Cab Calloway, the swing-era singer, actor and bandleader who soared to national popularity in the '30s and '40s on the
strength of such hits as "Minnie the Moocher" and "It Ain't Necessarily So," has died at the age of 86.
The Baltimore-bred musician suffered a serious stroke June 12 at his home in Westchester County, N.Y. He died Friday, at a retirement community in Hockessin, Del. after a battle with pneumonia, with his family by his side.
Famous for his jaunty, bluesy cry of "Hi-de-ho!," Mr. Calloway was one of the best-known personalities of the big band age. Although widely respected in professional circles for his skills as a bandleader -- he succeeded Duke Ellington at the famed Cotton Club in Harlem -- he enjoyed greater popular acclaim for his energy and verve onstage.
It was Mr. Calloway who served as the basis for the character Sportin' Life in George Gershwin's opera "Porgy and Bess," and Mr. Calloway who introduced the role on Broadway. He appeared with Lena Horne and Bill Robinson in the film "Stormy Weather," and played opposite Al Jolson in "The Singing Kid."
Though his career slowed after the big band era drew to a close, it never quite wound down. He appeared on Broadway in "Hello, Dolly" in the '70s, had a supporting role in the 1980 John Belushi/Dan Aykroyd comedy "The Blues Brothers," and even made a cameo appearance in the 1990 Janet Jackson video, "Alright."
Cabell Calloway III was born on Christmas Day, 1907, in Rochester, N.Y., but grew up in Baltimore. He was 10 when his family arrived in the city, settling on Druid Hill Avenue in West Baltimore.
As a youngster, Mr. Calloway showed impressive initiative, working a variety of jobs: Shining shoes at Tony's at North and Madison, caddying at the Baltimore Country Club, working at Katz Bros. grocery on Dolphin Street and operating the elevator at the Southern Hotel. He also hawked newspapers for The Sun on Eutaw Place. "Used to get 2 cents for it when I was selling," he recalled in a 1990 interview.
He also showed considerable musical promise. His mother, a teacher, was the organist and choir director at Grace Presbyterian on Dolphin Street, where young Cab was a choir member and soloist. He also played drums while attending Douglass High, but singing remained his strong point.
"I played at the Lyric Theater in 1927," he said in an interview. "I was with this high school outfit, and I sang Coleridge's 'Farewell to Minnehaha.' I was originally trained for classical music. Jazz came later with me."
Mr. Calloway's last local performance was at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, with the Baltimore Symphony Pops on Jan. 26-27, 1990.
After graduating from high school, Mr. Calloway moved with his family to Chicago, where he enrolled in Crane College hoping for a career in law, like his father. Instead, he wound up taking a cue from his sister, Blanche, and fell into a music career.
Like her mother, Blanche Calloway was a talented musician, and fact had established herself as a successful bandleader well before her brother even got started.
"As a matter of fact, she's the one that took me from Baltimore," he said later. "She came to Baltimore in a show. That was 1926 or '27. And I left with her and went to Chicago to continue my education. I wanted to take a prelaw course -- that didn't last too long. Chicago's faster than Baltimore. I got involved in the band business out there."
It was a slow start at first. Joe Glaser, a Chicago club owner at the time, reported many years later that " Cab Calloway started for me at 35 a week, while his sister, Blanche, was making two or three hundred."
But Blanche did her best to shepherd her sibling's career. She got him a role in the musical "Plantation Days," and later allowed him to play intermission breaks for her ensemble. But Cab didn't stay long in the role of "Blanche Calloway's Little Brother." By the late '20s, his Alabamians were playing regularly in Chicago, while he himself landed a feature role on Broadway in Lew Leslie's "Blackbirds of 1928."
A year later, Mr. Calloway was fronting a new band, the Missourians, and had established himself in New York. In addition to working regularly at Connie's Inn in Harlem, he had landed a leading role in the revue, "Hot Chocolates." By mid-1930, the Missourians were recording as Cab Calloway and His Orchestra, and within months were regulars at the Cotton Club in Harlem.
