Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Cab Calloway. Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Known as the "Hi De Ho" man, Cab Calloway was a legendary figure in American pop culture, immortalized in cartoons and caricatures. An energetic showman, gifted singer, talented actor and trendsetting fashion plate, Calloway also led one of the greatest bands of the Swing Era.
The middle-class Calloway family hoped that young Cabell would become a lawyer like his father. But Calloway, born in Rochester, N.Y., on Christmas Day in 1907, and raised primarily in Baltimore, Md., wanted to be an entertainer. Calloway did attend law school in Chicago, but the hours past sunset found him performing in local nightclubs.
In one of those clubs, he met trumpeter Louis Armstrong, who taught him to sing in the scat style. Calloway's oldest sister Blanche was also a professional singer, and she helped him land a stage role on the road with the Plantation Days revue in 1925.
Eventually, Calloway left law school to sing with a band called the Alabamians. While on the road, the group went head-to-head (and state vs. state) in a battle of the bands with a Midwestern ensemble called the Missourians. After the dust settled, the Missourians had won — Calloway later joined and then led the group.
In 1930, the Cotton Club emerged as a hip new night spot in Harlem, known for its lavish stage shows and talented musicians — notably Duke Ellington. Calloway's singing and showmanship captured the attention of the owner, and his band was hired to replace the Ellington band.
In 1931, Calloway and his manager, Irving Mills, put together a song that will forever be identified with Calloway: "Minnie the Moocher." The tune sold more than a million copies, and the group soon broke every existing record for all-black band audiences.
The success of "Minnie the Moocher" and the steady gig at the Cotton Club had Calloway's big band in constant demand. When racial segregation threatened the band's extensive touring schedule, Calloway used proceeds from the Cotton Club and "Minnie" royalties to travel lavishly by chartered train.
By the late 1930s, Calloway's band was one of the top-grossing acts in jazz, and had become a proving ground for young talents such as Dizzy Gillespie, Ben Webster, Cozy Cole, Chu Berry and Doc Cheatham. By the late '40s, however, Calloway's financial mismanagement and gambling caught up with him, and the band broke up.
Calloway went back to playing in small clubs and eventually landed a part in George Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess as the character Sportin' Life — a role which Calloway claimed Gershwin based on him. The show was a huge success, breathing much-needed life into Calloway's career.
Calloway's scat singing, dancing, comedic personality and flashy elegance had made him a star and a million-selling recording artist. He continued to perform right up until his death in 1994 at the age of 88.
Jazz historian Gunther Schuller sums up Calloway's brilliance as an entertainer: "People still remember Cab Calloway as a dancer and vaudevillian with his wonderful white tuxedos and all of that — and as a great, great showman."
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