Cab Calloway (1907-1994): An Appreciation

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Editor’s note: This column ran as part of an obituary package on the national Gannett News Service wire upon Cab Calloway’s passing in 1994.

by Nick DeRiso

Between the tombstones of the two World Wars, there emerged the knock-down joys of swing music. Perhaps no single figure from the period was more affable, or more famous, than was Cab Calloway.

Turns out, he’s still salve for a conflict-weary country, even after all this time.

Back then, the repeal of Prohibition, and the slow upward climb of American economics after the Great Depression fueled the frenzy around this upbeat jazz. The time was right, and maybe it is again, for an explosive, even wild, popular music.

Enter the hip phraseology — ooh-bop-sh’bam! — fresh, lowdown jackets and wide-brimmed hats. Enter, too, Cabell Calloway, who began his career as a big-band leader in 1929.

That was the year he took over leadership of a midwestern group called the Missourians, producing a brash sound that seemed, at the time, almost violently danceable. His singing, with a vast range that went from bone-deep bass to squinting falsetto, was astonishing — and completely outside the then-considered standard style of Louis Armstrong.

Onstage, he was just as visually explosive, juking around the bandstand, chicken-winging his arms.

It would be said, first and foremost, that Calloway was a dazzling, truly revelatory entertainer — and this was long before the word applied to people who try a lot of things and are good at none of them.

But, make no mistake about his fleet group of backing-band hipsters. From his units emerged some of the music’s most important names, including Ben Webster, Illinois Jacquet, Milt “The Judge” Hinton, Doc Cheatam, Don Redman and Danny Barker, among others. It was while touring, in fact, with Calloway’s band that a young Dizzy Gillespie would run into a saxophonist named Charlie Parker.

Result: the thing that would overtake swing — bebop.

Calloway became so popular that he would one day replace Ellington as the Cotton Club’s regular act. Along the way, he matched or bested any of the big bands for recorded output. The period included the sexy then smoking “Minnie the Moocher,” his first — and best — hit (embedded below). “Jumpin’ Jive,” another million seller, spawned one of the most popular dances during World War II.

By the late 1940s, however, the new sound coming from next-gen innovators like Bird had begun to matter more. Calloway’s core group disbanded, and he moved into film (“Stormy Weather”) and musical theater (“Hello, Dolly!” and “Porgy and Bess”). Gershwin, in fact, was said to have modeled the role of Sportin’ Life from “Porgy and Bess” on Calloway.

He continued to assemble the occasional band, and made a celebrated appearance in the 1980 hit film “The Blues Brothers.” But in the period leading up to his passing in the early 1990s, Calloway’s frisky, fun voice had been larely quieted.

Even today, though, like Ella or Sinatra, he seems to loom larger in silence.

Calloway could take funny and far-from-deep, even lyrically empty tunes and breathe swinging life into them. That seems as important in our modernity as it did back then.

These records are forever young. Calloway is always of sharp dress and even sharper attitude — head flung back, hair a-flying.

He scats, he scoots. “Hi-dee-hi-dee-hi-dee ho,” he sings, jowls going.

And, always, we smile.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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