In its heyday, swing music was tremendously popular in the United States. The style of music was an upbeat form of jazz that was perfect for dancing. Swing was typically played by big bands. In the 1930s and 1940s, couples packed clubs and halls across the country to dance to the upbeat tunes. Among the list of the era’s top talent was Speed Webb, a big band leader, drummer, and vocalist from Peru, Indiana, whose style of “symphonic swing” became hugely popular coast-to-coast.
Before he acquired the nickname “Speed,” the musician had been Lawrence to his friends and family. Webb was born on July 16, 1911, in Peru, Indiana, His parents had settled in the small town of Peru after leaving Memphis, Tennessee. Webb’s father worked for the Wabash Railroad.
A pitcher for his high school baseball team, Webb earned the nickname “Speed” for his fast throws. Speed had many interests, and his aptitude for learning made him a star student. At the urging of his music teacher, Webb began playing the violin in his high school orchestra. He later switched to marching band and took up the mellophone (similar to a French Horn).
While still in high school, a local doctor and funeral home director both took an interest in Webb and encouraged him to pursue a career in their fields of expertise. Webb eventually decided that he was more suited to embalming than doctoring, and enrolled in an undertaker program at the University of Illinois.
After graduating from college, Webb returned to Peru. In 1923, he started a two-man band with his friend, Darrell Rupert Harris. Harris played the keyboard, while Webb performed on the drums. The band disbanded soon after organizing, but Webb was hooked. Putting thoughts of opening a funeral home aside, Webb began to pursue more opportunities in music.
In the spring of 1925, Webb co-founded the Hoosier Melody Lads, a cooperative group of musicians banded together to perform jazz and swing. Webb served as the group’s drummer, as well as its director and businessman. The band got a summer gig playing swing at Forest Park in Toledo, Ohio. They began as a group of eight, but by the end of the summer had expanded to eleven. That fall, the band hired a booking agent and began a national tour.
By 1926, the group had achieved enough fame to be approached by Gannett Records about recording music under its label. While the band recorded several songs, no discs were ever issued, and it is believed that no copies of the songs exist today. That same year, Art Tatum (piano) and Ted Carpenter (trumpet) joined the group. Both would go on to become legends in their own right.
In late 1926, the Hoosier Melody Lads were given the opportunity to move to California to take on gigs in several popular dance venues, including Dancelands at Culver City and Pico, and Palm Gardens. The group eventually attracted the attention of an MGM scout, who signed them to appear in a silent film starring Florence Vidor and Ned Sparks. The group played a night club band. While there was no sound associated with the film, it still provided the band with a certain amount of fame. It is believed that the Hoosier Melody Lads were the first all-black band to be featured in a Hollywood film.
Eventually, MGM signed the band to play background music for six silent films. Between 1928 and 1929, they appeared in films such as Riley the Cop (1928), Sins of the Fathers (1928), His Captive Woman (1929), and On with the Show (1929). The group earned up to $1,600 a week for their film appearances, big money back in the 1920s.
Following the 1929 stock market crash, funds were tight and key members of the band chose to move back home. The band continued performing gigs for a while but eventually were forced to disband.
Undaunted, in 1930, Webb formed a new band under the name Hollywood Blue Devils. The group was based in Indianapolis, with regular gigs at some of the city’s most popular dance spots like Showboat and the Indiana Roof Ballroom. Like Webb’s earlier band, the new group specialized in a style of music they liked to call “symphonic swing.”
The new band was also loaded with top talent, performers that excelled at arranging, singing, and playing music. Through the years, Webb’s band hosted talented performers that included Leonard Gay (alto), Teddy Wilson (piano), Roy Eldridge (trumpet), Melvin Bowles (bass), and Vic Dickenson (trombonist).
Like the Hoosier Melody Lads, the Hollywood Blue Devils became a national sensation, with bookings across the country. The group was even selected as the backup band for a performance by singer Ethel Waters.
Eventually, the Hollywood Blue Devils broke up, and Webb worked with other groups including the Dixie Rhythm Kings, Jack Jackson’s Pullman Porters, and the Brown Buddies. In 1936, he signed a two-year contract with the Orchestra Service of America. By then, although swing music was still hugely popular, Webb had lost interest in the lifestyle of a performer. He retired from music and returned to his roots.
After leaving the music business, Webb went back to school and obtained a master’s degree in sanitary science, anatomy, and embalming. In 1940, he partnered with another undertaker to open the People’s Funeral Home in South Bend, Indiana. He later opened his own mortuary, Webb Chapel of Peace.
Webb also became active in civic affairs, even running for mayor in 1963. He wrote a column for the Indiana Herald newspaper and was a disc jockey for South Bend radio station WJVA (his on-air name was “the Spider Webb”). Webb died in 1994.
Although he was hugely famous in the late 1920s and the 1930s, Webb is largely unknown today. No records exist to provide us with a glimpse into the musical stylings of the Hoosier Melody Lads or Hollywood Blue Devils. All that remains of the remarkable musical career of Speed Webb and his bands are a few clips taken from the silent films that first helped propel Webb into fame.