Cab Calloway was born in 1907, in my hometown of Rochester, NY. We also gave the world Lou Gramm, Wendy O. Williams and Lydia Lunch. You’re welcome, world.
Cab’s mother was a teacher and his father a lawyer. They relocated to Baltimore in 1918, and it was there that Cab’s interest in music began. His parents encouraged this interest, though they weren’t thrilled with the idea of their son playing jazz. Blanche, Cab’s older sister, was also musically inclined and was the first woman to lead an all-male orchestra. She was a big influence on her little brother, and even got him his first break with the show Plantation Days, in 1925. While attending college, Cab went out to hear and perform music as much as he could. Supposedly Louis Armstrong taught him how to scat at one of those early shows.
By 1930, Cab had put together an orchestra and was gaining such prominence in New York City that his group became one of two house bands at The Cotton Club. The other group? Duke Ellington’s band. Calloway’s reputation for putting on dazzling, flamboyant shows might have been seen as a commercially viable way to balance Duke’s more ambitious sophistication. When one group was on tour, the other stayed home; apparently Cab adopted Duke’s plan to get past racist Jim Crow laws when traveling: just buy a railroad car for the whole band.
Calloway’s biggest hit was also his first: 1931’s “Minnie the Moocher.” The song told the comically grandiose tale of a good-time girl doing what she could to keep living the high life. And I do mean high—the song made reference to “kick(ing) the gong around,” slang for smoking opium. Most listeners had no idea.
Minnie is being saved for the big finish. In the meantime, here is one of three Betty Boop cartoons Cab made with the Fleischer brothers. This one features three songs, and like the other two cartoons, has a character whose motion is provided by Cab himself, via the magic of rotoscoping. Here he is, as “The Old Man of the Mountain.”
This 1934 short film gives some great examples of Cab’s powerhouse voice and fluid footwork. He (and the band) didn’t even need a stage to do it, as the number in the sleeper car proves. The film is also an interesting look at the state of racial progress in 1930’s New York. On the one hand, we see an interracial couple and it’s no big deal. On the other hand, we see The Cotton Club, which only allowed black folks on the stage or in the kitchen—not in the audience.
The 78 in question is from 1940. it is part of the Archive’s collection of 78’s that were donated by WNEW; that’s an example of their cataloging system on the masking tape. The white stamp stating “PASSED 2 45” suggests that the disc was checked in February of 1945 and that D.J.s could only play songs approved by management; I’d love to find out what the criteria was. “Are You Hep to the Jive?” would become one of Calloway’s signature tunes. He was always fascinated by the slang used during the Jazz Age, to the point where he actually published a small book called Cab Calloway’s Hepster Dictionary: Language of Jive.
This number from 1943’s Stormy Weather pulls all of the elements of Cab’s appeal together—snappy dresser, exuberant singer, master scatter, leader of a killer band, and a willingness to share the spotlight. Here he is with the Nicholas Brothers in “Jumpin’ Jive.” Try not to cringe in pain when they do the flying splits a little past the 4:00 mark—this was years before Pilates, folks.
1947’s “Everybody Eats When They Come to My House” gets Hannibal-ized in this clever video.
By the late 1940’s, bad financial choices and a gambling addiction led to the dissolution of the band. Cab continued to perform over the years, sometimes on Broadway (as Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess, and sometimes in films like The Cincinnati Kid and The Blues Brothers. In the late 1970’s he even did a disco remix of “Minnie the Moocher” that you shall not be subjected to here. Rather, I prefer to leave you with this television appearance from 1958. The man was 51 when this was filmed. Let that sink in a bit.