Cab Calloway (1907-1994), blues and scat legend, entertained generations of people with his jazzy big band sounds. Even in his golden years, Calloway still traveled on the road and performed for his fans.
Cab Calloway was a famous singer and bandleader beginning in the lively era of the 1920s, and he remained active in music throughout his golden years. At an age when most people retire and rest on old laurels, Calloway kept a full schedule of touring with a band and singing his signature song, "Minnie the Moocher." Long ago dubbed the "Dean of American Jive," Calloway brought the joys of the jazzy big band sound to many generations, helping to preserve the very style he helped to create.
Calloway was born Cabell Calloway III, in Rochester, New York. When he was six his family moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where his father practiced law and sold real estate. Although young Cab enjoyed singing solos at the Bethlehem Methodist Episcopal Church, it was assumed that he would follow in his father's footsteps and study law. Cab had other ideas, however. His older sister had found work singing with a show in Chicago, and he appealed to her for advice. Her guidance was substantial—she sent him a train ticket, and when he arrived in Chicago, she set him up as a singer with a quartet. He was still in his teens.
Calloway has noted that his career began in 1925. By that time he had become a talented drummer and secured a position with the Sunset Cafe orchestra in Chicago. He did not hide behind a drum set for long. Within two years—or by his twentieth birthday—he had organized his own orchestra and was singing lead vocals again. The group, Cab Calloway and his Alabamians, became quite popular in Chicago and eventually took a booking at the Savoy Ballroom in New York City. That engagement did not go well, and Calloway dissolved the band. He was about to return to Chicago when he landed a part in a Broadway comedy, Connie's Hot Chocolates. The show was an all-black revue, and Calloway brought the house down with his rendition of "Ain't Misbehavin'."
Broadway manager Irving Mills encouraged Calloway to form another band, so the young musician gathered another orchestra and immediately found work in the well-attended Harlem speakeasies and nightclubs. In 1929 he was invited to fill in for Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club, and thereafter the two band leaders alternated engagements at the prestigious venue. It was during his years at the Cotton Club that Calloway developed his crisp, jazzy song-and-dance style, and it was there that he composed and debuted "Minnie the Moocher."
Calloway was one of the first performers to make deliberate use of scat singing—random use of nonsense syllables—in his act. As with so many others, he began scat singing when he forgot a song's lyrics. Audiences loved the sound, however, so he began to write tunes with scat choruses. "Minnie the Moocher," his best-known song, is one such composition. Its refrain—"hi de hi de hi de ho"— invites the audience to sing along in the old call-and-response style. Recordings of "Minnie the Moocher" have sold in the millions worldwide.
Calloway's fame soared in the 1930s and 1940s. He appeared in such films as International House and Stormy Weather, he helped to popularize the jitterbug with tunes like "Jumpin' Jive," "Reefer Man," "It Ain't Necessarily So," and "If This Isn't Love," and he even wrote a popular book, Hepster's Dictionary, which sold two million copies and ran into six editions. Although Calloway's is not always associated with the big band era, he actually fronted a fine ensemble during the period. His ability to pay top salaries attracted a group of brilliant musicians, including sax players Chu Berry, Ben Webster, and Hilton Jefferson; trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Jonah Jones; bassist Milt Hinton; and drummer Cozy Cole. In his book The Big Bands, George T. Simon noted: "the esprit de corps of the Calloway band was tremendous, and the great pride that the musicians possessed as individuals and as a group paid off handsomely in the music they created."
The years of World War II found Calloway entertaining troops in the United States and Canada. After the war he returned to club work and to the Broadway stage, most notably as Sportin' Life in the George Gershwin operetta Porgy and Bess. In the late 1960s he took another important Broadway role, that of Horace Vandergelder in the all-black version of Hello, Dolly! His work with Pearl Bailey in that show was the culmination of a long friendship—he had helped Bailey get a start in show business in 1945 by hiring her to help him with vocals. Even though he was 60 when he appeared in Hello, Dolly!, Calloway never missed a step in the strenuous show. In fact, he was just hitting his stride.
The energetic performer's career received an enormous boost when he was asked to star in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers. The movie, which also starred John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, gave Calloway the opportunity to perform "Minnie the Moocher" for an audience young enough to be his grandchildren—and, clad in a snazzy white zoot suit with tails, he made the number the highlight of the film. Critics who otherwise panned The Blues Brothers singled Calloway out for praise, and his popularity soared.
Into his 80s, Calloway stayed on the road most of the time, sometimes performing with his daughter Chris. Philadelphia Inquirer correspondent John Rogers observed that Calloway strutted around the stage "like some nimble tightrope walker." Rogers added: "[His] moves have slowed a bit since the '30s, a time when Calloway could have danced Michael Jackson or Mick Jagger into the ground. The hair is white and thinner now, the midsection thicker, and that classically handsome face lined and puffy after eight decades of full-throttle living. But every bit of his voice is still there—and every bit of the style and grace that made the legend."
In June of 1994 Calloway suffered a stroke and died that November. He was survived by his wife, Nuffie, whom he married in 1953. When once asked if he has any heroes in the music business, Calloway scoffed at the very idea. It is easy to undersand why he might not idolize Webster or Gillespie—he helped give them their start, along with other notables such as Pearl Bailey and Lena Horne. "I'll tell you who my heroes are," he said. "My heroes are the notes, man. The music itself. You understand what I'm saying? I love the music. The music is my hero."
Calloway, Cab, Of Minnie the Moocher and Me, Crowell, 1976.
Simon, George T., The Big Bands, Macmillan, 1967.
Simon, George T., Best of the Music Makers, Doubleday, 1979.
Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1994, p. A1.
New York Times, November 20, 1994, p. 59.
Philadelphia Inquirer, August 16, 1990.
Times (London), November 21, 1994, p. 21.
Washington Post, November 20, 1994, p. B5.