The Magazine

Being Cab Calloway

The musician behind the performer.

Nov 1, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 07 • By TED GIOIA
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Being Cab Calloway

Photo Credit: Bettmann / CORBIS

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. 

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