When old jazz is the topic, we can never be quite sure what the story is about. Is it about the music? This is the usual case, where the music is the star and the goal is to tease out the significance of a performance.
But sometimes the music plays second fiddle (sorry) to the personalities of the people who made it. And I doubt that there was a bigger and more durable personality in jazz than Cab Calloway, a guy who blended cool and jazz long before cool jazz was a thing.
Most of us younger folks (yes, if I write this blog I can claim the prerogative of assigning myself to this demographic) remember Calloway from the performance that re-established his fame in 1980 – his memorable performance in the classic 1980 film The Blues Brothers. Most of us who watched that movie got a glimpse of a hepster-entertainer from a bygone era who showed that he could still bring it at the age of 73. But what we saw was only a glimpse.
Cabell Calloway III was the kind of name that went with the uncommon upbringing of an early jazz musician. Born Christmas day of 1907, he was the son of two college graduates and his father was a Baltimore attorney. Young Cab, however, preferred the life of jazz and horse racing to formal studies, which resulted in his mother sending him to a kind of reform school out of town to keep him out of trouble. He finished high school and studied some law in college, but he did not become the lawyer his parents wanted him to become. He became Cab Calloway instead.
Fun fact: A young Calloway was offered the chance to play basketball for the Harlem Globetrotters. But he believed that his gifts lay elsewhere. In particular, he brought at least two of those gifts to the world of jazz – a voice and a personality. It is hard to tell which was bigger. Let’s start with the voice.
Calloway got his break in the mid 1920’s after his older sister got him a job as the emcee of a Chicago club where Louis Armstrong was performing. Calloway soaked up Armstrong’s ability to entertain an audience as well as an ability to sing nonsense syllables that would eventually become called “scat”. Armstrong soon recommended young Cab for a spot in the Broadway show Connie’s Hot Chocolates in 1929, where he had a prominent singing role. Some singers hope to get hired by bands, but Calloway was the kind of personality that had a band come to him, asking that he be their front man. Thus in 1930 a solid but little-known band called The Missourians became Cab Calloway and his Orchestra.
The combination of the Missourians’ musical abilities and Calloway’s voice and outsized personality was a winning one and after about a year Calloway’s was the band chosen to replace Duke Ellington as the “home” band at New York’s Cotton Club. It is hard to understand the Cotton Club in 2020, but from the late 1920’s into the 30’s it was where the New York “in-crowd” went to be seen in Harlem while enjoying the very best in black entertainment. That club, incidentally, has been described as being open only to white audiences, but Calloway was quoted as saying that it was open and free. In either case, and despite the obviously problematic concept, it would be hard to name a more prominent platform for black musicians of the day than to be the featured band there – a gig Calloway and his outfit held until the club closed in 1940.
Calloway is part of a very small club of jazz musicians who hit the big time before the swing era and maintained relevance after that change in style took hold in the mid 1930s. His 1931 recording of Minnie The Moocher is said to have been the first million-selling disc by an African-American musician, and remains one of the most durable jazz hits ever – a hit that very few others could credibly pull off, then or now.
It is said of many that they defined “cool”, but Calloway really did when he published Cab Calloway’s Hepster Dictionary in 1938. If you have ever called New York “the Big Apple”, referred to extra money as “gravy”, to someone admirably cool as “hip” and someone else angrily snapping at you as “salty”, you owe a debt to Cab Calloway. Did you know this was probably the first dictionary written by an African-American? Now you do, so everything’s kopasetic. And in case you want one for yourself, originals are for sale online – for about $3,500.
Calloway presents a challenge – what one record to pick from this iconic performer? The problem was solved for me when a this piece bubbled up in a subscription feed: Wah-Dee-Dah from late November of 1932. It is a record that gives as good of an all-around capture of the essence of Cab Calloway and his band as anything can.
First, notice the quality of the musicianship. Cab had studied music in school and had taken voice lessons, so he knew good from bad. He was always backed by first-rate musicians who were excellent jazz players, and this was one of the very best bands of its day – as Calloway’s band always was. Dizzy Gillespie may be the most famous Calloway alum – although their association didn’t end well because Cab didn’t appreciate Dizzy’s clowning. Cab may have been an entertainer who was all about a fun performance, but he was dead serious in the way he went about it.
Next, this thing swings like mad, something quite uncommon in 1932. The older I get the more I want to smirk when I hear Benny Goodman called the King of Swing. Benny may have made it popular but bands like Calloway’s were making money (and lots of it) from swing long before Benny did.
And of course there was that voice. Nobody sang like Cab Calloway – Not in 1932 and not in 1992 when he was still doing it. Cab had a big, strong, clear baritone that he never lost, along with the crystal-clear pronunciation of every syllable, even the ones that weren’t supposed to make sense. He had one of the broadest vocal ranges of any jazz singer, especially as his voice matured and his low-note abilities blossomed. He said that his Hi-De-Hos and the rest came from one night when he forgot the words to a song, but his off-the-cuff workaround proved so popular they became a part of his persona – The Prince of Hi-De-Ho. From the beginning he incorporated the call-and-response vocals with the band (and eventually with the audiences too).
