Monday, June 30, 2014

Frankie 100: May 22 thru 26th 2014! Some reflections.... Part 1

Harlem's Heritage: 

Lindy Hop and Swing Dance!

  Frankie Manning and His Influences  

 Harlem Roots -World Impact

Culture... Dance... Jazz.

Lindy Hop... SAVOY...  Swing!


At this juncture we will reflect on the special NYC event
 that  brought people from 47 countries together to celebrate 
Frankie Manning: The Ambassador of Lindy Hop

Stay tuned for more info: 
Videos, reflections and honest commentary!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Stompin' at the Savoy - and Around the World! 1935 - 1939

Harlem's Heritage: 
Lindy Hop and Swing Dance!

 Frankie Manning and His Influences  

 Harlem Roots -World Impact

Culture... Dance... Jazz...
Lindy Hop... SAVOY...  Swing!

Queen of Swing Ms. Norma Miller on Lindy Hop:

“The Lindy Hop was created in New York.  In Harlem.  At the Savoy.  It was an American dance created by Americans.  It had soul and it had swing, which is what made it popular everywhere it was introduced.”

Frankie Manning..... and Norma Miller

Names of who is inbetween them coming soon!

In Parts 1 and 2 of this series we see the emergence of Harlem’s famed dance the Lindy Hop.  We also see how youngsters in Harlem had the energy, resilience and drive to create a distinctive dance art form that would take them places beyond their imaginations.

Here’s a brief review of Frankie Manning’s beginnings with Harlem’s premiere dance at its premiere ballroom - the Savoy!  Hear his words

1933 Frankie first ventures to the Savoy Ballroom. The dancers at the Savoy in Harlem were mixing dances like the Breakaway and the Charleston to create new styles. The new music told their feet to do triples… so they added triple steps.  Thus the Lindy Hop was born with an eight-beat basic foot pattern of 1, 2, 3 & 4, 5, 6, 7 & 8. This new style proved very popular and spread rapidly.

1934 By this time Frankie Manning has been invited by Herbert “Whitey” White to join elite group of Savoy Lindy Hoppers hailing from the Savoy Ballroom. One of his first innovations Frankie also introduces is a more horizontal style of Lindy Hopping in contrast to the dancers before him. This allows for more innovation and movement.
Now: We will move on to 1935 and a New York City Contest that would change Harlem’s Lindy Hoppers forever

Part 3:  

And around the World!
 1935   through  1939

The 1st Harvest Moon Ball
The premier dance contest in New York City starting in 1935 was the annual "Harvest Moon Ball" and sponsored by the Daily News Welfare Association.  It was going to be held in the Central Park Mall initially but had to be postponed because a crowd of 100,000 gathered and the contestants couldn't get through. The categories were Foxtrot, Lindy Hop, Polka, Rumba, Tango and Waltz. This event was so popular that the 20,000 seats were usually sold within two days of going on sale!  Remember this is before Television…. and Face Book.

Entrants registered at various ballrooms in New York, the Savoy being one of them. While the results of the usual Savoy Saturday night contests were decided by applause (and a spot for preliminaries for the HMB), at the actual contest requirements were to be a point system: For grace, execution, originality and appearance.
Norma Miller in her memoirs “Swinging at the Savoy” captures the mood and essence –
“The Lindy Hop defied the judge’s imaginations.  The music was faster…the steps had not been danced on a ballroom floor before… and the dancers were faster and flashier than any of the other contestants.  The judges had to have their eyes wide open.”
One had to capture the judge’s attention.  The Savoy dancers who were best in their Lindy contests uptown had no problem with that - they were used to being on display.  Whitey wanted the top 3 prizes to be brought home to the Savoy, but for the BIG number 1 prize he banked on Frankie Manning and Leon James.  He knew there would be demand for performances after the contest, and he had easy access to sell this to clubs and theaters across the country.  And the contest would also inspire dancers to create new steps.
Here are some historical snippets of that 
eventful night at Madison Square Garden 

And here are the top three Savoy Ballroom

 Winners of the Harvest Moon Ball 

Lindy Hop contest

1st place - Leon James and Edith Matthews
2nd place - Frankie Manning and Maggie McMillan   
3rd place - Norma Miller and Billy Hill  

According to Frankie Manning one of the rules was not to separate from your partner.  Well as you see form the film clip that rule was abandoned!  Leon James and Maggie McMillan took the cake with their antics and imaginative moves.  Top winners got paid a cash prize and also received a week long engagement with Ed Sullivan at the Loews theater.  And even more was in store…
As Norma Miller well notes: 

“The Lindy Hop competition belonged to us.

 That night Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers were born.  

We entered the Garden as the Savoy Lindy Hoppers,

 but left as Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers”.

Special Note

Norma Miller‘s words proved to be prophetic: The Lindy Hop belonged to us. Until the Savoy ballroom closed in 1958, Savoy Ballroom dancers virtually regarded the Lindy Hop prize as their own (despite its name being changed to Jitterbug Jive and then to Rock 'n' Roll).  And we might add that this Harlem pride continued with the help of a new venue in the Bronx – the Savoy Manor.  

