Of Minnie the Moocher and Me: Bandleader Cab Calloway

In the vibrant world of swing, there are few figures as iconic and influential as Cab Calloway, the renowned band leader. Calloway’s talent, showmanship, and unique style made him a beloved and lasting figure of the swing era and beyond. Through his distinctive performances and captivating stage presence, Calloway brought swing to new heights and left an enduring legacy in the world of music.

Cabell Calloway III was born Christmas Day of 1907 in Rochester, New York. Raised in a middle-class African-American family, Calloway’s parents recognized his talent for music at an early age. Encouraged by his family, he began studying the violin and later switched to the more fitting instrument for his charismatic personality- the saxophone. During his teenage years, Calloway joined a local band, performing in clubs and theaters in the Rochester area.

By 1927, Calloway had joined his older sister, Blanche Calloway, on tour with a musical revue. Blanche became an accomplished bandleader before him, and Cab often credited her as his inspiration for going into the music business. Calloway’s mother wanted him to become a lawyer (like his father), so for a time he enrolled at Chicago’s Crane College, but ultimately, was more interested in working in a ballroom than a courtroom. A nimble athlete, Calloway once turned down an opportunity to play basketball for the Harlem Globetrotters.

Cab spent most of his nights working at Chicago’s Dreamland Café and the Sunset Café, performing as a singer and drummer. At Sunset Cafe, Calloway served as an understudy for singer Adelaide Hall. There he met and performed with Louis Armstrong, who taught him to sing in the scat style. He left school to sing with the Alabamians band. In 1929, Calloway opened at the Savoy Ballroom. When the Alabamians broke up, Armstrong recommended Calloway as a replacement singer in the musical revue Connie’s Hot Chocolates where he established himself as a popular vocalist.

Calloway’s big break came when he was invited to perform at the Cotton Club in Harlem, New York, during the height of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s. This legendary nightclub was known for showcasing African-American talent and attracting audiences from all walks of life. It was here that Calloway truly honed his skills as a band leader and entertainer. Leading the Cotton Club Orchestra, Calloway’s energetic performances and magnetic stage presence captivated audiences. His unique blend of jazz, scat singing, and theatrical antics created an unparalleled experience for the audience. Calloway’s performances became legendary, and he became one of the most recognizable figures in the swing scene.

One of Calloway’s earliest and perhaps most famous songs, “Minnie the Moocher,” was released in 1931 and quickly became a hit. This song, along with his signature catchphrase “Hi-de-ho,” propelled Calloway to superstardom. The infectious rhythm, coupled with Calloway’s dynamic vocals and improvised scatting, showcased his ability to blend music, storytelling, and humor in a way that resonated with audiences. “Minnie” is believed to be the first single by an African American artist to have sold more than one million copies. The song tells the cautionary tale of a good-hearted woman’s fatal descent into drug addiction- although the casual listener would never guess the theme was so dark from the jovial melody and scat chorus.

Calloway had songs on the Billboard charts in five consecutive decades from the early 1930s into the 1970s. He also made several film appearances with roles in Stormy Weather (1943), Porgy and Bess (1953), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), and Hello Dolly! (1967). His career saw renewed interest when he appeared in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.

Following Calloway’s success leading the Cotton Club house orchestra, he formed of his own band, the Cab Calloway Orchestra. With Calloway as the front man, the orchestra consisted of talented musicians who played an essential role in the band’s success. The band’s repertoire included swing, jazz, and big band music, all infused with Calloway’s distinctive style and energy.

The band’s performances were known for their lively and energetic nature. Calloway’s charismatic stage presence, combined with the orchestra’s tight musical arrangements, created an unforgettable experience for audiences. The band’s popularity soared, and they performed in prestigious venues across the United States and around the world.

Calloway’s contributions to jazz and swing music cannot be overstated. His impact on the world of music extended far beyond his lifetime. His unique style and showmanship paved the way for future entertainers and left an indelible mark on popular culture. Calloway’s influence can be seen in contemporary artists such as Michael Jackson, who drew inspiration from his dance moves and stage presence.

Calloway was the first African-American musician to sell a million records from a single and to have a nationally syndicated radio show. In 1993, Calloway received the National Medal of Arts, and posthumously the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008. His song “Minnie the Moocher” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999 and added to the Library of Congress in 2019. As recent as 2022, the National Film Registry selected his home films for preservation as “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films”. He is also inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame and the International Jazz Hall of Fame.

Cab Calloway’s legacy as a band leader, entertainer, and jazz icon is undeniable. His contributions to music, his electrifying stage presence, and his ability to captivate audiences made him one of the most influential figures in jazz history. Calloway’s music continues to be enjoyed and appreciated by audiences of all ages, and his impact on the world of music will forever be remembered. As we reflect on the rich tapestry of jazz, we cannot overlook the immeasurable contributions of Cab Calloway, a true legend in his own right.

In June 12 of 1994, Calloway suffered a stroke at his home in Westchester County, New York and passed five months later from pneumonia on November 18, 1994, at age 86. Cab was survived by his wife, five daughters, and seven grandsons.

The music of Cab Calloway is regularly featured on Swing Street Radio.

Craig Roberts writes the “Hot Big Band News” column for Swing Street Radio, and on occasion claims to have been Claude Thornhill’s dog walker.