Jazz Profiles from NPR
Cab Calloway

Produced by Dan Gediman; Written by David Ossman

Cab Calloway  

Cab Calloway -- the legendary "Hi De Ho" man -- was a energetic showman, gifted singer, talented actor and trendsetting fashion plate. A truly "larger than life" figure in American pop culture, immortalized in cartoons and caricatures, Calloway also led one of the greatest bands of the Swing Era.

Listen to writer Albert Murray talk about the significance of Cab Calloway

The middle-class Calloway family hoped their son would become a lawyer like his father. But young Cabell, born in Rochester, New York, on Christmas Day in 1907, and raised primarily in Baltimore, Maryland, wanted to be an entertainer. Cab did attend law school in Chicago, but the hours past sunset found him performing in local nighclubs.

It was in such a club where 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, Cab 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 mid-west ensemble, the Missourians. After the dust settled, The Missourians had won -- Cab would later join and then lead the group.

Listen to bassist Milt Hinton and music scholar Gunther Schuller tell how Cab came to lead the Missourians

Duke Ellington  

In 1930, the Cotton Club emerged as a hip new club in Harlem known for its lavish stage shows and talented musicians like Duke Ellington (left). Cab's singing and showmanship captured the attention of the owner and his band was hired to replace the Ellington's band.

Listen to saxophonist and arranger Walter "Foots" Thomas talk about how the band got its big break at the Cotton Club

In 1931, Cab and his manager, Irvin Mills, put together a song that will forever be identified with Calloway -- "Minnie The Moocher." The tune sold over one million copies and the group soon broke every existing record for all-black band audiences.

Listen to saxophonist and arranger Walter "Foots" Thomas recall how "Minnie The Moocher" developed

The success of "Minnie the Moocher" and its steady gig at the Cotton Club had Cab's big band in constant demand. The group spent quite a bit of time on the road and when racism reared its ugly head Cab used proceeds from the Cotton Club and "Minnie" money to travel lavishly by chartered train.

Listen to Milt Hinton describe his travels with the Calloway Orchestra

By the late 1930s, Cab's band was one of the top grossing acts in jazz and had become a proving ground for such young talents as Dizzy Gillespie, Ben Webster, Cozy Cole, Chu Berry and Doc Cheatham. However, by the late '40s, Cab's bad financial decisions -- and gambling -- caught up with him, and the band broke up.

Duke Ellington  

Cab went back to playing in small clubs and eventually landed a part in the Broadway play Porgy and Bess as the character Sportin Life -- a role Calloway would claim that George Gershwin based on him. The show was a huge success, breathing much-needed new life into Calloway's career.

Cab'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.

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."

Listen to Murray explain Calloway's importance in jazz history


View the Cab Calloway show playlist


More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Web site -- NPRJazz.org


  • Cab Calloway Harlem Renaissance Center
    & Cab Calloway Orchestra Official Web site