Over 40 years in total between both facilities African Americans DOMINATED this contest within the Harvest Moon Ball for the Lindy Hop contest’s duration! And well into the 1960’s, 1970’s and early 80’s with the help of Louise “Mama Lu” Parks, George Lloyd, Sugar Sullivan, Barbara Billups, Lee Motes, Margaret “Mommy” Thacker and George Sullivan: They carried The Savoy Ballroom inspired legacy on

These Keepers of the Flame - former Savoy Ballroom Lindy Hoppers and Harvest Moon Ball contestants, winners or Champions - trained successive entrants (who regarded the Savoy Manor as their home) for the Harvest Moon Ball until 1974 (for the Daily News Charities).  Early editions of the Daily News after the contest in those days had them on the front cover! Some of these Lindy Hop legends have within their archives the newspaper centerfolds showcasing the contestants…

But it doesn’t stop: Then you have Mama Lu Parks carrying the tradition further into the early 1980’s with her version of the Harvest Moon Ball! These award winning and trailblazing glory years will be documented in another installment of this series.


Taking the Lindy Hop Abroad - 1935
One of the first requests after the Harvest Moon Ball Lindy Hop sweep was a tour of several European countries that included France, England and Switzerland.  Frankie, who had a regular job, declined the offer (despite Whitey’s pleas). Norma Miller though made a deal with her mother and got to go at the age of 14! As she said “My formal education was ending, but life on the road would teach me a lot”. 

Miller details this in her memoirs “Swinging at the Savoy” extensively, and this premiere trip no doubt put Harlem’s dance further on the map.  Frankie though didn’t feel he would be missing too much – at least at this time.  He felt that “that the man upstairs had something else in mind for me”…

Indeed he did, as we’ll read later (that contest). However two years later success had Frankie on a 1937 tour of France, Ireland and Britain. The trip included a royal command  performance for King George VI at the London PalladiumMr. Manning was soon dancing on tour across New Zealand and Australia too with his partners!

The Aerials era  

Since the beginning of jazz dance, acrobatics were an essential part of vernacular dance, commonly known as flash dancers who toured with bands across United States during the first part of the 20th century. In the early 1930s they had not yet been introduced to Lindy Hop - yet.

The precise history of events cannot be ascertained; even Al Minns rebutted Manning's story and claimed that he himself was the first dancer to do aerials in the Savoy Ballroom. 
The most popular story of the development of aerial steps in Lindy Hop is told by dancer Frankie Manning.

About that Contest between Shorty and Frankie…
We briefly mentioned it in Part 2… So now here are the details!
Head bouncer Herbert "Whitey" White managed a team of local dancers that included George Snowden, and he arranged for them to perform at professional engagements all over the city and country.  Their absence from the ballroom with these performances gave a new generation of dancers the opportunity to shine. With them returning to the Savoy between engagements, jealousies and rivalries soon developed between different groups.  So this was bound to happen between Shorty George and his friends and newer upstarts such as Manning, Norma and their crew. These situations were often played out in formal competitions between groups.

It was at one such competition that one of the first air steps were performed.

 One night Shorty Snowden had a conversation with Whitey, saying the audience preferred his group over the new kids on the block.  He gave 2 weeks for a contest since he was going out of town, and told Whitey to pick 3 of his best teams for the showdown.

Frankie said there was some hesitation when Whitey mentioned it to them, but he told them it was all in fun.  Then Whitey picked 3 teams: Lucille Middleton and Jerome Williams, Mildred Cruise and Billy Williams, and Frieda Washington and his boy Frankie.

Determined to out-do rival dancers, Frankie Manning devised the Over the Back air step for the competition.  This would serve two purposes: First resolve the tit for tat between Snowden and Manning's dancers. Second it would top Shorty George’s and his partner Big Bea’s famous show stopper trademark move.  They often finished dances with Big Bea picking Shorty George up on her back and carrying him off the floor while he kicked his feet in the air.

Frankie and Frieda lived next door to each other, and to keep this a secret and a surprise they rehearsed at Frankie’s house rather then the Savoy.  They practiced with a mattress on the floor, figuring out Frankie’s dream step and trying not to get hurt!  Different maneuvers were experimented with to get into the step without breaking the rhythm of the music.  Recall they had two weeks to master this...

Finally the Saturday came and all the teams competed.  Shorty and Big Bea went on before Frankie went, making him and Frieda the last couple of the night.  Those two danced their butts off, making Frankie nervous, thinking he could never top that dancing!  But with Chick Webb behind him driving the music, they made a go for it.

Frankie tells how it ended for him and his partner:

It was coming down to the end of our turn, so I said (to Frieda), “You ready to do the step?” “Yeah, let’s do it.” I swung her out and did a jump turn over her head… Then I jumped so we were back to back and flipped her.  And when she hit the floor right on the beat… “BOOMP!