But as much as I love listening to this record – one of the best I have heard from its time – I have to admit that Cab Calloway really needs to be seen to be appreciated. Which is probably why he may have been the most widely filmed musician of his era – Cab Calloway and film were made for each other. Once you have gotten a load of a couple of clips of his style, you cannot listen to a record like Wah-Dee-Dah without imagining Cab jumping up and down, shaking his head around with his straightened hair flying wildly as he energetically dances the entire time lyrics aren’t pouring out of him.
Like in this clip (from the :45 up to the 3 minute mark) from the 1935 short film Cab Calloway’s Jitterbug Party where we get the “Full Cab” experience. James Brown may have been called the hardest working man in show business, but I doubt that Brown had anything over Cab Calloway on this score.
I watched an interview done in the 1970’s and Calloway confirmed what we all knew – that he loved what he did and his favorite part, what made him happy, was making the audience happy. I have heard people talk about football players who “leave it all out there on the field”, meaning that they gave the game absolutely everything they had. Cab Calloway left it all out there on the stage every single night, and continued to do so until not long before he died in 1994 at the age of 87. Other jazz musicians performed but Cab Calloway put on a show. I dare anyone to watch one of Cab’s old film clips and not finish with a smile as big as the one he was wearing.
We must not ignore Calloway’s abilities as one of the most talented dancers of his era. This was part of his appeal from the beginning, and is apparent in the very earliest filmed performances. Take a look at this 1932 performance of Kickin’ The Gong Around. This song, from the film The Big Broadcast of 1932, was a follow-up to Minnie The Moocher – a subgenre that was Calloway’s alone. If you are impatient, go to the 2:20 mark and watch young Cab own the stage with some dance steps that look an awful like some things Michael Jackson did many decades later. But you ought to watch the whole thing because it is a great performance. Kickin’ the gong around, by the way, was slang for cocaine use, proving that things aren’t as different today as we might think.
Did you know that some of Calloway’s dance moves were rotoscoped and animated in a series of Betty Boop cartoons (on which his band provided the music) put out by the Fleisher studios in the early 1930s? If you search YouTube for “Cab Calloway cartoon” you can see several of them. And then there were the multiple feature films and short subjects which featured Cab in the 1930s and 40s.
Then there is this bit from 1950, where a 43-year old Calloway proved that he was still as athletic as ever in an extended dance bit while a small band (including bassist Milt Hinton and trumpeter Jonah Jones) take care of the musical part. Cab never stopped moving during a performance, and the attention he got for his dancing often overshadowed the top-quality music going on behind him.
His most famous clip might be his performance of The Jumpin’ Jive in the 1943 film Stormy Weather. Although many consider this bit as the jumping off point for the Nicholas Brothers in one of the very best dance numbers ever committed to film, Calloway’s performance was classic Cab. While I often like studio recordings better than live or filmed versions, this beats the 1939 studio version of this song hands down. Notice how Cab is working the room even as he walks out of the camera’s view.
Maybe this is why Calloway is almost never listed among the great jazz vocalists – his recorded work is good enough but it lacks the punch and sparkle that an audience brought to Cab and which supercharged his performances. Cab Calloway on record just doesn’t convey enough of Cab Calloway the singer, the dancer, the performer. But Cab’s singing was the essence of jazz in the way he freely improvised melody, rhythm and even the lyrics in ways that made the songs his unique art. His ability to blend his unique singing style with great jazz players was so seamless that it wasn’t often noticed. Also unique was his ability to sing for the audience while maintaining high musical standards instead of pandering. And is there anyone among his contemporaries who did his or her own thing so successfully and for so long as Cab? That he could make an audience crave Minnie The Moocher and give them what they wanted (if never in quite the same way) for over sixty years is saying something.
Calloway once said in an interview late in life that Minnie The Moocher had been awfully good to him. They were a musical couple until his career was stopped by a stroke shortly before his 1994 death at the age of 86. Well, both Minnie and Cab were awfully good to us too. So I leave you with that classic performance of his trademark song from the Blues Brothers. There have been other jazz performers as cool as Cab Calloway, but none of them were cooler or as loved for so long. Is it possible to say “Hi-De-Ho” without smiling? Of course it isn’t – Cab Calloway spent a lifetime making sure of that.
Music – November, 1932 recording of Wah-Dee-Wah from the YouTube page of the78Prof.
Other You-Tube clips from the pages as identified in the link at the upper left of each screen.
Opening photo – 1930’s photo of Cab Calloway from samspearmusic.com
Cab Calloway in the 1980 Universal film The Blues Brothers, from a poster offered for sale on amazon.com
Photo of very young Calloway from thehidehoblog.com
c. 1936 photo of The Cotton Club from a poster listed for sale on Amazon.com
Photo of 1938 and 1939 editions of Calloway’s dictionary as offered for sale on PBAgalleries.com
Pre-1941 publicity photo of Cab Calloway in the public domain as a publicity photo with no copyright marks
Cab Calloway c. 1947 in a recording studio – permitted use from pixabay.com