Cab Calloway - Biography

By Stuart Kremsky


            Bandleader, vocalist, and incendiary performer Cab Calloway, known globally as “The Hi De Ho Man,” enjoyed a lengthy career as a unique entertainer beloved by generations of fans. As popular in his prime as Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong, this determined and uniquely talented front man was a star of stage, screen, radio and television, with an instantly recognizable image that never went out of style.


            Cab (Cabell) Calloway III was born on December 25, 1907, in Rochester, NY. His father was a lawyer, his mother a teacher and church organist. During his childhood, the family moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where the young Calloway had a variety of after school jobs. He sold newspapers, shined shoes, waited tables, and walked horses at the racetrack. That last job gave him a life-long love of horse racing, and in later years he quipped that "I figure my car could find the way from my house to Aqueduct without a driver." Calloway began vocal lessons at the age of 15 with a family friend (who forbade him to sing jazz), and continued to study voice in high school, where he also excelled in sports. "In high school I began to play drums and to sing with a small group and even do vaudeville with some kids from school," Cab later recalled for interviewer Christopher Papa in 1995. "And best of all, I found out that I could get paid for entertaining. I could do two of the things most important to me - at the same time make people happy and make money." Although his family had hopes of him becoming a lawyer like his father, by the time he graduated from high school, Calloway was set on becoming an entertainer.


            First it was the turn of his old older sister Blanche. She was working in Chicago in the show "Plantation Days," one of the earliest African-American revues. Blanche Calloway was also making records for OKeh and Vocalion, accompanied by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Vic Dickenson, and Ben Webster. She helped Cab get his start, bringing him into the revue as a replacement for an ailing singer in the summer of 1927. Using that experience as a springboard, he found work in clubs, building a reputation as a good singer, as well as a reliable and likeable emcee. One of his steady gigs was at the Sunset Café, and for six months, Calloway shared the stage five nights a week with Armstrong and the Carroll Dickerson band. Soon an offer came to become the leader of the Alabamians, an 11-piece outfit. Calloway’s singing and conducting perked the group up, and they became popular in Chicago. An attempt at further success in New York was dashed when it was quickly realized that they weren’t on the level of the Big Apple bands. They got their two week’s notice at the Savoy Ballroom the night they opened in October 1929.


            Discouraged, Calloway left the band, signing on for a tour in "Connie's Hot Chocolates." Irving Mills, music publisher, manager, and jazz entrepreneur, encouraged him to get back in front of a band, and put him in contact with a territory band called the Missourians. In an earlier incarnation as the Cotton Club Orchestra, the band had preceded the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s legendary 3-year stand at the club. As Gunther Schuller notes in his astute discussion of the Calloway organization in his book on The Swing Era, “under Calloway’s leadership, the band changed drastically...into primarily an accompanying vehicle for the leader’s novelty vocals, but at the same time it became increasingly jazz-oriented and professional...” With the band now renamed Cab Calloway and His Orchestra, Calloway made his first recordings on July 24, 1930 for the Brunswick label, “Gotta Darn Good Reason Now” and “St. Louis Blues.” They replaced the Ellington band at the Cotton Club when the Duke went on tour. Calloway’s public profile grew with the band’s weekly radio broadcasts. He was also featured on radio shows with Walter Winchell and Bing Crosby, breaking the color barrier then enforced by the broadcast networks.


            In 1931, Calloway and his band began their own residency at the Cotton Club. That March, he had a problem with a song he was performing. “I forgot the lyric to another song that I was doing and I put in skee-tee-tuh-bee and the hi-de-hos and it became very effective,” he told Papa. “And then I sat down and wrote 'Minnie the Moocher.'”  This became a massive hit, and Calloway was a star.


            Although the band was clearly organized around Calloway’s remarkable vocal prowess (he had incredible range and stamina), there were always plenty of chances for the musicians to solo. Calloway continued to mold the band by bringing in new musicians like pianist Benny Payne, trumpeter Doc Cheatham and reedman Eddie Barefield to join chief arranger and saxophonist Walter “Foots” Thomas. He told Papa that what he expected from the band members “was what I was selling: the right notes, with precision, because I would build a whole song around a scat or a dance step.” Hiring the best musicians he could find, paying them well, and treating them well with band uniforms and a private rail car were all strategies that paid off in a big way for Calloway. He knew, unlike some other bandleaders of the period, that working in front of potential stars and top-notch players made him look even better. It’s a measure of the band’s amazing popularity that they were able to keep recording so prolifically in 1931 and 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression.


