If our plan here had been to collect only the complete instrumental work of the Chick Webb Orchestra on Decca, it would have been a sweet but slim project indeed -- barely a single CD, in fact. Of the 129 surviving commercial sides and alternates he recorded between September 1934 and his death in June 1939, only 23 were instrumental. Never in jazz history did a major swing band ever come to be so dominated by a single singer.
But then no other swing band ever had Ella Fitzgerald.
She came to the Chick Webb orchestra in the late winter of 1935 at 16, unformed, inexperienced and with no permanent address, but a blooming force of nature behind a microphone. Within two years she would largely eclipse her mentor and without any intent to subvert on her part make the Webb band her vassal. “When Ella Fitzgerald came in,” Taft Jordan told Stanley dance, “we had to go with the tide…she really put the band over.”
Webb’s record label, Decca, recognized a tide when it rolled its way and turned its sails into the wind, seeing to it that she was featured on four out of every five of the band’s records. It paid off handsomely for Decca, Chick and Ella. But it shortchanged history with a somewhat incomplete picture of Webb’s force as a drummer and a distorted picture of the band’s true Harlem character. Today Webb’s reputation has been sustained more by the fading testimony of those who actually saw him in his prime, not the records he made. But Ella could not be ignored. Her “exceptional gifts demanded priority,” critic Helen Oakley wrote 25 years later.
Any other singer would have wasted little time at this point and gone solo. But Ella stayed put. Webb and his wife Sally (a.k.a. Sallye) had become her legal guardians, and she wouldn’t be moved from her nest, even after Webb’s death in 1939. She needed the reassurance of familiarity and trust around her. Decisions distressed her. So they were best postponed or left to others. She stayed with the band – her band now – until it finally broke up in July 1942. She stayed with the Gale Agency too, Webb’s long time manager, another 11 years after that. And she stayed with Decca until 1955, when Norman Granz finally cut the last vestigial ties to her Chick Webb origins.