Ebb was born in Manhattan to a Jewish family, and worked during the early 1950s bronzing baby shoes, as a trucker's assistant, and was also employed in a department store credit office and at a hosiery company. In 1955, he graduated from New York University with a bachelor's degree in English Literature, and two years later, he earned his Master's from Columbia University.
His first professional writing experience was with Phil Springer, and the first song they wrote together ("I Never Loved Him Anyhow") was sung by Carmen McRae. Another song Ebb wrote with Springer was "Heartbroken" (1953), which was recorded by Judy Garland. Other Springer-Ebb tunes include "How Little We Know," "Moonlight Gambler" and "Nevertheless I Never Lost the Blues".
On his first theatrical writing job he did songs with Norman Martin for the revue Put It in Writing, directed by Christopher Hewitt. He also worked with composer Paul Klein in the late 1950s, contributing songs to the Broadway revue From A to Z. With Klein, Ebb wrote his first book musical, Morning Sun. Originally, Bob Fosse was attached as director. Fosse eventually withdrew from the project, and the show was unsuccessful.
Music publisher Tommy Valando introduced Ebb to Kander in 1962. After a few songs such as "My Coloring Book," Kander and Ebb wrote a stage musical, Golden Gate, that was never produced. However, the quality of the score convinced producer Harold Prince to hire them for their first professional production, the George Abbott-directed musical Flora the Red Menace,. Although it won star Liza Minnelli a Tony Award, the show closed quickly.
Their second collaboration, Cabaret, was considerably more successful, running for nearly three years. Directed by Prince and based on the John Van Druten play I Am a Camera (which, in turn, was based on the writing of Christopher Isherwood), the musical won eight of the 11 Tony Awards for which it was nominated, including Best Musical and Best Score. Adapted into a film by Bob Fosse, it won numerous Academy Awards.
Their next few works were less successful: The Happy Time, directed by Gower Champion, ran for less than a year. Zorba, directed by Prince, also ran less than a year, though it was more successful in its 1983 revival; and 70, Girls, 70, which was originally intended as an off-Broadway production, closed after 35 performances.
In 1972, he wrote the television special, Liza with a Z. In 1974, Kander, Ebb and Fosse, contributed to Liza concert, for Minnelli on Broadway. In 1975, the team wrote the score to Funny Lady, the sequel to Funny Girl. Chicago (1975) had mixed reviews but ran for more than two years.
Ebb wrote the book for Shirley MacLaine's Broadway solo revue in 1976. The following year, Kander and Ebb worked with Minnelli and Martin Scorsese twice: first, in the film New York, New York, which had them write what is perhaps their best-known song, the title track; and, again in The Act, a musical about a fictional nightclub act. It ran for under ten months. After contributing a song to Phyllis Newman's one woman musical, the team wrote Woman of the Year, which won the team their second Tony Award for Best Score.
The Rink (1984) teamed Kander and Ebb again with Minnelli and Rivera. Following the closure of the show after six months, Kander and Ebb would not produce new material, save for a song in Hay Fever in 1985, for nine years. In 1991, the revue And The World Goes 'Round opened off-Broadway. The team's musical adaptation of Kiss of the Spider Woman opened in 1993. Reunited with director Harold Prince, the show ran for more than two years and won them their third and last Tony Award for best score.
The team's last original work on Broadway opened in 1997. Steel Pier was nominated for 11 Tonys, it won none and closed after two months. In 1997, Ebb reworked lyrics to Richard Rodgers' melody for the television production of Cinderella.
The team also had two works produced outside New York. Over & Over, an adaptation of the Thornton Wilder play The Skin of Our Teeth, was performed at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia in 1999 and has been revamped for a 2007 staging by the Westport Country Playhouse under the title All of Us. The Visit was presented by the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
Despite the 'polymorphous perverse' nature of their shows, both Kander and Ebb have long been reticent about discussing their homosexuality, preferring to let the songs speak for themselves but in 2003, Kander (who has lived for 26 years with one man, a choreographer and teacher) implicitly addressed rumours concerning the nature of his non-professional relations with Ebb by describing the latter to interviewer Jeffrey Tallmer as 'his 40-year partner in creativity but never in domesticity, much less romance.'
Ebb died of a heart attack at his home in New York City. At its 2007 ceremony, the Drama Desk honored Kander & (the late) Ebb with a special award for "42 years of excellence in advancing the art of the musical theater."