Without Cab Calloway, it is hard to imagine there would have been a Michael Jackson or a Prince or hip-hop moves.
If that sounds like hyperbole, tune in to PBS' "Cab Calloway: Sketches," an "American Masters" presentation airing Monday, Feb. 27 (check local listings). Calloway, for those who have not had the pleasure, was the ultimate entertainer.
He was an orchestra leader, singer, dancer and actor with unparalleled flair. Calloway had that elusive X-factor; it was impossible to not watch him when he was onstage.
Maybe it was the million-watt smile, for when he smiled this huge, wraparound-the-face smile, you had to smile back. It could have been that he had a sound like no other: a melding of jazz with the plaintive wailings found in Jewish liturgical music. Watching him perform is to watch someone filled with joy, and he can't help but spread it.
For those who need documentaries that explain when and where people were born and what experiences forged them into whom they became, this will not satisfy. This is, as the title references, a sketch.
"I have made a number of 'American Masters,' and I tend to feel the life is the essence of the guy -- not to say the dates and when they were born is not important. I talked about Baltimore and Blanche," filmmaker Gail Levin says, referring to Calloway's hometown and his older sister who preceded him in show business.
One of the devices in the documentary is to watch an artist sketch, then paint Calloway, and ultimately that figure becomes animated.
"I wanted him to feel present again," Levin says. "I didn't want it to be about an old, dead guy. I wanted to try and make him feel present, which is the whole reason for the animation. I wanted him to dance again. It was a conscious decision not to make the traditional biographical benchmarks, the places to stop. It is more the spirit and the essence of him, and the glamour of him and the irrepressibility of him as the focus."
Calloway was an irrepressible force. He continued performing until his death at 86 in 1994. Seeing him in person was the sort of treat people revel in years later. He must have performed some songs 10,000 times, yet when he sang one of his huge hits, such as "The Reefer Man," it was still funny and fresh -- even when he was in his 80s.
Watching Calloway as a young man, in his tails and floppy hair, and as an old man, in his tails and floppy hair, as he performed in Europe, became a star in the Cotton Club and then on Broadway, notably in "Porgy and Bess," is to see pure genius. The film includes Max Fleischer's famous 1930's cartoons, which completely captured Calloway's essence, and other animation.
"I wanted to surprise you in the end," Levin says. "I wanted him to dance again. I wanted him to be alive again and be a subject and be helpful and present. I like animation as a concept. I like it when it is not a gimmick in the story. Here is a caricaturist and artist drawing the guy. The other thing is, and I find it to be amazing about Cab, who do you know that is a cartoon character in his lifetime at the same time being rendered, and children are getting the same songs, singing drug songs?"
Calloway's signature song, "Minnie the Moocher," had audiences singing its chorus, "Hi de hi de hi de ho," for decades. Millions have seen him perform that in the 1980 film "The Blues Brothers."
Interviews in the documentary include some of the film's musicians, Steve Cropper, Lou Marini and Donald "Duck" Dunne. Calloway impressed all of them.
Matthew Rushing, a choreographer and principal dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, talks about how the freedom of Calloway's hip-swaying, loose-limbed jive moves led to how people dance today.
Interspersed are interviews with Calloway including reminiscences about Harlem in the 1920s.
"For us, Harlem was the capital of the world and we loved it," he says.
A fun graphic in the film shows Harlem hot spots from the 1920s, including the Savoy Ballroom, "where I bombed with my first band," he says in the voice-over.
Calloway's children recall their dad.
"He was really very tall, very imposing, just a beautiful, beautiful creature," his oldest daughter, Camay, says. "And he had this odor about him. It was sort of like something you only smelled when you go backstage -- all these mixtures of perfume, cigarettes, the makeup. All of those kind of things were an aura."
There was an elegance and a dignity to Calloway but also a hipness that no one else came close to -- possibly ever. Calloway moved with the ease of someone for whom the spotlight was his natural habitat.
"I always feel, a little bit, certain people will come to the film because they do know him," Levin says. "And the ones who come who don't know him, I like to give them something rounder than straight biography."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun