Few cinematic cameos have been more galvanizing than Cab Calloway’s in The Blues Brothers. In the 1980 film, he plays a janitor who suddenly dons white tie and tails, gets up on stage in front of an admiring group of long-haired rock and soul musicians, and proceeds to steal the show not only from its stars, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, but also from James Brown, Ray Charles, and Aretha Franklin, all of whom made cameo appearances of their own. How? By singing “Minnie the Moocher,” a swinging lament for an opium addict he had written a half-century earlier.
Calloway, who was 73 years old in 1980, was little more than a name to the baby boomers who were seeing him for the first time. They had no idea how famous he had once been, or that the big band he led throughout the 30s and 40s was one of the most successful jazz groups of its day. Even those who were aware of Calloway’s triumphs as a bandleader had mostly been inclined to deprecate him. Only a limited number of his 78s had been transferred to LP by 1980, and it was common for jazz critics to dismiss him as a flamboyant clown, a zoot-suited purveyor of novelty tunes like “A Chicken Ain’t Nothin’ but a Bird.” It was conventional wisdom that Calloway’s “inane vocal antics” (in the phrase of the highbrow British jazz critic Max Harrison) served to obscure the playing of his sidemen, who included such world-class instrumentalists as the tenor saxophonist Chu Berry, the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and the bassist Milt Hinton.
Today all of Calloway’s 78-era recordings are readily available on CD, and he has come to be more widely respected. Gunther Schuller, writing in his authoritative 1989 book The Swing Era, called him “a true jazz musician” and “the most unusually and broadly gifted male singer of the 30’s.” Even so, Calloway has yet to attract proper attention from most jazz critics and scholars, and Alyn Shipton’s newly published Hi-De-Ho: The Life of Cab Calloway is, incredibly, the first full-length biography of the singer.
Shipton, a British critic and jazz bassist whose previous books include biographies of Dizzy Gillespie (1999) and Fats Waller (1988), has done well by his subject. Though his book is unexpectedly sober in tone for a biography of so ebullient a personality, it provides a reliable, fully informed account of Calloway’s career, one in which the emphasis is placed squarely—and properly—on his musical achievements. It is impossible to read Hi-De-Ho without realizing that Cab Calloway, far from being a clown, was in fact a major figure in American popular culture, one whose best recordings, “Minnie the Moocher” very much included, ought by all rights to be as well known as those of Count Basie, Benny Goodman, or any of his better-remembered peers.
Born in upstate New York in 1907 and raised in Baltimore, Cabell Calloway III was the son of a middle-class black family. Though his mother insisted that he receive a traditional education, he cared only for music, and underwent extensive vocal training before leaving home in 1927 to make his way in the world. Blanche, his older sister, was already working as a cabaret singer, and he followed her to Chicago, where he heard the young Louis Armstrong and saw at once the expressive potential of vocal jazz improvisation. As he later recalled:
[Armstrong] was the only male singer around at the time, excluding the country boys, who was doing anything other than straight singing….Each of Louis’ phrases was a thing of beauty on its own. You listened to Louis—you didn’t listen to the band.
Though Calloway would later deny having “copied” Armstrong, it is clear that Armstrong’s scat singing, in which he improvised vocal jazz solos made up of nonsense syllables, left a deep impression. In other ways, though, their styles could not have been more different. Later that year, Calloway was billed by a Chicago nightclub as “Cab Calloway, Tenor Robusto.” As this elaborate and misspelled description indicates, he was in classical-music terminology a dramatic tenor (or, in Italian, tenore robusto) who, unlike Armstrong, had a well-trained, wide-ranging voice that was more than big enough to have allowed him to sing in large-house operas had he been white. Instead, he unhesitatingly embraced jazz, moving to New York in 1929 with his Chicago-based band, and quickly establishing himself as one of Harlem’s top entertainers.
Two years later, Calloway wrote and cut the first record of “Minnie the Moocher,” the song with which he would thereafter be identified. Its refrains, in which Calloway sang improvised sequences of scat syllables (“Hi-de-hi-de-hi!”) repeated in unison by the members of the band, were as catchy as the drug-related lyrics were titillating (“She messed around with a bloke named Smokey/She loved him though he was cokey/He took her down to Chinatown/And he showed her how to kick the gong around”).
In addition, Calloway inflected the song’s minor-key harmonies with distinctively sharp-angled melodic patterns that in later performances were unmistakably reflective of synagogue chant, a novel and exotic combination that enhanced his appeal to white and black audiences alike. The song was an instant hit, eventually becoming the first million-selling record by a black artist ever to be released.
Starting in 1932, Calloway was also seen in a series of feature films and short subjects—among them The Big Broadcast (1932) and Stormy Weather (1943)—that provide ample documentation of what his stage act looked like in the years of his prime. (Representative clips from most of these films can be viewed on YouTube.) Lanky, loose-limbed, and attractively horse-faced, he danced with a combination of controlled frenzy and shimmying, light-footed grace, carrying a long baton that he used together with his elbows and hips to give cues to the men in the band.
Yet for all the power of his stage presence, it was Calloway’s vocals that were the true source of his renown. As comfortable with the rich-voiced, precisely enunciated balladry of “Blues in the Night” as he was with such scat-flavored novelties as “(Hep Hep!) The Jumpin’ Jive,” he was, after Bing Crosby, perhaps the best all-around male popular vocalist in America between the world wars—and one of the few who was, like Crosby, at ease in a jazz setting.
