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Photograph of jazz musicians on stage
Chick Webb and his band. December 27, 1937, p. 12 (Chronicling America/Library of Congress)

Chick and Satchmo on the Air

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Photograph of jazz musicians on stage
Chick Webb and his band. December 27, 1937, p. 12 (Chronicling America/Library of Congress)

 

The following is a guest post by David Sager, Recorded Sound Research Center, Library of Congress.

In recognition of Black History Month, the Recorded Sound Research Center offers a few tantalizing items regarding African Americans in broadcasting during the 1930s.

During the mid-1930s, Louis Armstrong and Chick Webb, two of the most important jazz musicians of the day, figured distinctively, if not prominently, on network radio. Chick Webb is best remembered as the person who brought Ella Fitzgerald into the public eye. He was regarded as a force of nature when it came to playing the drums, electrifying audiences at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom.

Webb and his band were the featured orchestra on an NBC program titled “Gems of Color,” which premiered on February 5, 1936, as a sustaining, or non-commercial, program. The others on that initial broadcast were Ella Fitzgerald, the Four Ink Spots, Cecil Mack Choir, and Hamtree Harrington. In 1937, the program was retitled “Good Time Society,” and featured actor Juano Hernandez. Webb’s band continued through the end of March of that year.

Unfortunately, the Library’s NBC Collection does not contain recordings of this program. However, we do hold a single index card in the NBC Collection Sustaining (Non-Commercial) program files, summarizing broadcast dates and performers.

However, as a consolation, there is a recording of a January 22, 1940 broadcast with Ella Fitzgerald fronting the Webb band, as Chick had died the previous June. Following that is a January 25 broadcast of Ella and the band at Chick’s stomping ground, the Savoy. Both Fitzgerald broadcasts are polite affairs, offering only a vague notion as to what Webb’s band sounded like in person.

In the spring of 1937, Louis Armstrong became the first African American to host a nationally broadcast weekly series, when he signed with Standard Brands to host a show advertising Fleischmann’s Yeast. With his band and a small cast of comics, Armstrong went on the air on April 9, 1937, continuing through June 25. The common belief is that Rudy Vallee, longtime host for the Fleischmann program, recommended Armstrong as his summer replacement while Vallee was visiting England. However, that is not quite how it played out. Vallee’s Thursday night program, heard over NBC’s Red Network, continued uninterrupted while Vallee was out of the country. In fact, Vallee himself hosted two episodes from England. Moreover, Vallee’s sponsor Standard Brands changed Vallee’s commercial from Fleischmann’s to Royal Gelatin. Enter Louis Armstrong, who then took up the mantle for Fleischmann’snot over the Red Network, but rather, NBC’s Blue Network.

Whereas the Library’s NBC Collection holds many of the Vallee Fleischmann and Royal programs, it has none of Armstrong’s broadcasts. Indeed, these are very rare. Fortunately, a number of episodes were discovered by the curators of the Louis Armstrong House and Museum.

It appears obvious that it was Vallee who helped cook up the deal with Fleischmann’s, as he was both a fan of and friend to Armstrong. To close the circle, on July 8, 1938, Armstrong appeared as a guest on Rudy Vallee’s program.

 For more information related to this blog or any Library of Congress holdings, please see Ask a Librarian, and if you plan to come in to view or listen to any collection items, please reach out to our reference staff in the Recorded Sound Research Center.

To learn more about the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) Collection at the Library of Congress, please consult The National Broadcasting Company at the Library of Congress Research Guide.

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