Stompin’ at the Savoy: How Chick Webb Became the King of Drums
Written by Moira Rose Donohue | Illustrated by Laura Freeman
Although a disability stunted his growth and left him with a hunched back, William Henry “Chick” Webb didn’t let that get in the way of pursuing his dreams of being a musician. Even as a young child, Chick saw the world as one big drum. He pounded out rhythms on everything from stair railings to pots and pans with a wooden spoon until he earned enough money selling newspapers to buy himself a real set.
He saved more money and was at last able to buy a drum set where he could “bang on the bass drum, crash the cymbals, and rattle the snare.” When he was still a teenager, he played drums in several bands. His talent and love for music eventually brought him to the big time as an influential big band leader. But Chick wanted to be at the top. Would he get his chance? This picture-book biography bops with the sounds and dance moves of the Swing era and one of the most famous clubs in America as it relates the life of Black American jazz drummer Chick Webb, who in the 1930s earned the nickname the “King of the Savoy.”
With Moira Rose Donohue’s scintillating storytelling about a time in musical history that still resonates today and Laura Freeman’s vibrant illustrations that ring with bright horns, soar on a sublime voice, and pulsate with the beat of a master drummer, Stompin’ at the Savoy – which Kirkus calls “an effervescent celebration” – is a book that will inspire children.
I’m thrilled to be talking today with Moira Rose Donohue and Laura Freeman to learn more about how they brought the extraordinary story of Chick Webb to life for young readers.
Meet Moira Rose Donohue
Moira Rose Donohue has written over 35 books for children, most of them nonfiction, including National Geographic’s Little Kids First Big Book of the Rain Forest and two Junior Library Guild selections: Great White Sharks (Scholastic/Children’s Press) and The Invasion of Normandy (North Star Editions). She loves tap dancing, opera, hockey, and animals. Moira lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, with her dog, Petunia.
Among the many titles you’ve published are books on nature, history, and many, many biographies of figures from explorers to sports stars to civil rights leaders. What is your favorite thing about writing biographies? What was the initial spark that prompted you to choose Chick Webb as the subject of your newest book?
The thing I like most about writing biographies is that through the extensive research you have to do, you eventually discover the “essence” of the person—that unique quality that guided him/her/them to act in a way that made a difference in the world.
My initial interest in Chick was sparked when I was watching a re-airing of the Ken Burns documentary on jazz music. When the movie reached the evolution of swing and big bands, Chick Webb was mentioned. I have always loved Big Band music, even though it was not the music of my era. I was familiar with all the big band musicians discussed except Chick Webb. So, of course I had to research him. When I saw his life-loving grin and learned that he had to face the challenges of an affliction that left him no taller than an average eight-year-old boy, I was hooked.
Can you talk a little about the story readers will discover in Stompin’ at the Savoy and take readers on the book’s journey from idea to published book?
This book is not a chronicle of Chick’s life. It focuses on his resilient and competitive spirit because that’s what struck a chord with me. I love contests, and so, apparently, did Chick. To showcase his competitiveness, the climax of the book is his legendary band battle with 6-foot tall Benny Goodman, the King of Swing—a contest so exciting that almost 10,000 people showed up, inside the Savoy and outside on Lenox Avenue. You’ll have to read the book to find out who won!
What was one of the most surprising things you learned about Chick Webb during your research?
As a drummer and a band leader, Chick was precise and demanding. He told his musicians to practice and to be perfect. This didn’t surprise me because my daughter is a percussionist and I know that to be successful, practice and discipline are essential. What did surprise me is that, on occasion, Chick was known to give in to his wilder side and ride around town on the back of a motorcycle, standing up.
Researching Chick Webb was tricky because not much has been written about him. I had to call upon librarians, my superheroes, to watch a documentary at the Library of Congress and to find out what his childhood home looked like (thanks to the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore).
For an author it must be thrilling to see your story come to life visually. When did you see the cover and illustrations for your story? What was your first reaction?
I have been a big fan of Laura’s work for some time, so I knew when I got the sketches in May, 2020 that they would be wonderful. But the best part was that she completely understood the Big Band era and captured the ethos of the Savoy perfectly. It turns out that she had a connection to it—her father danced at the Savoy Ballroom.
As for the cover, which I didn’t see until early October, 2020, well…it brought tears to my eyes. The purple background is such a perfect choice for the King of Drums. And Laura even managed to put his signature green chicks on his drum set!
What would you like young readers to take away from the story of Chick Webb?
Although I cannot fully understand the magnitude and complexities of Chick’s struggle, as someone who is only 4 feet 11 inches tall and always trying to figure out how to reach things in high places, I relate to the challenges of being a short person. I completely understood his need to make his bass drum pedal higher so he could reach it! And I admired his perseverance. I hope the young readers will see Chick’s story as an inspiration—a story of someone who believed in himself and his music. Chick was a person with short stature who created a giant sound.
When will readers be able to find Stompin’ at the Savoy on bookstore shelves? Do you have any special events planned that readers can look forward to?
Stompin’ at the Savoy will be available for purchase on January 15, 2021. We are planning on setting up a virtual book release celebration with Tombolo Books. For more information and updates, please check my website, moirarosedonohue.net. And I am hoping to have an in-person event in Baltimore, Chick’s (and my son’s) home, when it’s safe to do so.