The crowd had been clapping in time with the music and yelling, “Go Musclehead!” (my nickname), but when Frieda landed, for one second, it seemed like everyone in the audience caught their breath.  Their mouths opened, but no sound came out. It was as if people weren’t sure they had really seen what they’d seen, like they were trying to figure out what we had just done. They were awestruck. Then all of a sudden, the house erupted! Everyone jumped up and started stomping, clapping, hollering, and grabbing each other saying, “Did you see that?” “What the heck did he just do?” “He threw that girl over his head!” Folks were just carrying on. It was turmoil!
Frankie Manning

Need we say who won? The “Over the Back” not only won Manning and Washington the competition, but saw the beginning of Lindy Hop's most famous family of steps!  Even Shorty Snowden was impressed, having come to find out his step influenced Frankie to a new level of dancing.

Innovations: Twists, Stops and more!


Scenes from 1938 Carnival of Swing concert on Randall’s Island, NY. It is considered the first outdoor jazz festival.

Are these legit? They’re amazing. 
At this point everyone wanted to know the step, and Frankie was willing to share if they showed up at the Savoy.  The contest moved Frankie to try new things, searching for that new exciting step and improvisation.  AND Excitement!
The Follower’s begin twisting:  One day, Whitey and Frankie were sitting alongside the Savoy dance floor when Twist Mouth George came over with Edith Matthews, asking them to watch.  He swung Edith out about three or four times, and instead of doing the rock steps she twisted each time.  Whitey knew he was very good at copying people… so he watched intently.  When they left, Whitey swung him out and he copied what he saw Edith do. Then they started showing it to the other girls, and they added their own little touches and began advancing it.
·   Stops

This idea came to Frankie while dancing to “For Dancers Only” by Jimmy Lunceford. When the music stopped within the song so did Frankie.  Later he suggested to Whitey they do an ensemble and everyone do the same steps - and then stop even when the music didn’t.  It worked well and these combinations became known as “The Stops”.  When the group performed the routine at the Cotton Club it stopped the show, so much so they were banned for topping the Cotton Clubs scheduled acts!

Here is Lindy Hop Legend and Harvest Moon Ball Champion Sugar Sullivan (you'll learn more about her later)  showing us how to do the second stops

·         Synchronized ensemble dancing  

The Stops started it, and eventually these combinations and prearranged routines helped make Lindy Hop suitable for the theater.  It was an important step in the evolution of the dance, and soon bookings came - as Whitey anticipated- for his Lindy Hoppers.

Here is a great modern day example of this -


  •         BREAKS

Breaks come after an eight-measure phrase of music.  For Frankie a Lindy break was often a time for improvisation.  “You break the flow of the movement and do something different… in the old days we never even had a name for this.  We just danced.” he says.  Spontaneous movements and gyrations – and more – were bound to come out of this to make Lindy Hop more fun to dance and watch!

This was influenced no doubt by Shorty George Snowden and what he did in the Manhattan Casino dance marathon in 1928. - later named "the break away" .

·         SLOW MOTION

The concept became popular after Frankie did the technique publicly at a rival dance against Harry Rosenberg at the world famous Apollo Theater.  This was in 1936, and Frankie admits this white boy was a great dancer!  This move to win the audience over was done to 16 bars of music (after some furious dancing and swing outs), and floored all when they first saw it.  Where did Frankie get the notion to do this?  At the Apollo Theater!  There was a comedy team under flickering strobe lights, making it appear they were moving very slowly… and he copied it.  BUT with no lights!

“The next time I was at the Savoy" says Frankie "I told my partner that after I swing her out a couple of times, we were going to start to move in slow motion… people who were watching said 'Wow!”’  This maneuver was also incorporated in Frankie’s version of the Big Apple.

Here below, despite the fast dancing at The Harvest Moon Ball, you will see some couples doing this maneuver - so take another good look...

0riginality?  0r just plain STEALING?! 

Animated thief running with a pile of money

All the guys and girls who embellished Lindy Hop all had something special, developing a trademark move or two.  However no one patented steps!  So was there “borrowing” and shall we say stealing?  
YES – even Frankie admits he stole and stayed stealing for the rest of his life!  But some steps just couldn’t be copied. For instance, Al Minns and his "rubber" or "crazy" legs… it made him so distinct. Really all of them learned and improvised and came up with something so unique it was attached to them; Frankie in his book "Ambassador to Lindy Hop" talks of some others - 

  • Joyce and Joe Daniels  developed a swing-out that became known as "the submarine" 
  • Eunice Callen had a very lowdown funky twist... almost to a sitting position
  • Tops and Wilda had a "wrap-around" that he executed...  and then continues to wrap his partner around him a couple of times
  • Snookie Beasley's specialty step was called "the lock" where he twisted his legs like a pretzel around each other
  • Billy Ricker and Esther Washington devised a routine that Frankie christened "Mutiny" where Billy seemed to be throwing and flipping his partner everywhere!

These differences added to the excitement of the dance.  It also enabled Whitey being able to manage and have various groups working simultaneously spreading the dance nationally and internationally with varying excitement and vigor!

The 400 Club

In 1927, the "400" Club starts at the Savoy.  It was created by the Savoy management to boost 400 people in membership.  This particular number is traced to 400 guests being said to be the “perfect number” to fill a ballroom.  Eventually live radio broadcast were made from the Savoy called “The 400 Club” because Tuesday nights became very popular.

