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Retro Baltimore: Cab Calloway, king of the Hi De Ho

Cab Calloway.
Cab Calloway.(Baltimore Sun file photo)

Cab Calloway was still in Frederick Douglass High School when a drama critic with The Afro-American newspaper observed “When Broadway taps this boy, goodbye Baltimore.” The year was 1924 and Calloway was 16 and performing at a student show at a Pennsylvania Avenue theater.

“Folks up front couldn’t get enough of young Calloway,” the review said. [He] single handed held down the show." Cab (Cabell) Calloway was born Dec. 25, 1907 in Rochester, New York and came to Baltimore as a 10-year old. His family was musical. His mother was a Presbyterian church organist and his sister Blanche later headed her own jazz orchestra and recorded widely.

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Cab Calloway's former home is boarded up like much of the 2200 block of Druid Hill Avenue in Baltimore.
Cab Calloway's former home is boarded up like much of the 2200 block of Druid Hill Avenue in Baltimore.(Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Calloway, whose family home on Druid Hill Avenue has been threatened by demolition, burst out as a Baltimore star while still a Douglass student. Before his graduation, he was singing with Ike Dixon’s Society Orchestra at the old New Albert Hall on Pennsylvania Avenue. He soon moved on to appear at The Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C.

He was also an ace basketball player on the Douglass team. In his last year at Douglass, he started playing professional basketball with the Baltimore Athenians, a black team that appeared in West Virginia, Ohio, New York and Maryland.

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He also worked hard. He hot-walked thoroughbred horses at Pimlico, had a job at Loew’s Century Theatre on Lexington Street, waited tables at the Rennert Hotel and operated the Southern Hotel’s elevator. And yes, he was also a caddie at the Baltimore Country Club in Roland Park.

He impressed his Douglass classmates. He bought a used 1923 Oldsmobile at time when it was rare for a high school student to own a car.

The newspaper critic who predicted that Calloway would not last long in Baltimore was correct. He soon was fronting bands in Chicago and making a name for himself on national radio broadcasts.

Cab Calloway with Kids, 1938
(Milt Hinton)

By 1929 he was tapped to replace Louis Armstrong in the Broadway show, Hot Chocolates. Calloway sang, “Ain’t Misbehavin'” the song composed by another legendary black entertainer, Thomas “Fats” Waller.

A Harlem gossip columnist Geraldyn Dismond wrote in 1929, some parts of Hot Chocolates could “make even a flapper blush.”

By 1930 he was touring with that show and appeared on West Franklin Street at the old Maryland Theater

“I spent a lot of my time in that rough and raucous Baltimore Negro night life with loud music, heavy drinking, and the kind of moral standards or lack of them that my parents looked down on,” he wrote in his memoir, ‘Of Minnie the Moocher and Me.’ “I managed pretty well in both of these worlds, I suppose, because I was accustomed to thinking for myself.”

“It was very embarrassing for [my mother] to have such a hell-raising son,” he wrote in his memoirs. “I spent more days hanging out with the guys around Pimlico Racetrack than in school.”

His memoir was partially named in honor of his hit record, "Minnie the Moocher, which he produced on March 3, 1931.

It was a smash hit and he soon was appearing alongside Bing Crosby in the Paramount film, “The Big Broadcast.”

He became the master of fast-paced scat-jive vocals. His “Minnie” sold and sold and he was the first African-American artist to sell a million records from a single song. That song and Cab’s performance had incredible staying power and reached Billboard Magazine charts at times over five decades.

By 1935, on one of his visits back to Baltimore, he was received by Mayor Howard Jackson and was given a hero’s welcome.

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He made records through the 1940s and was also called upon to sing chorus after chorus of “Minnie.”

And he appeared in films, “Stormy Weather,” “Porgy and Bess,” “The Cincinnati Kid” and “Hello Dolly!”

Calloway remained a friend to Baltimore even after he moved away. In 1978 he returned in the cast of “Bubbling Brown Sugar" at the old Morris A. Mechanic Theatre. He stepped on stage, 47 years after introducing “Minnie” and sang it again. The audience went crazy.

Cab Calloway died in 1994. Several years earlier his daughter, Camay Calloway Murphy helped set up the Cab Calloway Jazz Institute at Coppin State College.

Cab Calloway, 1943, The Strand, New York, NY.
Cab Calloway, 1943, The Strand, New York, NY.

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