The Life of Cab Calloway

by Alyn Shipton

Oxford, 304 pp., $29.95

I  can hardly complain that Cab Calloway never got his due. After all, his band ranked among the most popular acts of the 1930s. And this charismatic performer enjoyed remarkable staying power—delighting audiences at the Cotton Club during the Great Depression, selling out theaters on Broadway in the 1960s and ’70s, and delighting new fans alongside the Blues Brothers in the 1980s. Even so, I can’t help wondering what he might have achieved.

If music videos and YouTube had been around when Calloway was a young man, he would have been an even bigger hit. He was the closest thing to Michael Jackson that you could find on the New York entertainment scene of the prewar years—in fact, he was performing Jackson’s trademark “moon walk” dance step back in 1932. Calloway was a wildly original dancer and powerful singer, with dazzling costumes (several each night) and a stage presence that no other jazz performer of his day, not even an Ellington or Armstrong, could surpass. In short, Calloway needed to be seen, not just heard.

Instead, he came to prominence during the age of radio—a medium that only hinted at Calloway’s skills as an entertainer. Fortunately for us, a few film clips survive, along with the many records. And now we have Alyn Shipton’s fine biography as well, the most authoritative study of the entertainer’s life yet published. No, these aren’t substitutes for the visceral excitement of seeing Cab in the flesh, but they get us as close as we can nowadays to understanding why fans found Calloway so captivating.

Cabell Calloway, born in Rochester on Christmas Day 1907, was a show-off long before he became a performer. Shipton recounts one of Cab’s proudest moments from his student days: In the midst of an assembly, the principal announced that the teacher who had parked in a restricted area in front of the school needed to move the vehicle immediately. In response, Cab ostentatiously stood up and, amid the cheers of his fellow students, strode out with his hippest swagger to the car, which he had, of course, left in the most prominent (albeit illegal) spot. A short while later the auto, which he had bought on an installment plan, was repossessed; but the hipness and swagger stayed with Calloway for the rest of his life.

Even so, Calloway was not even the most successful entertainer in his family, at least in the early days of his career. His older sister Blanche Calloway starred in traveling revues and made her debut recording (with Louis Armstrong as accompanist) in 1925. Cab, for his part, didn’t lack talent; if anything, he had too many talents. When he began working in a revue at the Sunset Café in Chicago, he served as understudy for every role in the cast. He could sing, dance, handle comedy roles, do anything he was asked with aplomb. He moved his way up from understudy to master of ceremonies, and seemed a natural at that role, too. In other settings, he could be found playing the drums or saxophone.

These varied skills gained notoriety for Calloway, but his big break arrived in 1931, when he took over for Duke Ellington as headline act at Harlem’s Cotton Club. Around this same time, the entertainer made a less visible, but equally important move, signing with manager Irving Mills, who had already masterminded Ellington’s rise to fame. The cost of having Mills on your side was not small: Shipton, who is persistent in hunting down financial details, explains that Calloway only owned 35 percent of the corporation that controlled all aspects of his music career. The rest of the shares belonged to Mills, Mills’s lawyer, and Ellington. But Mills also delivered the goods: He secured engagements, made deals with record labels and broadcasters, and worked tirelessly to promote the artists he managed.

Mills also shared composer credits on Calloway’s biggest hit, “Minnie the Moocher”—a million-seller that popularized the singer’s “hi-de-ho” call-and-response routine. Yet this success also had a downside. Calloway was so obsessed with re-creating it that he spent much of the rest of his career releasing similar recordings. He made Minnie into a mini-industry with “Minnie the Moocher’s Wedding Day” (1932), “Keep that Hi-De-Ho in Your Soul” (1935), “The Hi-De-Ho Miracle Man” (1936), “Hi-De-Ho Romeo” (1937), “Hi-De-Ho Serenade” (1940), and other derivative numbers. As a result, Calloway veered dangerously close to self-parody. Forty years later, when he auditioned for The Blues Brothers, Calloway even battled to include a disco version of “Minnie the Moocher” in the film—a move that director John Landis wisely vetoed.

Shipton is a gentle biographer. A more critical observer would question why Calloway kept on rehashing a hit from 1931 for over a half-century, why this multitalented artist so rarely challenged his listeners the way, say, an Ellington or Miles Davis would do. My admiration for Calloway is constantly undermined by a sense that, for all his achievements, he never delivered on his full potential. Shipton, for his part, is an enthusiastic advocate, not just for Calloway but also for the mostly forgotten instrumentalists who worked in his orchestra over the years. Yet his analysis of the recordings tends to be astute, and is the high point of this book. All celebrity musicians should be blessed with such a sympathetic listener for a biographer.

The public proved less considerate. When America’s tastes in entertainment changed in the 1950s,

Calloway struggled to adapt. This artist had anticipated so much of the ethos of that era—from the hipster’s lingo to the rhythm-and-blues sounds of the hit records—yet now seemed old-fashioned, even as the rest of the nation followed in his footsteps. Shipton, again tracking down the relevant numbers, tells how Calloway was forced to cut his band down to a quartet in the early 1950s, and paid himself only $250 per week (compared with $125 for his valet and $175 for trumpeter Jonah Jones). At a time when the average American worker made around $3,000 per year, this was a comfortable living, but hardly the pay a star performer expected.

Calloway’s comeback was driven—as often was the case with him—by outside parties who made him a part of their vision. C. Blevins Davis and Robert Breen enlisted him to play “Sportin’ Life” in their 1952 production of Porgy and Bess. And who better to fill this role than Cab Calloway who had, by some accounts, been Gershwin’s role model for the character in the first place? The touring production was a huge success, and Calloway traveled with the show overseas and around the United States. He was still a formidable presence on stage, and his smooth transition to musical theater helped him secure later roles in The Pajama Game and Hello, Dolly!

Yet if Calloway is familiar to listeners today, it may be due to his appearances on Sesame Street and alongside John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in The Blues Brothers. Some reviewers were upset at the latter role, which put Calloway in a subservient position to the wannabe musicians who enjoyed top billing. David Denby, in New York magazine, griped about the “insulting context” for a legendary performer. Yet the positive impact on Calloway’s fame and finances could hardly be overstated, and Shipton chronicles the accolades and opportunities of these final years, which found the artist featured in a Janet Jackson video, feted at the White House, and still singing with power and bravado. Calloway, in his eighties, adapted to the poor sound system at an Italian venue by singing his whole show without a microphone for five evenings in a row.

Readers seeking tawdry details and celebrity gossip won’t find much here. Some marital indiscretions are hinted at, and Calloway’s penchant for betting on the horses is repeatedly mentioned; but these are trivialities in a book that focuses on the public performer rather than the private citizen. And—surprise!—Calloway may have recorded “Reefer Man,” but he forbade drug or marijuana use among his musicians. You get the impression that the figure on stage was much more interesting than the man behind the scenes.

Indeed, the best thing about Shipton’s emphasis on the music is that it will prod readers into tracking down the recordings and, even better, the surviving film clips. I would advise doing just that in conjunction with reading Hi-De-Ho. Cab Calloway died more than a decade before the rise of YouTube, but it may be his greatest contemporary advocate, making it easier than ever before to see what the fuss was all about. If you only know him from, say, The Blues Brothers, you are in for a very pleasant surprise.

Ted Gioia is the author, most recently, of The Birth (and Death) of the Cool.

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