Tuesday nights were not busy at the ballroom initially, so it became a hangout for a group of regulars.  Thus enter the Savoy 400 club, a social club formed that included informal contests. In addition to getting a reduced admission on Tuesday eves you could purchase a Jacket.  Norma Miller said they were yellow and green corduroy jackets with “400 Club” on the back.  There were a number of dance clubs one could become a member of:  Lindy Hop Club, the 400 Club, or the Old Timers Club.  Frankie was invited to join the elite 400 Club, whose members could also come to the Savoy Ballroom during daytime hours to practice alongside the bands that were booked there. 

              A Son and a Father’s prized Jacket 

This incredible original jacket from back in the day belongs to Rudy Winter's father Rudy Winter Sr.   Rudy Sr. was a member of the Savoy Ballroom elite 400 club as this jacket proves. He mostly did recreational dancing and also some competing.  Also he taught his son how to dance a bit. Sadly Rudy Sr. passed away when Rudy Jr. was 4.
This prized jacket has been kept in remarkable condition, and was showcased recently at a 2013 Swing Dance in Harlem with The Harlem Swing Dance Society (THSDS).  During the Frankie 100 Celebration THSDS hopes it can be showcased for visitors and Harlemites to marvel at.  

Rudy’s family story reflects the spirit of the Savoy Ballroom, as was brought out in Part 2 of this series:
“A beautiful ballroom was made even 

more beautiful with no segregation”

The  BIG Apple 

In 1936, three white students from the University of South Carolina heard the music coming from the juke joint as they were driving by.  They had to pay twenty five cents each and they had to sit in the balcony!  But during the next few months the white students brought more friends to the night club to watch the black dancers.

The white dancers eventually called the dance the black dancers did the "Big Apple", after the night club where they first saw it.

Rise in popularity (1937-1938)

howtodancethebigapple    The Big Apple Dance, circa 1937.

During the summer of 1937 these students started dancing the Big Apple in Myrtle Beach. The news of the new dance craze spread to New York, and a talent agent Gae Foster traveled to the Carolinas to audition dancers for a show at the Roxy Theater.  Eventually the Big Apple was performed during a three-week engagement that began on September 3rd.  These were six shows a day to sold-out audiences, and this greatly contributed to the dance's popularity.  Even Arthur Murray with his dance studios incorporated the Big Apple into his swing dance syllabus!     

Here is a rare peek at the 1937 version... a little lengthy but they eventually get to it :>)

Enter Frankie’s Influence


In the fall of 1937, four couples from Whitey's Lindy Hoppers traveled Hollywood to perform a Lindy Hop movie sequence. Soon after arriving in California, "Whitey" sent a telegram to Frankie about the new dance craze in New York City called the Big Apple. Manning had never seen the dance before but based on the description of the dance in the telegram, he choreographed a Big Apple routine for the group. The dance was based on combining jazz steps that the Lindy hoppers were already familiar with: Truckin', the Suzie-Q, and Boogies.  So the group easily learned the new steps.

When they returned to Harlem, Manning taught his Big Apple version to other dancers before ever having seen the version done by the Big Apple dancers at the Roxy. Whitey's Lindy Hoppers would dance the Big Apple mixed with Lindy Hop at the Savoy Ballroom to rousing excitement until interest in the dance died out.  Later in 1939, the group performed a Big Apple sequence for the movie Keep Punching.


A Day at the Races 1937


A Day at the Races (1937) was the seventh film starring the three Marx Brothers: Groucho, Harpo, and Chico. Like their previous films this was a major hit.

The film was finished, “in the can”, when someone saw the Lindy Hoppers performing at the Paramount Theater with Ethel Waters in California (in 1936).  It was then decided that a Lindy Hop sequence would be added to the film.  It is one of the best dance sequences ever to be filmed with close ups of faces and feet, long shots, great edits and various other angles.

Released in 1937 it had the dance sequence set to the tune of "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm" (featuring Ivie Anderson from Duke Ellington's orchestra).  Whitey's Lindy Hoppers included here are Willamae Ricker, Snookie Beasley, Ella Gibson, George Greenidge, Dot Miller, Johnny Innis, Norma Miller and Leon James. Whitey himself got in this one, and can be seen on the sidelines: He is identifiable by that streak of white in his hair!

The dance sequence was nominated for the short-lived Academy Award for Best Dance Direction

                    Carnival of Swing - 1938 

Some have called this  concert and it's music 
 “The Best Jazz You’ll Never Hear… 

And its questionable in our lifetime
 if these words will hold true.
Back in the 1930s and ’40s, a jazz musician and technological wiz named William Savory found a way to record more than one thousand live performances of jazz music’s all-time greats. The National Jazz Museum in Harlem acquired the cache six years after Savory’s death, and the world soon learned the extent of the collection.

