Tag Archives: Harlem

78: “Are You Hep to the Jive?” b/w “Sunset” by Cab Calloway and His Orchestra. Okeh 5804. Recorded in New York City, 08/05/40

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.


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.”

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45: “Gloomy Sunday,” “Am I Blue” b/w “Body and Soul,” “Long Gone Blues” by Billie Holiday and her Orchestra. Columbia B-2534. Recorded 08/07/41, 05/09/41, 02/29/40, and 03/21/39 in New York City.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

When I find a 45 from an obscure Dutch progressive rock band, it isn’t that difficult to pick five or six songs that give a good sense of that band’s career arc. For other artists, that simply can’t be done—their influence is too strong, their lives too compelling, or their catalog simply runs too deep to attempt such an abbreviated presentation of their work. All of those conditions are met by Billie Holiday. So I’m going to include the songs on this 45 EP, and a couple of others of note, but as any fan of Billie’s will tell you, I’ll only be scratching the surface.

A little background. Billie was born Eleanora Fagan, in 1915, and raised by distant relatives in Philadelphia while her mother worked as a server on passenger trains. Her absent father was most likely Clarence Holiday, a musician who played with Fletcher Henderson’s band—Billie and Clarence would reconnect later in her life. She was in reform school for truancy at the age of 10, raped by a neighbor at the age of 11, and, after moving with her mother to Harlem, forced to join her as a prostitute at the age of 14. A childhood spent listening to Louis Armstrong and King Oliver gave her the confidence to develop a singing style that allowed for non-traditional phrasing and intonation, as if her voice was a cornet. She recorded songs for 26 years and sold out Carnegie Hall multiple times, but was hampered by addiction, racism and bad management. Her rendition of “Strange Fruit” is a stark cry against lynching and was one of the very first popular protest songs. She died in New York City in 1959 of cirrhosis of the liver, with police guarding her room in hopes of trying her for narcotics possession if she got better. She was an early example of the romantic doomed-addict-musician-whose-light-burned-too-bright-to-last notion, an idea which, ultimately, gets in the way of appreciating exactly how good she was as a singer and how painful her life must have actually been.

Here’s her very first single, “Your Mother’s Son-in-Law.” It was recorded with Benny Goodman and his orchestra for Columbia on November 27, 1933. Note how she had yet to settle into the higher register that would later become her trademark.

Fun, jaunty stuff. Continue reading

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45: “Ask Me What You Want” b/w “I Just Can’t Stand It’ by Millie Jackson. Polydor 2066 187. German re-release. Recorded in New York City in 1972.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

Millie Jackson was born in Thomson, Georgia in 1944. Her mother died when Millie was very young, and her father started over in Newark, New Jersey. By her mid-teens, Millie was living with an aunt in Brooklyn. Her singing career started when she was twenty years old; some friends dared Millie to enter a talent contest in a Harlem nightclub, and she won. Club dates followed, and by 1971, Millie had a hit on the R&B charts with her first single, “A Child of God (Hard to Believe).”

Powerful stuff, very critical of people and the doubt in the almighty that they inspire. But this was kind of a misleading start to Millie’s career.

1972’s “Ask Me What You Want” is a little closer to what she’s known for—straight talk between lovers, open communication for the betterment of the couple. But we aren’t quite there yet.

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