You can connect with Moira Rose Donohue on
Meet Laura Freeman
Laura Freeman has illustrated many fine children’s books over the years, including Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe, written by Deborah Blumenthal, and the Coretta Scott King Honor book Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly and Winifred Conkling. Laura now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband and their two children.
I think readers are fascinated by an artist’s process in translating a manuscript to images that explain, highlight, and enhance the text. Can you talk a little about how you approached the manuscript for Stompin’ at the Savoy and then developed your illustrations – especially this stunning cover.
I always spend a lot of time looking at photos and researching the character and time period before starting. For Stompin’ I wanted to get in the mood, and so I searched for his music online and was surprised to find that I recognized the title song (which was written in 1933!). Maybe I watch too many old movies, but it really is great! I found great old photos of him at his drum kit and photos of the Savoy nightclub as well as people dancing and swinging to the orchestra. Since it was the ’30’s, all the photos I found were in black and white so I dug into the internet to find out what color his drum kit was… and I found conflicting information. One article stated that the kit was pearlized cream decorated with sparkly green chicks but the accompanying photo showed the chicks as being red. I ended up trusting the words since the photo was obviously hand tinted. I hope I got it right but guess it’s not the end of the world if I’m wrong!
The cover is just a peek at what readers have to look forward to in the book. Can you give them a little taste of what’s in store inside?
I tried to give the illustrations a sense of movement to mimic the way Chick’s music makes me feel. There are a lot of colorful musical notes dancing throughout almost all of the pages. There is one spread in particular where if you look closely you can find them in a pattern in the ironwork of the staircase that Chick falls down as a child. Even though he’s not playing music on this page I wanted the notes to foreshadow his future.
What aspects of Chick Webb’s story did you most want to express in your illustrations? Is there a spread in the book that you particularly enjoyed creating?
Even though he had a tragic accident when he was a child that affected him for the rest of his life, his music is so full of joy – I wanted the book to feel joyful! I wanted it to be bright and colorful. There’s one spread in the book that depicts a battle of the bands. The one where Chick’s band goes up against Benny Goodman’s band. It was one of the last images I tackled because I have to admit, I had no idea how I was going to pull it off. There was just so much going on. I wanted to show the excitement and electricity of the moment – both bands playing their instruments, Chick’s band in white tuxedos, Benny Goodman’s band in black, Chick at his drum kit, Gene Krupka breaking his drum head. All this, but I didn’t want it to look busy and confusing. It ended up being one of my favorite images in the book!
I’ve been fortunate to review several of your picture books. In each one the illustrations are uniquely suited for the subject and yet instantly recognizable as your work. What would you say is your signature style? How did you develop it?
Thank you for saying so! I guess I’d say my illustrations are somewhat realistic in that I do try to capture a likeness. But still not so much so that I can’t deviate from reality to make a point. I guess you could say my work has a collage feel to it since I love to play around with patterns and textures too. I think that the amount of research I do shows up in the illustrations. I try to immerse myself in the time period of the book. I love finding the right clothing and hairstyles. What did the streets look like? The cars? What kind of technology was available? What about the furniture? I collect 100’s of photos of all these things. Very few end up in the books, but the essence of what I’ve seen does… I hope!
What do you hope children will take away from your illustrations for Stompin’ at the Savoy?
I hope that they can see themselves in his story. I love that he didn’t let his physical limitations stop him from doing what he wanted to do. He had to sit on a high stool to reach the drums. He couldn’t reach the bass drum pedal on the stool, so he had a special one made. He even embraced what surely started out as a derogatory nickname and called himself Chick.
Like Moira, many of your books for children are biographies. What draws you to those projects? What are the challenges and the rewards of working on biographies?
I especially like learning about people I may never have heard of and learning new things about people I have heard of. If I don’t know the information, chances are that most kids don’t either. With a biography there’s the challenge of capturing a likeness. Sometimes there are lots of photos and videos of the person I’m depicting to reference. Other times, not so much. I may need to distill the person’s facial features and try to figure out what they might look like from a different angle or as a child when there really aren’t any reference photos to go by. I want to do them justice because I feel honored to be involved in uncovering their stories.
You can connect with Laura Freeman on
Her website | Instagram | Twitter
Thanks so much Moira and Laura for these insightful answers! I’m sure readers are as excited to read Stompin’ at the Savoy: How Chick Webb Became the King of Drums as I am! While we have to wait a little longer to find the book in bookstores, everyone’s invited to enter my giveaway for a chance to win a copy!
Stompin’ at the Savoy: How Chick Webb Became the King of Drums Giveaway
I’m excited to partner with Sleeping Bear Press in Twitter giveaway of:
- One (1) copy of Stompin’ at the Savoy, written by Moira Rose Donohue| illustrated by Laura Freeman
Here’s how to enter:
- Follow Sleeping Bear Press
- Retweet a giveaway tweet
- Bonus: Reply with your favorite kind of music for an extra entry (each reply gives you one more entry).
This giveaway is open from December 3 through December 9 and ends at 8:00 p.m. EST.
A winner will be chosen on December 10. The prize book will be sent from Sleeping Bear Press in January.
Giveaway open to U.S. addresses only. | Prizing provided by Sleeping Bear Press.
To learn more about Stompin’ at the Savoy: How Chick Webb Became the King of Drums and other marvelous books from Sleeping Bear Press, visit their website.
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