Band leader, singer, comedian, song-and-dance man: Cab Calloway was a man of many hats. The colourful performer first made a name for himself in the early 1930s at Harlem's famed Cotton Club, where he played with his big band and shared the bill with Duke Ellington. In 1931, Calloway then hit it big with the single Minnie the Moocher. In the 1950s, with the big band era slowly coming to an end, the artist tried his luck on Broadway, where he played in a number of productions. An exuberant character who carried on performing well into his eighties, Calloway paid the Festival a memorable visit back in 1991.
In the Beginning
Born on Christmas Day, 1907, in Rochester, New York, Cabell Calloway III grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. The gifted young man took singing and music lessons and, in high school, played in the Negro Professional Basketball league. After moving to Chicago to attend law school, Calloway set his sights on a showbiz career. A versatile performer, he would soon make his mark as an emcee, band leader, vocalist, and dancer.
Calloway caught his first break in show-business thanks to his sister Blanche, a singer and cast member of the musical review Plantation Days. After the show's run ended in 1927, our man Cab retreated to the Windy City. The following year, he worked as an emcee at the Sunset café and led its house band, The Alabamians.
Sharing the better of his time between Chicago and New York, Calloway kept himself busy during this period, appearing in the Hot Chocolates musical review, continuing as leader of The Alabamians, and taking over New York's The Missourians as leader-later rechristened Cab Calloway and His Orchestra. Manhattan, Harlem-and soon the world- were his oyster.
Needless to say, The Missourians' success owed much to its leader, with his sartorial elegance (Cab as the white knight in shining armour), remarkable stage theatrics (the man was a formidable dancer), and frenzied vocal prowess (he could scat with the best of them).
Cab Cottons Up
When not crisscrossing the country, Calloway and his orchestra could be found on stage at famed New York nightspot The Cotton Club, taking over where Duke Ellington left off. Around that time, the artist recorded Minnie the Moocher, his most famous song with over a million copies sold. The song was featured on the soundtrack to various Betty Boop animated short films, along with Cab's recordings of St. James Infirmary and Old Man of the Mountain. Calloway also appeared on the big screen, making his debut in Big Broadcast (1932) and later co-starring with Lena Horne in Stormy Weather (1942).
In 1934, the tireless Calloway embarked on a European tour. Cherished by the public, his big band employed some of the best players of the time. In terms of musicianship, it wasn't very far behind other star-studded orchestras led by Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington.
Among the many top notch musicians who found themselves on Calloway's payroll throughout the 1930s and 1940s were Doc Cheatham, Dizzy Gillespie, Ben Webster, Ike Quebec, Chu Berry, Mario Bauza, and Cozy Cole. The Orchestra's heady run came to an end after the war, when the big band craze started winding down. In 1948, Calloway had no choice but to disband, but that didn't stop him from touring, this time with sextet The Cabaliers.
Cab, Porgy, Dolly, and the Blues Brothers
In the 1950s, Calloway naturally took on the role of Sportin' Life in Porgy and Bess, a character modeled after him by George Gershwin. Next, the entertainer spent some time on Broadway, appearing in musicals such as Hello Dolly! and The Pajama Game. In 1980, a cameo in The Blues Brothers introduced him to a new generation of fans. Seven years later, the Hi-De-Ho Man celebrated his 80th birthday in song at Carnegie Hall, with half a dozen of his old bandmates also joining in the festivities.
Calloway made his first and only appearance at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal in 1991. Dressed to the nines like always, the venerable artist presided over a colorful Cotton Club-type music revue at Place des Arts.
Active until the very end of his life, he would take his final bow on November 18, 1994, at the age of 86.