With his attire ranging from a fedora and zoot suit to a top hat and tails, Cab’s scat singing and dancing along with his energetic style and comedic personality made him a perennial favorite. In 1931 Cab recorded his biggest hit, “Minnie the Moocher,” which became his signature song and gave him the nick name, the “Hi De Ho Man.” The song was the first jazz record to sell over one million copies, and his band broke all existing audience records for an all black band. He had one hit recording after another with many of them being used in films and cartoons. He did voice-over work and appeared in a number of movies including Stormy Weather (1943).
Calloway was born on Christmas day 1907, on Sycamore St. in Rochester NY where he lived with his family for 11 years before they moved to Baltimore. His parents wanted him to follow in the family business and become a lawyer. He tried law school in Chicago, but found himself spending his evenings performing in local night clubs.
He got his first taste of show biz after high school when he joined his older sister, Blanch, in a touring production of a black musical revue, Plantation Days. She would establish herself as a jazz singer and an accomplished bandleader before Cab, but he always gave her credit for being his inspiration.
Cab began performing as a singer and drummer and emceed at several clubs around Chicago. At the Sunset Café he met Louie Armstrong who taught him the art of “scat” singing. He first led a band called the Alabamians and next took over the Missourians. Cab and the Missourians performed at the Cotton Club in New York City where they were hired to replace the Duke Ellington Orchestra while on tour. Twice weekly their shows were broadcast on national radio. Cab broke the broadcast network color barrier by appearing as the featured artist on Walter Winchell’s Lucky Strike radio program and Bing Crosby’s show at the Paramount Theater. Cab Calloway and His Orchestra toured all over the country. One night in 1941, while on stage, Cab felt a spit ball hit him, coming from the direction of his orchestra. He wrongly accused his trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie which resulted in a scuffle and Dizzy stabbing Cab in the leg with a small knife. Needless to say Dizzy was looking for a new gig the next day.
In 1944, The New Cab Calloway’s Hepsters Dictionary: Language of Jive was published. Cab translated jive for the uninformed fan. “Kicking the gong around” was jive for smoking opium. He popularized the term, “Jitterbug.”
Cab won the Grammy Hall of Fame Award for 1999 and the Grammy Life Time Achievement Award of 2008. He’s in the Big Band Hall of Fame as well as the Jazz Hall of Fame, and you can see him in the movie the Blues Brothers. He continued to perform right up until his death in 1994 at the age of 88.