Cabell Calloway III: December 25, 1907‚ÄďNovember 18, 1994


✪ Cabell Calloway III (stage name Cab Calloway) was an American jazz singer and bandleader. He was associated with the Cotton Club in Harlem, where he was a regular performer and became a popular vocalist of the Swing Era. His niche of mixing jazz and Vaudeville won him acclaim during a career that spanned more than 65 years.

Calloway was a master of energetic¬†scat singing¬†and led one of the most popular¬†dance bands¬†in the United States from the early 1930s to the late 1940s. His band included trumpeters¬†Dizzy Gillespie,¬†Jonah Jones and¬†Adolphus “Doc” Cheatham, saxophonists¬†Ben Webster¬†and¬†Leon “Chu” Berry, guitarist¬†Danny Barker, bassist¬†Milt Hinton and drummer¬†Cozy Cole.

Calloway had several hit records during the 1930s and 1940s and become known as the “Hi-de-ho” man of jazz for his most famous song, “Minnie the Moocher,” which was originally recorded in 1931. His songs reached the¬†Billboard¬†charts throughout five consecutive decades (1930s‚Äď1970s).¬†Calloway also made many stage, film and television appearances until his death in 1994 at the age of 86. His roles included¬†Stormy Weather¬†(1943),¬†Porgy and Bess¬†(1953),¬†The Cincinnati Kid¬†(1965) and¬†Hello Dolly!¬†(1967). His career saw renewed public interest when he appeared in the 1980 film¬†The Blues Brothers.

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¬†from the¬†United States Congress.¬†He was posthumously awarded the¬†Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award¬†in 2008. His signature song “Minnie the Moocher” was inducted into the¬†Grammy Hall of Fame¬†in 1999 and added to the¬†Library of Congress’¬†National Recording Registry¬†in 2019. Three years later in 2022, the¬†National Film Registry¬†selected his home films for preservation as “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films.”¬†He was also inducted into the¬†Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame¬†and the International Jazz Hall of Fame.

Cabell Calloway III was born in Rochester, New York, on 25, 1907. His mother, Martha Eulalia Reed, was a Morgan State College graduate, teacher, and church organist. His father, Cabell Calloway Jr., graduated from Lincoln University of Pennsylvania in 1898 and worked as a lawyer and in real estate. The family moved to Baltimore, Maryland, when Calloway was 11years old. Soon after, his father died and his mother remarried to John Nelson Fortune.

Calloway grew up in the West Baltimore neighborhood of Druid Hill. He often skipped school to earn money by selling newspapers, shining shoes, and cooling down horses at the¬†Pimlico Racetrack¬†where he developed an interest in racing and betting on horse races. After he was caught playing dice on the church steps, his mother sent him away to¬†Downingtown Industrial and Agricultural School¬†in 1921, a reform school run by his mother’s uncle in¬†Chester County, Pennsylvania.

Calloway resumed hustling when he returned to Baltimore and worked as a caterer while he improved his studies in school.¬†He began private vocal lessons in 1922 and studied music throughout his formal schooling. Despite his parents’ and teachers’ disapproval of¬†jazz, he began performing in nightclubs in Baltimore. Calloway joined his high school basketball team and in his senior year started playing professional basketball with the Baltimore Athenians, a team in the Negro Professional Basketball League. He graduated from¬†Frederick Douglass High School¬†in 1925.

In 1927, Calloway joined his older sister,¬†Blanche Calloway, on tour for the popular black musical revue¬†Plantation Days.¬†His sister became an accomplished bandleader before him, and he often credited her as his inspiration for entering show business. Calloway’s mother wanted him to be a lawyer like his father, so once the tour ended he enrolled at¬†Crane College¬†in Chicago, but he was more interested in singing and entertaining. While at Crane he refused the opportunity to play basketball for the¬†Harlem Globetrotters¬†in order to pursue a singing career.

Calloway spent most of his nights at Chicago’s Dreamland Caf√©,¬†Sunset Cafe and Club Berlin performing as a singer, drummer and master of ceremonies. There he met and performed with¬†Louis Armstrong, who taught him how to sing in the¬†scat¬†style. He left school to sing with the Alabamians band.

Calloway married his first wife Wenonah “Betty” Conacher in July 1928. They adopted a daughter named Constance and divorced in 1949.¬†Calloway married Zulme “Nuffie” MacNeal on October 7, 1949. They lived in¬†Long Beach¬†on the South Shore of¬†Long Island, New York bordering with neighboring¬†Lido Beach.

In 1929, Calloway relocated to New York with the band. They opened at the¬†Savoy Ballroom¬†on September 20, 1929. When the Alabamians broke up, Armstrong recommended Calloway as a replacement singer in the musical revue¬†Connie’s Hot Chocolates.While Calloway was performing in the revue,¬†the Missourians¬†asked him to front their band.

In 1930,¬†the Missourians¬†became known as¬†Cab Calloway and His Orchestra. At the¬†Cotton Club¬†in Harlem, New York. The band was hired in 1931 to substitute for the¬†Duke Ellington¬†Orchestra while Ellington’s band was on tour. Their popularity led to a permanent position. The band also performed twice a week for radio broadcasts on¬†NBC. Calloway appeared on radio programs with¬†Walter Winchell¬†and¬†Bing Crosby¬†and was the first African American to have his own nationally syndicated radio show.¬†During the depths of the¬†Great Depression, Calloway was earning $50,000 a year at only 23 years old.

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In 1931, Calloway recorded his most famous song, “Minnie the Moocher.” It was the first single record by an African American to sell a million copies.

As a result of the success of “Minnie the Moocher,” Calloway became identified with its chorus, gaining the nickname “The Hi De Ho Man.”¬†He performed in the 1930s in a series of short films for¬†Paramount. Calloway’s and Ellington’s groups were featured on film more than any other jazz orchestras of the era. In these films, Calloway can be seen performing a gliding backstep dance move, which some observers have described as the precursor to¬†Michael Jackson’s¬†moonwalk. Calloway said 50 years later, “it was called The Buzz back then.” The 1933 film¬†International House¬†featured Calloway performing his classic song, “Reefer Man,” a tune about a man who smokes¬†marijuana.

Calloway made his first Hollywood¬†feature film¬†appearance opposite¬†Al Jolson¬†in¬†The Singing Kid¬†(1936). He sang several duets with Jolson, and the film included Calloway’s band and 22 Cotton Club dancers from New York.

In 1938, Calloway released¬†Cab Calloway’s Cat-ologue: A “Hepster’s” Dictionary, the first dictionary published by an African American. It became the official¬†jive language¬†reference book of the¬†New York Public Library.¬†A revised version of the book was released with¬†Professor Cab Calloway’s Swingformation Bureau¬†in 1939. He released the last edition,¬†The New Cab Calloway’s Hepsters Dictionary: Language of Jive,¬†in 1944.

His renown as a talented musician was such that, in the opening scene of the 1940 musical film¬†Strike Up the Band, starring¬†Mickey Rooney¬†and¬†Judy Garland, Rooney’s character is admonished by his music teacher, “You are not Cab Calloway,” after playing an improvised drum riff in the middle of a band lesson.

From 1941 to 1942, Calloway hosted a weekly radio quiz show called The Cab Calloway Quizzicale. During the years of World War II, Calloway entertained troops in United States before they departed overseas.

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In 1943, Calloway appeared in the film¬†Stormy Weather, one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to feature an entire black cast.¬†The film featured other top performers of the time, including¬†Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Lena Horne,¬†the Nicholas Brothers and Fats Waller. In the late 1940s, however, Calloway’s bad financial decisions and his gambling caused his band to break up.

In December 1945, Calloway and his friend Felix H. Payne Jr. were beaten by a police officer, William E. Todd and arrested in Kansas City, Missouri after attempting to visit bandleader Lionel Hampton at the whites-only Pla-Mor Ballroom. They were taken to the hospital for injuries, then charged with intoxication and resisting arrest. When Hampton learned of the incident he refused to continue the concert.

In 1952, Calloway was arrested in Leesburg, Virginia on his way to the race track in Charles Town, West Virginia. He was charged with speeding and attempted bribery of a policeman.

In 1956, Clarence Robinson, who produced revues at the original Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater and choreographed the movie Stormy Weather, cast Calloway as the main attraction for his project in Miami. The Cotton Club of Miami featured a traveling troupe of 48 performers.

The success of the shows led to the Cotton Club Revue of 1957 which made stops at the Royal Nevada Hotel in Las Vegas, the Theatre Under The Sky in Central Park and the Town Casino in Buffalo.

The Cotton Club Revue of 1959 also traveled to South America for engagements in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. They also stopped in Uruguay and Argentina before returning to North America which included a run on Broadway. The revue toured Europe in 1959 and 1960, bringing their act to Madrid, Paris and London.

Calloway remained a household name in the United States due to frequent TV appearances and occasional concerts in the US and Europe. In 1961 and 1962, he toured with the Harlem Globetrotters, providing halftime entertainment during their games.

Calloway was cast as “Yeller” in the film¬†The Cincinnati Kid¬†(1965) with¬†Steve McQueen,¬†Ann-Margret and¬†Edward G. Robinson. Calloway appeared on¬†The Ed Sullivan Show¬†on March 19, 1967, with his daughter Chris Calloway.¬†In 1967, he co-starred with¬†Pearl Bailey¬†as Horace Vandergelder in an all-black cast of¬†Hello, Dolly!¬†on¬†Broadway¬†during its original run.

In 1978, Calloway released a¬†disco¬†version of “Minnie the Moocher” on RCA which reached the¬†Billboard¬†R&B chart.¬†Calloway was introduced to a new generation when he appeared in the 1980 film¬†The Blues Brothers¬†performing “Minnie the Moocher.”

In January 1990, Calloway performed at the¬†Meyerhoff Symphony Hall with the¬†Baltimore Symphony.¬†That year he made a cameo appearance in¬†Janet Jackson’s music video “Alright.”¬†He continued to perform at Jazz festivals, including the¬†New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival¬†and Greenwood Jazz.¬†In 1992, he embarked on a month-long tour of European jazz festivals.

On June 12, 1994, Calloway suffered a stroke at his home in Westchester County, New York. He died five months later from pneumonia on November 18, 1994 at the age of 86 in a nursing home in Hockessin, Delaware. He was survived by his wife, five daughters and seven grandsons. Calloway is buried at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.

Music critics have written of his influence on later generations of entertainers such as James Brown, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, as well as modern-day hip-hop & R&B performers.✪