100 Jazz Profiles
1907 - 1994
Singer, bandleader. One of the few non-instrumentalists to front a big band during the swing era, Cab Calloway led the most commercially successful African-American orchestra of the 1930s, his earnings exceeding those of Ellington, Basie and Lunceford. He was also the first really influential male jazz singer, and spawned a host of imitators.
He became nationally famous in the USA through his his prolific touring, his recording activity, and nightly broadcasts from New York's Cotton Club. Calloway had amazing stage presence, and as well as a magnificent voice, he had boundless energy, leaping and cavorting around the stage as he sang. After leaving Baltimore where he grew up, he travelled in a variety show to Chicago, and then ended up fronting bands in New York.
In 1930, he took over a group called the Missourians, which became his Cotton Club Orchestra, and he led the band continuously for eighteen years. His soloists included saxophonists Ben Webster and Chu Berry, trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Jonah Jones, drummer Cozy Cole and bassist Milt Hinton. Calloway's biggest hits were a series of songs about the low-life and drug culture of Harlem, featuring the fictional characters Minnie the Moocher and her sidekick Smoky Joe.
But he was also a brilliantly inventive scat singer, and as well as making up nonsense lyrics faster than most people can think, he also talked and sang in his own unique brand of slang, 'hepster's jive' which corralled Harlem street vocabulary into a special language. At the end of the big band era, he became a star of the musical theatre, touring in Porgy and Bess as Sportin' Life (a role Gershwin is said to have modelled on Calloway himself), and also in Hello Dolly!. He occasionally fronted a band again in the 1980s and early 1990s, and made a splendid cameo appearance in the 1980s movie The Blues Brothers.
Calloway, Cab and Rollins, Bryant. Of Minnie The Moocher and Me. New York. Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1976.
Cab Calloway and Co. (RCA Jazz Tribune Vol. 58. ND 89560) (2 CD set)
Suggested Track: Minnie The Moocher
The Cab Calloway Orchestra
Official site run by Cab Calloway's grandson.
on radio 3
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