It was in 1931 that Mr. Calloway made his biggest breakthrough. Trying his hand at songwriting, he worked up a number about "a red-hot hootchie-coocher" called "Minnie the Moocher." An immediate success, it became his signature song, even making it into the movies, thanks to his performance in "The Big Broadcast."
But the song was more than just another pop hit. "Minnie the Moocher," with its colorful, almost surreal lyrics and catchy, call-and-response chorus, was the perfect vehicle for Mr. Calloway. Making the most of his talents as a musician and entertainer, it also provided him with an image -- that of the infectious, ebullient hipster -- that he would carry for the rest of his long career.
"Minnie the Moocher" also marked the first appearance of "hi-de-ho" in Mr. Calloway's recorded repertoire. Though the phrase would become a Calloway trademark, he confessed later that it was originally just a happy accident.
"I forgot a lyric, and put in the 'hi-de-ho' phrase to cover it," he said. "I put it in out of nowhere. That hi-de-ho just came out of the clouds, and it was something that hit."
Mr. Calloway did his best to capitalize on the hi-de-ho craze, turning out a series of songs with titles like "Hi-De-Ho Man," "Hi-De-Ho Romeo" and "Hi-De-Ho Serenade," but its most lasting influence was in the world of opera. George Gershwin composed a similar call-and-response piece for his opera, "Porgy and Bess." Entitled "It Ain't Necessarily So," it belonged to the slick, charismatic con man Sportin' Life -- a role that was written expressly for Mr. Calloway.
Mr. Calloway was unable to accept Gershwin's invitation to perform as Sportin' Life in the opera's premiere. "I wanted to play it, but I had my first shot at going to Europe, so I couldn't take it," he later told The Sun. "Europe was more inviting."
Mr. Calloway's jazz career was at its hottest then. After "Minnie the Moocher" came a string of jivey, danceable hits: "St. James' Infirmary" (1931), "Moon Glow" (1934) and the million-selling "(Hep-Hep!) The Jumpin' Jive" (1939).
Yet as much as such songs played off Mr. Calloway's scat singing and brash showmanship, they were backed by an impressive degree of musicianship. He led a first-rate jazz band throughout the '30s and '40s, and a number of well-known jazz musicians were alumni of his organization. Among the best were trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie (whose solo on "Pickin' Up the Cabbage" in 1940 is cited by many critics as a milestone on the road to be-bop), Jonah Jones and Doc Cheatham; saxophonists Chu Berry and Ben Webster; bassist Milt Hinton; and drummers Cozy Cole and Panama Francis.
Eventually, the big band era came to a close, and by 1948, the Calloway Orchestra had played its last "hi-de-ho." But the singer himself kept right on working, particularly in the musical theater. He played Sportin' Life in the 1952 Broadway revival of "Porgy and Bess" and toured extensively in the role. He also appeared with Pearl Bailey in an all-black production of "Hello, Dolly" in 1974 and a few years later was featured in a revival of "The Pajama Game."
In 1976, Mr. Calloway recounted his career in the memoir "Of Minnie the Moocher and Me." But even that failed to bring down the curtain on his performing life, as he took a role in the 1980 comedy "The Blues Brothers," in which he once again reprised "Minnie the Moocher."
Despite the length of his career, Mr. Calloway's discography is surprisingly slim. "I never got deep into the recording thing," he told The Sun in 1990. "I never wanted to, and never will. If they don't make a hit at the time they make a record, you're dead. I didn't want to be a record star. I've been going now for 63 years, and I never wanted for nothing. To be a record star -- I could name 20 big record stars that came up and they're gone."
Now Mr. Calloway, too, is gone, and though other singers will undoubtedly sound the "hi-de-ho" refrain to "Minnie the Moocher," it will hardly seem the same.
--J. D. Considine
Originally published November 20, 1994