The Magazine

Being Cab Calloway

The musician behind the performer.

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