 The 1938 Carnival of Swing on Randall’s Island in New York City:  Among the treasures is The Count Basie Orchestra performing at the world’s first outdoor jazz festival.  This  collection is, in a word, historic. The event was held May 29th, and it drew close to 24,000 persons - and featured 25 Orchestras!  Royalty was there: In addition Duke Ellington and the following artists performed: Chick Webb, Artie Shaw, Hal Kemp, Bunny Berigan, Kay Kaiser, Count Basie, the Andrew Sisters, and more.  

An eye witness there noted:  "Benny Goodman was scheduled to appear but had to bow out at the last minute. Duke's portion of the program was a preview of what would occur at the Newport Jazz Festival almost twenty years later… high-pitched frenzy continued as Ivie Anderson mounted the stage to swing into St. Louis Blues and the band blew and Ivie sang chorus after chorus for almost ten minutes…

This all reportedly lasted five hours and forty-five minutes, and was attended by assorted “jitterbugs”… meaning Lindy Hoppers and Swing Dancers!  The New York Times described the audience as “Young and old, rich and poor. They were all races, all colors, all walks of life" and were "vainly bucking the lines of police and park officers who were sworn to protect the swing maestros from destruction by adulation".

The newsreel clip here captures all the heart of that historical concert and dancing – musical integration in the making!

Big Band Music Soars

“Harlem was the birth place of Swing and the Savoy was its incubator…  It was an important step for a band to play the Savoy, because he Savoy bestowed upon them the medal of Swing… The music inspired the dancers, and the dancers inspired the music”

Norma Miller

There are many names in the music of the Big Band Swing era: Ellington, Goodman, Basie, Dorsey, Armstrong, Lunceford, Hampton, Miller - just to name a few.  They are readily recognizable, with their information easily accessible. 

But there was one man in those golden years that seemed to touch them all… one that most Lindy Hoppers and Swing Dancers already know very well but still don’t know well enough.

                            Eddie Durham
Eddie Durham

EDDIE DURHAM (1906-1987) from San Marcos, Texas... notably first with WALTER PAGE'S OKLAHOMA BLUE DEVILS and next, THE BENNIE MOTEN ORCHESTRA. He codified the Kansas City swing era into an organized dancing culture, as a new idiom to Jazz - literally "swinging the blues".  His contribution and legacy is critical in the big band/swing music songbook. 

He wrote, translated, charted, arranged and co-wrote many seminal 1930's musical arrangements, including One O'Clock Jump, Swinging the Blues, Moten's Swing, Jumpin At The Woodside, Sent For You Yesterday (Here You Come Today), Every Tub, Lafayette, and Good Morning Blues.

Only about 5 big bands were untouched by the talents of Eddie Durham He created the template (of charts and of stage movements for the brass sections) for the IDIOM of "SWING" with one classic after another. His customized 1930's-1940's Swing Arrangements, Hits & Brass Section showmanship, brought many Bandleaders to competitive FAME.

Eddie Durham’s arrangement of the Big Band Swing Dance era anthem “In the Mood” for Glenn Miller would garnish him a Grammy award!  here is a rare video clip of Eddie Durham playing with The Harlem Blues and Jazz Band in Germany in 1981

Eddie Durham’s Legacy lives on – thru his children


Topsy Durham is one of the 5 children of Eddie Durham. Several of them are dedicated to keeping their Fathers contributions and legacy alive to the world of Blues and JAZZ/ Lindy Hop/Swing/Big band era of music and dancing.  “Many swing and jazz enthusiasts already know Eddie Durham's compositions and arrangements. My father wrote & arranged the seminal big hit numbers and choreographed the brass sections for big bands such as Lunceford, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, and Bill Count Basie whom he brought into the Bennie Moten Orchestra, to name a few”.  Hits like Wham (Re-Bop-Boom-Bam!), Lunceford's Special, John's Idea, Glenn Island Special, Sliphorn Jive, Blues In The Groove and more… 

Eddie Durham was Grand Marshall for the Harlem Week Parade back in 1986  just before he passed.  And that's his song "TOPSY" used in the cantina scene of the original Star Wars!  

“All of the dance pioneers of Lindy Hop from the ‘30’s in Harlem (and in later years thru Mama Lu Parks and her dancers) up to today's resurgence, love the charts he wrote for these bandleaders.   They love Miller’s IN THE MOOD, arranged by my dad…  He said he wanted to make Blues danceable", Topsy proudly notes.

 “Topsy” and brother Eric maintain the website in honor of their father with fastidious loving care. From Durham’s beginnings to his post-retirement comeback (spurred by DJ Phil Schaap's West End Cafe Sessions in Harlem) visitors can read about Durham’s life.  Peruse photos, find links to other sources… even enjoy an interview of Eddie in a documentary short featuring Dan Morgenstern, Loren Schoenberg and Vince Giordano.  This website is an essential resource and tribute to their father’s legacy to “Swing the Blues” for dancers of those times and future ones. See, and for complete song list at

Band Battles at  the  Savoy  

Popular in the 1930s and 1940s, the Big Band Battles are playoffs to see which of two or more competing bands can be the first to drive an audience crazy!  With the Savoy Ballroom having two bandstands this was the perfect spot…

When it came to battles one man ruled in the Savoy: 
Small in stature but Giant with talent   



   Another colorized shot depicting Chick in 1938 with his vocal “discovery”—a then-teenaged Ella Fitzgerald.