            The band performed regularly at the Cotton Club in the Thirties, and also made road trips, playing dances and theaters. There was a European tour in 1934, which brought them to France, England, Holland, and Belgium. Since Calloway was such a flamboyant performer, in white tie and tails, dancing around the stage and gesticulating wildly with his baton, it was only natural that the orchestra appeared in numerous short films, known as soundies, precursors to music video. Calloway  appeared in several feature films as well as three Betty Boop cartoons, performing “Minnie the Moocher,”  “St. James Infirmary Blues”, and “The Old Man Of The Mountain.” Through the use of the rotoscope technique, Calloway not only supplied his voice to these cartoons but his dance steps as well.


            By the end of the Thirties, Calloway had transformed his orchestra from one of the foremost dance and show bands into a formidable jazz band. His outstanding crew included such greats as bassist Milt Hinton (who joined in 1936), tenor saxophonists Ben Webster (1936) and Leon “Chu” Berry (who replaced him in 1937), guitarist Danny Barker (1937), and drummer Cozy Cole (1938). “(Hep-Hep!) The Jumpin' Jive,” recorded in 1939 for Vocalion, sold over a million copies, the first and only of Calloway’s records to reach that mark. Part of Calloway’s appeal was surely his use of hipster slang in his run of songs about his characters and their stories, often with coded drug references. In 1938, Calloway capitalized on this aspect of his art with the first edition of Cab Calloway’s Hepster Dictionary: The Language of Jive. Calloway took the band in new directions toward the end of the decade and in the early Forties, hiring trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie, Mario Bauza, and Jonah Jones, and saxophonists Hilton Jefferson, Illinois Jacquet, and Ike Quebec. (Gillespie was later fired after an infamous incident involving a spit-ball that landed on stage in full view of the audience. Calloway and Gillespie came to blows about it; only later was it revealed that Jonah Jones had been the culprit.) In 1943, Calloway made an appearance in the high-profile film musical Stormy Weather, alongside Lena Horne, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Fats Waller, and the Nicholas Brothers dancing duo. The band continued to tour, often breaking house records. By the late Forties, though, the economics of keeping a big band together was too much even for Calloway. The group disbanded in 1948, and Calloway began to work with small groups drawn from the ranks of the orchestra. That only lasted a few years, and subsequently Calloway toured as a single artist, re-assembling an orchestra for special projects.


            When Calloway was a big star on stage at the Cotton Club, George Gershwin used his stage image to fashion the character Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess. So it was only natural that Calloway would play the role in a successful revival of the show, which included a world tour sponsored by the US State Department. Calloway never stopped  working in the Fifties and Sixties. He was ready for anything, as evidenced by his mid-Sixties gig spicing up the halftime show for Harlem Globetrotters basketball games. In 1967, Calloway took a role alongside Pearl Bailey in an all-black production of Hello Dolly ,which toured for three years. Other shows followed, including a Broadway production of The Pajama Game with Barbara McNair in 1973 and national tours in Bubbling Brown Sugar (1978) and Eubie (1982). Calloway’s autobiography, Of Minnie the Moocher and Me came out in 1976, and included the complete Hepsters Dictionary as an appendix. In 1978, he appeared on Sesame Street. Two years later, he got to do his act for a whole new generation, performing “Minnie the Moocher” in The Blues Brothers movie starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.  He appeared in several Eighties documentaries about the music of the Thirties and Forties. In 1984, he briefly took over the Count Basie Orchestra after Basie’s death. Calloway broke his hip in a fall in June, 1993, but recovered in time to receive the 1993 National Medal of Arts from President Clinton at a White House ceremony.


            Cab Calloway suffered a major stroke in June 1994 while watching a basketball game on television. He died on November 18th in Hockessin, Delaware with his family at his side. The Cab Calloway Orchestra, directed by Cab's grandson, C. Calloway Brooks, was formed in 1998 to honor and perpetuate Cab Calloway's legacy. In 2008, Cab Calloway won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Not well served on American labels aside from various greatest hits collections, the most comprehensive compilations are a series of CDs on the Classics label from Europe.


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