Duke Ellington vs Chick Webb: ‘We Tore Them Up, Man’


Sonny Greer

SKF NOTE: Sonny Greer was Duke Ellington‘s drummer 1924-1951 when he was replaced by Louis Bellson. This exchange about a Savoy Ballroom Battle of the Bands between the Duke Ellington and Chick Webb Orchestras is from my interview with Sonny Greer on March 4, 1981 at his New York home.

One source puts the date of this Battle as March 7, 1937.

Sonny Greer: Every week they would feature a guest band at the Savoy Ballroom. All the big bands would go up there. But Chick Webb’s band would cut them.

So, now it’s our turn to go up there. Millie [Sonny Greer’s wife] was up there. Chick had such strong men. He’d cut them all down. We played the Apollo Theater the week before we went up there to play against Chick.

So, man, everybody’s running out of the Apollo Theater saying, “Man, ain’t nobody ever cut the Duke, but Chick can do it ’cause they been rehearsing all week.”

So, Duke just laughed. Duke ain’t paid it no mind. We didn’t rehearse. We just played the show. We had enough to worry about there at the Apollo. We didn’t have time to rehearse no band.

Chick opened up. The place was packed and jammed. And they was saying that was Chick’s home-ground. Chick’s cats got a big ovation. We sit back and listened to it.

Duke ain’t never called no number. We went up there [onstage] and Duke played a little piano, just me and him ’til it go down to the last four bars, until he played the tonic and we knew what [song] he was going to play, see?

Man, we opened up with Rockin’ in Rhythm. Man, the people in the place stood up and cheered. People wouldn’t dance! The place was packed and jammed. They just stood around the bandstand.

That was the first number we played. And from then on — where Chick left off? — we kept going higher. Chick shook his head. “Why you got to play all that music when you’re up there?” The guy that booked us there said, “Chick, I guess you’d better play the waltzes now.”

Duke and I, we were crazy about Chick. He was crazy about Duke. Chick asked, “Duke, what’d you do that to me for?” Duke said, “Man, we’re just playing a gig. That’s all.” But we didn’t have long [before] we had to go back to the Cotton Club.

We tore them up, man!


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