His name was Chick Webb. He was black and crippled, and as a child he sold newspapers on the streets of East Baltimore. To while away the time, he played at being a jazz drummer, using the bottoms of overturned garbage cans for his drums. Webb was born in Baltimore, Maryland. From childhood he suffered from tuberculosis of the spine, leaving him with short stature and a badly deformed spine (this was why he was always seemed hunchbacked). The idea of playing an instrument was suggested by his doctor to "loosen up" his bones.  He first played professionally at age 11.

At 16, he ran away to New York to try his luck.  At 17, he was leading his own band. By the age of 18, Webb was known as the "King of the Drums."  Chick was mentored by Duke Ellington, toured with Louis Armstrong, argued with Jelly Roll Morton and jammed with Artie Shaw. He began leading a quintet called the Harlem Stoppers who performed in theaters in Harlem, where swing music fueled the blaze of the Harlem Renaissance. In the late 1920s, the group expanded into a full big band called the Chick Webb Orchestra, and frequently headlined at the Savoy Ballroom.  Webb’s band, pitted against other top big bands in good-natured “battles,” often came out as the winner (though he did lose to Ellington). 

In 1935 he began featuring a teenaged Ella Fitzgerald (aged 17) as vocalist. Together Chick and Ella would electrify the Swing era of jazz with hits such as "A-Tisket a Tasket", which stayed #1 for 19 weeks!  Within his band was “The Father of Rhythm –n- Blues:  Pioneer Louis Jordan, whom Chick fired (for trying to steal away Ella); Webb encouraged a struggling Dizzy Gillespie, and also helmed the first Black band to host a national radio show. 

This was all before drumming himself to death at age 30.  After his death Ella led the Chick Webb band until she left to focus on her solo career in 1942 and caused the band to disband.

Before he died in 1939, Webb's band was sitting close to the top of the list of big bands, and he was recognized as one of the great jazz drummers of all time. He built the hottest Swing orchestra of the 1930's - the "house band" of The Savoy Ballroom -  and in time he had the title “The Savoy King”.  In 2012 the film documentary was made The Savoy King: Chick Webb & The Music That Changed America to honor and remember the Swing era’s iconic drummer’s remarkable talents and fortitude.

Chick was Frankie’s favorite, and Chick always had the number one bandstand when he played the Savoy.  In Frankie’s words “”He had a bigger orchestra that swung more than the others… people were just out there swinging and swaying with the rhythm.  It was such a wonderful experience…”


There would be many Band Battles at the Savoy Ballroom… 

But two in particular stand out as the definitive benchmarks

        Webb  vs Goodman  1937


It was on the night of May 11, 1937 in the famous Savoy Ballroom that the little drummer from Baltimore – Harlem’s King of Swing - was in a battle with the popular mainstream’s "King of Swing" Benny Goodman. Goodman's drummer going one-on-one against Webb was the formidable Gene Krupa.   Hours before the scheduled battle, the police had thrown a cordon around the stage!  New York riot patrolmen were ready – even if  just in case the 4,000 to 5,000 people outside got out of hand…

According to a jazz historian "Benny's band played first and made a great impression. But then the Webb boys got into it. They blew the roof off the Savoy! The crowd screamed and whistled with delirium. The Webb band easily toppled Goodman's that night." 

Frankie Manning felt the same: “In my opinion Chick Webb outswung Benny Goodman”.  

As a result Webb was deemed the most worthy recipient to be crowned the first "King of Swing” (but history testifies how that went down).  With two to three thousand persons inside (the number 5,000 is exaggerated) and everybody swinging some thought the floor was going to collapse at one point!

Webb  vs  Basie  1938

William Count Basie took his "up and coming" bluesy big band into the Savoy Ballroom on January 16th, 1938 for a band battle – another HOT classic Harlem jazz night.  Interestingly so, because Count and his cats had just come from playing at Carnegie Hall: This late night gig would be after playing with Benny Goodman’s band on his historic night in midtown.

But look at this line up Chick Webb, Ella Fitzgerald, 
Count Basie, Billie Holliday, and Jimmy Rushing... 

How could it not have been a
 Night of HOT JAZZ and Swing?!

In her book "Swingin' At The Savoy; The Memoir Of A Jazz Dancer" Norma Miller recalls what made the night even spicier: A rift between Whitey and Chick Webb. This occurred when a conversation between dancers discussing the incoming Basie band was overheard and mis-communicated to Webb.

"When he (Webb) heard it, it sounded like the kids were saying he didn't have it anymore… he responded in typical Chick Webb fashion "I don't give a good G%$#^% what those raggedy Lindy Hoppers think or say. Who needs 'em? As far as I'm concerned they can all go to h#$%. And their Mammies too."

"The surprise came later that night.  As we entered the ballroom, Whitey met us and told us when Chick got on the bandstand, all dancers were to leave the floor."