Unlike Crosby and the other popular singers of the Swing Era, however, Calloway went to great trouble to ensure that his accompanying band was as musically potent as his singing. Starting in 1932, he went so far as to let the band record occasional instrumental features that were released as the B-sides of his vocal numbers. When Chu Berry joined the band in 1939, the frequency with which Calloway cut these sides increased significantly, and by 1942, when the American Federation of Musicians foolishly imposed a ban on commercial recording and effectively killed off the Swing Era, the Calloway band had released numerous hard-swinging instrumental charts that left no doubt of its musical prowess.
These performances, which feature beautifully blended ensemble playing of the utmost vigor and authority, are especially noteworthy for offering brief glimpses of the young Dizzy Gillespie working out the elements of the harmonically innovative musical language that would later be known as “bebop.” But even when Gillespie’s trumpet is heard only in passing, the band itself is more than capable of holding the attention of modern listeners with its driving performances of such instrumental sides as “A Smo-o-o-oth One,” “Tappin’ Off,” and Gillespie’s “Pickin’ the Cabbage.”
To what extent was Calloway responsible for the quality of his band’s playing? Most of the key soloists who worked with him between 1939 and 1941, when Berry died, agreed that the band’s working rehearsals were usually led by the musicians themselves. By then Calloway was more concerned with the band’s visual presentation, just as he continued to emphasize his own singing, whose swaggering vitality was enhanced by the band’s electrifying playing. His eclectic taste in material now came to encompass everything from Latin-style tunes like “Chili Con Conga” to such Yiddish-flavored novelties as “Utt-Da-Zay” and “A Bee Gizendt.”
But if Calloway no longer led his band in the same sense as, say, Goodman or Duke Ellington, there can be no doubt that his word was law when it came to the hiring and firing of musicians. Moreover, he kept a close ear on the competition, and he frequently hired new musicians in order to keep the band’s playing as fresh and up-to-date as possible. At this he was completely successful. While the Calloway band was almost never stylistically innovative, it was, player for player and section for section, one of the most formidable jazz groups of its time.
With the end of the big-band era, Calloway found it impossible to sustain the momentum of his performing career. An abortive attempt to retrofit himself as a Louis Jordan-style rhythm-and-blues singer came to nothing, for his style was too polished and unabashedly jazzy to suit the rougher tastes of younger black listeners. In 1948 he fired his remaining sidemen and began touring with a small group.
The decline in Calloway’s postwar fortunes was reversed when Robert Breen, the producer-director of the first touring production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, had the idea to cast him as Sportin’ Life, performing opposite Leontyne Price and William Warfield with the signature number “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Though Calloway had no professional experience as an actor, he took to the stage as though he had been born to it, and his performance was singled out for special mention by Lord Harewood, the influential British critic and impresario, when he reviewed the production in Opera in 1952:
The most outstanding [of the performances] was that of Cab Calloway….His voice is big, though hardly operatic in quality, his self-confidence and authority are boundless, and his personality seemed ubiquitous by the end of the evening.
For the rest of his life, Calloway alternated between touring as a solo artist and appearing in road-show productions of musicals, and in 1967 he made his hugely successful Broadway debut opposite Pearl Bailey as part of the all-black replacement cast of the original production of Hello, Dolly! Though Hollywood took little note of his reincarnation as a stage actor, he did make frequent guest appearances on TV variety shows throughout the 50s and 60s, sharing the stage with the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964.
Calloway’s later appearances in The Blues Brothers and on Sesame Street introduced him to an even younger generation of admirers, and by the time of his death in 1994, his public image had taken on a life of its own. In that same year, Jim Carrey played a character in The Mask whose zoot-suited attire and high-stepping demeanor clearly allude to Calloway’s onstage persona, even though the older man’s name is never mentioned in the film. In addition, his jumping musical style would leave its mark on such “retro-swing” groups as Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, the Brian Setzer Orchestra, and the Squirrel Nut Zippers.
Why, then, did it take so long for Calloway to win recognition as a figure of more than passing importance in the history of jazz? The reason, I think, is because many jazz critics suffer from a kind of cultural inferiority complex. Chronically unsure of the ultimate worth of the music they love, they are unable to freely acknowledge the unique contributions of performers who, like Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, and Fats Waller, presented themselves as popular entertainers, leaving it to others to sort out the larger significance of their music. Such critics are made acutely uncomfortable by the willingness of these performers to engage with the public on its own terms, and thus find it all but impossible to admit the artistic merits of a record like, say, Armstrong’s “Hello, Dolly!” or Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Armstrong was notoriously reluctant to describe himself as an artist, but he did so on one noteworthy occasion. In an interview published in Life in 1965, he remarked:
I mean you don’t just go around waking people up to the effect of saying, “You know, this music is art.” But it’s got to be art because the world has recognized our music from New Orleans, else it would have been dead today.
If anything, Calloway was even more reluctant to make such claims for his big band, much less his singing. Nowhere in the pages of Hi-De-Ho does Shipton quote him as having made anything like a similar statement about the merits of his own work, and Of Minnie the Moocher and Me, Calloway’s ghostwritten 1976 memoir, is unrevealing on this score. For that matter, Shipton admits that until he began writing the book, he “had only a scant awareness of the full and impressive range of Calloway’s achievements….I found myself intrigued by how such a great orchestra as his seemed to have been overlooked by most jazz writers, with the honorable exception of Gunther Schuller.”
So it has, and I can think of no better way to be brought face to face with the extent of that achievement than to read Hi-De-Ho. Now that Armstrong is universally recognized as a genius whose musical populism was an integral part of his artistic achievement, surely it is long past time to extend the same unstinting recognition to the man who made Minnie the Moocher a household name.