza” was released in 1938, the arrangement on it was erroneously attributed to Benny Carter, who had played in the Webb band in the early 1930s. Late in his life, Van Alexander (1915-2015), corrected this error in conversations with a number of jazz scholars.