Newspaper writers sent to cover this special event, unaware of the "behind the scenes" rift, would have undoubtedly taken note of the Savoy Lindy Hoppers leaving the floor.  So its understandable how the Basie big band would have been perceived as a favorite of the Swing dancers at the Savoy Ballroom on this night.  In Frankie’s words “As far as I was concerned Basie won.  It’s the only time anyone ever blew Chick Webb off the bandstand.” He would know – by 1937 he and a few other Lindy Hoppers had become “Basie-ites, feeling Count’s band swung better than any other band out there.  SSSssshhhhhhh…

We weren’t there, so we take Norma and Frankie's words for it , huh? YES and there is classic footage around to hear them speaking fondly of these days together...

           Special Note 
                                        Ken Burns'  JAZZ   

Jazz was a 2000 documentary miniseries, directed by Ken Burns. It was broadcast on PBS in 2001, and was released on DVD and VHS in January 2, 2001 later that year by the same company. Its chronological and thematic episodes provided a history of the jazz emphasizing innovative composers and musicians and American historySwing musicians Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington are the central figures, but others get their recognition. 

Within the series they married the music to the dance, fully recognizing the Savoy Ballroom, the Renaissance Ballroom and others with their true contributions.  Harlem's famed Lindy Hop fed the musicians with energy, and they responded to the Lindy Hoppers in kind.  This needed and necessary exchange is sorely missed at jazz concerts today...  unless you go to see a band at a Lindy Hop event or a Swing Dance.  

We encourage you to see this fantastic series, and this is where you'll hear and see how Frankie and Norma were able to comment firsthand on the historic jazz,  band battles and more that they witnessed in the Savoy!

1939: The New York City World’s Fair

In 1935, at the height of the Great Depression, a group of New York City businessmen decided to create an international exposition to lift the city and the country out of depression. Not long after, these men formed the New York World's Fair Corporation, whose office was placed on one of the higher floors in the Empire State Building.

The 1939–40 New York World's Fair, which covered 1,216 acres of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens, was the second largest American world's fair of all time. Many countries around the world participated in it, and over 44 million people attended its exhibits in two seasons. The NYWF of 1939–40 was the first exposition to be based on the future, with an opening slogan of "Dawn of a New Day": This allowed all visitors to take a look at "the world of tomorrow".  On April 30th the fair had its grand opening with pomp and great celebration – and with 206,000 people in attendance.

A fairgoer and New Yorker newspaper chronicler had a hard time finding them (it was night time), saying “it was far along in the Amusement Area”.  Feeling he virtually stumbled upon it, it was “the only large African-American concession at the fair, featuring all Negro personnel, musicians and dancers… plus informal dancing outsider the tent.”

Daytime footage survives of the humungous replica of the Savoy Ballroom! Nicknamed the “Temple of the Jitterbug” (more on that word later) was the $100,000 Savoy Ballroom Theater featuring the dances of the day and “tomorrow”.  So goes the description, along with the building being for “Lovers of the Big Apple, the Lindy Hop, the Shag and other dances made popular by Harlem”. Erskine Hawkins played at the “inauguration”.  Folks were to dash to this portion of the ‘39 World’s Fair, where “ a troupe of 25 to 30 entertainers will stage a new show every 15 minutes day and night”.

Lord Have Mercy: Reading Norma Miller’s account of what went on you’d think it was closer to modern slavery.  “The work schedule was brutal… we ended up doing near hour shows… they ran from 12 to midnight during the week and till 2 am on the weekends”!  There was only one group of the dancers – and this was projected to go on for 6 months.  It was anything but a palace on the inside, “tacky” in Norma’s words.  No dance floor, plain benches, barely a stage… and it was cold and gloomy…

As for Frankie Manning, was he in the mix?  YES: He survived one day and called it quits!

Despite the work haul this was a great exposure for NYC and the world: Harlem’s dance inspiration and Home of Happy Feet were given a showcase that had not happened in any World’s Fair before or since.  Norma stated that business wasn’t bad during the day but it was better at night.  So despite the initial disappointment and the interior they carried on to enthusiastic audiences.  A Lindy Hop contest was held there on May 21st, and the word becoming common to describe the dancers “jitterbug” was used…

While the publicity and accolades were great, the dancers however started to get injuries – an ambulance had to come over one evening.  A doctor’s advice was that the schedule was too grueling and stressful.  So while the money was good and welcome the exhibit ran for only 3 months.  Yet it made history as being the first dance featured on a new invention called television, which was also introduced at the fair as a major phenomenon.  Harlem roots were going to be making a world impact with Lindy Hop – how fitting!  And there was something else on the horizon for Whitey’s troupe

              The Hot Mikado

This play came to the fair and was based on an operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan, and the swinging version was met with rave reviews!  The show is set in Japan in the 1940s, with suggested settings and costuming combining Japanese design with American 1940s design. The set used Japanese architecture, brought in the textures of The Cotton Club (neon, brass, mahogany), and the costumes included zoot suits, snoods, wedgies and felt hats along with colorful silk kimono textures of Japan! The Hot Mikado was described as “jazzier than The Swing Mikado and had a ‘full-voiced, star-studded cast to back up its sass’”.

The musical was then produced at the 1939–1940 New York World's Fair for two seasons and was reportedly one of the most popular attractions at the fair. The show was produced on a large scale there, employing 150 actors.

