Cab Calloway - vocals; Unidentified band; Special guest:; Jimmy Slyde - tap dancing
A consummate entertainer, Cab Calloway's unmistakable charisma reached to the back row in every venue he ever played. His frantic stage moves and wild showmanship during the 1930s big band era laid the groundwork for jivesters like Louis Jordan and Louis Prima as well as proto-rockers Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. And his slick dance moves while conducting his big band (including an early precursor of The Moonwalk) pre-dated Michael Jackson's stage choreography by four decades. A pioneering jivester, Calloway took the seeds planted by Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller in the 1920s and reaped a righteous harvest in the 1930s. By the summer of 1977, though a few months shy of his 70th birthday, Cab was past his prime but still in fine voice and able to deliver an exuberant performance at the Grande Parade du Jazz in Nice on the French Riviera.
The opener, "Stormy Weather," finds him testifying in dramatic tones on that bluesy lament from the 1943 film that he appeared in with singer Lena Horne. Switching from melancholy to upbeat, he delves into a Vegas-y take on "You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves," a tune closely associated with Dean Martin. Sticking with fairly contemporary fare, he presents tap dancer Jimmy Slyde on a swinging instrumental run through of the Broadway show tune "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever." Cab next channels his slick character Sportin' Life from George and Ira Gershwin's Porgy and Bess for a faithful reading of the bluesy "It Ain't Necessarily So," replete with some audacious scatting from the jive maestro. He closes out his Nice set with a frantically swinging, syncopated romp through "Ol' Man River" from the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein musical Showboat.
A handsome, dapper man, Calloway became a household name throughout America in 1932 on the strength of his breakthrough hit song, "Minnie the Moocher." He proceeded to marry his playful, good humored nature to jazz in a string of jive anthems that followed, including "Are You Hep to the Jive?," "Are You All Reet?," "We the Cats Shall Hep Ya" and "Jumpin' Jive." His appearances on radio, in movies (The Big Broadcast of 1932, International House and Stormy Weather) and cartoons of the day (Betty Boop, Jack Frost) further elevated his profile in the 1930s. And in 1936, the publication of Cab Calloway's Hepster's Dictionary (an annotated glossary of his expansive jive vocabulary) helped to spread the word of jive talk, fanning the flames of this popular fad.
In the early years of the Great Depression, when millions of Americans were out of work, displaced from their farms and wholly dependent on governmental handouts and food banks, Calloway was earning $50,000 a year and living in high style - wearing the finest clothes, driving a big green Lincoln convertible around town, flashing a smoldering sensuality and attracting throngs of admiring females wherever he went. As Al Quaglieri wrote in his liner notes to the 1994 Columbia Records compilation, Are You Hep to the Jive? : "That toothy, worldwise grin…that thin moustache…those lascivious eyes…that tangle of shiny black hair dangling carelessly over his forehead. Since time began, whenever parents warned their daughters about dangerous men, this was the very guy they meant."
Born on Christmas Day in 1907 in Rochester, New York, Cabell Calloway was raised in a middle class section of Baltimore. He became a star basketball player in high school and had dreams of turning pro but eventually decided on a career in music instead. Inspired by the flamboyant drummer and bandleader Chick Webb, he turned to drums and played briefly in a 10-piece band around Baltimore. After graduating from high school in 1927, he joined an all-male vocal quartet that was featured in a touring production of a black revue called Plantation Days. The show eventually traveled to Chicago in September of that year.
In January of 1928, Cab began singing at the Dreamland Café, right across the street from the Sunset Café, where Louis Armstrong was the talk of Chicago. By the Spring of '28, Calloway became the emcee at the Sunset, where he and Armstrong worked together for about six months. Two years later, Armstrong would be responsible for getting Cab his first major gig in New York in the cast of the musical revue, Hot Chocolates. "I suppose that Louis was one of the main influences in my career," he wrote in his autobiography, Of Minnie the Moocher and Me. "Later on, I began to scat sing with all of that hi-de-ho-ing. Louis first got me freed up from straight lyrics to try scatting."
By November of 1929, Calloway was back in New York leading The Alabamians at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. The following year he took over leadership of The Missourians, which eventually replaced Duke Ellington's band at The Cotton Club. It was there that Cab developed his dazzling showmanship and slick brand of jive that would launch him to stardom. His 1931 recording of "Minnie the Moocher," with its catchy call-and-response chorus of "hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-ho," made him an overnight sensation. That tune would become Calloway's theme song and he continued to perform it for audiences over the next six decades.
Cab always hired first-rate jazz musicians in his bands. Such stellar instrumentalists as bassist Milt Hinton, guitarist Danny Barker, saxophonist Ben Webster and a precocious young trumpeter named John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie passed through the ranks of Calloway's bands in the 1930s. His longstanding engagement at the Cotton Club finally ended in 1940 and by 1947 Cab reluctantly broke up his big band and scaled down to a septet he called The Cab Jivers.
In 1950, Calloway opened on Broadway in a revival of the George & Ira Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess. He played the role of Sportin' Life opposite opera star Leontyne Price in that production which ran for three-and-a-half years. In 1967, he starred in an all-black production of Hello Dolly with Pearl Bailey. A cameo appearance in the popular 1980 film The Blues Brothers helped spark renewed interest in this jive pioneer. Cab continued to perform in public well into his 80's before suffering a stroke in May, 1994. He died six months later on November 18, 1994. (Bill Milkowski)