Much of Sullivan's original music but is re-orchestrated using 1940s popular musical harmonies and arrangements and a wide range of styles, including jazz, hot gospel, blues, rock, Cab Calloway swing, and torch songs. The 'Three Little Maids' characters sang in Andrews Sisters' style! The dances included the Lindy Hop, tap-dancing, the jitterbug and other 1940s dance styles…

Again some footage has survived with a few clips of some hot dancing!  


Whitey's Lindy Hoppers took on many different forms, with up to 12 different groups performing under this name or one of a number of different names over the years (including Whitey's Hopping Maniacs, Harlem Congaroo Dancers, and The Hot Chocolates). Being based in New York it was only a matter of time that Broadway got wind of them and wanted to have a piece of the action.  The group would eventually appear in quite a few Broadway productions.


                     Swinging the DREAM

Swinging the Dream was a jazz adaptation of another theatrical work – this time by Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”.  Set in New Orleans in the 1890’s it featured giants of jazz Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Fletcher Henderson and Charlie Christian.  Twenty four Lindy Hoppers were in the show and part of three numbers (called Whitey’s Jitterbugs.  One number included the Dandridge Sisters with a teenaged Dorothy (future film icon).

The show opened in November 1939: It wasn’t a big hit, and only lasted two weeks (13 performances).  But again it gave Harlem’s Lindy Hoppers another chance to bring Harlem’s exciting dance downtown to a different crowd.  And proved the popularity of Lindy Hop…  and Swing.


                Hellzapoppin' - the Play

Rehearsals began right after Swinging the Dream closed, and the show was to start in Boston and then head to New York.  A comedy hodgepodge full of sight gags and slapstick, the show was continually rewritten throughout its run to remain topical; the sketches were described as a "smorgasbord of explode-the-fourth-wall nuttiness...comedy songs, skits…”  Kind of like a “your show of Shows”… or “Saturday Night Live”…

It didn’t get good reviews either, and the first cut to keep the show going was the Lindy Hoppers.  The show in various carnations somehow survived ran 1,404 performances over 2 years in various places.  No sweat to the dancers, according to Norma – they returned to the Savoy when they were booted!

Five years - and what a HOT 5! 

The explosion was just starting:  Frankie Manning, Norma Miller and the rest of the crew were making inroads and establishing milestones for future generations!    With the Savoy ballroom being the main hub Harlem's dance and it's premiere Lindy Hoppers dancing up the storm  all over the world only more history and excitement could be on the way.

Interestingly, despite Lindy Hop’s acceptance and enthusiastic feedback to the Lindy Hoppers creative dance antics and professionalism, certain dance instructors of the day attacked the Lindy Hop - as late as 1939.  It was banned from dance studios, and called a “street dance” with a negative connotation.  This was all an act of segregation: Wars and words of class, race and culture.

But  we can honestly conclude Arthur Murray was no fool - he knew how to make do with a situation (and make $$$$)! 

This Hollywood short matches the jubilation that was going on in the ballrooms of Harlem and all over the place!  Note the Jazz, Lindy Hop, Swing, Tap and Big Apple moves mingled in with good old fun - 

Thank goodness that the Savoy Ballroom was in Harlem and was around for many to ignore the "status quo" of separating the races!  As Frankie Manning mentions in his memoirs they didn't care who you were  or what color - but can you dance...

However there were organizations such as Dancing Masters of America and others that still had an ax to grind, attacking any dances that were “jumping” or used athletic steps.  They used who and what they could to make waves... 
but Lindy Hop continued and persevered. 

We’ll talk about some more battles of a different sort  
and more in our next installment:  

The changes, the challenges... and the glory...

Contributor: Barbara A. Jones


Part 4 - coming up!

For further Reading and Research

Frankie Manning quotes are from “Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop”, by Frankie Manning and Cynthia R. Millman.  Temple University Press, 2007

Norma Miller quotes are from “Swinging at the Savoy: The Memoir of a Jazz Dancer”, by Norma Miller and Evette Jensen. Temple University Press, 2001

"Jump for JoyJazz, Basketball, and Black Culture in 1930s America", by Gena Caponi-Tabery.  University of Massachusetts Press, 2008

  "Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African American Culture between the World Wars", By Joel Dinerstein. University of Massachusetts Press, 2003 

To learn about the May 2014, The 5 Day Frankie Manning Centennial Festival and World Lindy Hop Day in Harlem please go to

The Harlem Swing Dance Society (THSDS) is selling tickets this special event: Thursday May 22nd the Opening Gala Night, which includes a show at the World Famous Apollo Theater and a Cast After Party Swing Dance at the historic Alhambra Ballroom!  Also the Final Grand Dance Ball on Monday May 26th at Terminal 5 in midtown

For dance lessons for Lindy Hop and Swing dance socially contact The Harlem Swing Dance Society (THSDS) at 
or call the hotline at 347 – 709 - 7022

Tuesday Swing Dance Classes at JPK Center in Harlem - No partner necessary!    Only $7 

The Harlem Swing Dance Society