If Cab Calloway were still alive, he'd be 100 now. He'd be able to celebrate his centennial at this month's Artscape Festival during the second annual Cab Calloway Vocal Competition, created as a male counterpart to the long-running Billie Holiday contest. He'd be able to explain that, like Holiday, he got his start in music as a teenager in Baltimore and went on to sell many more records and concert tickets than she ever did. So why is she better known today? Why should we still care about Cab Calloway?
For anyone under the age of 65, the most likely memories of Calloway are of his cameo appearances in the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers and in Janet Jackson's 1990 video "Alright." But Calloway was 71 when the film was shot and 81 for the video, still an old pro, but hardly the ball of fire he'd once been. To understand why Calloway was perhaps the most popular African-American entertainer of the 30's and 40's, you have to turn to his performances in the 1943 picture, Stormy Weather.
The film creaks along until Calloway slides through the curtains in his trademark, blindingly white zoot suit to sing "Geechy Joe." A feather-bedecked hat brim is nearly as broad as his shoulders, the jacket lapels nearly as wide as the sleeves, the ribbon-like bow tie even wider than that. The golden parabola of his watch chain hangs low, between the knees of his baggy pants and the toes of his white shoes. The song swings hard and when the band brings the music to a climax, Calloway tops it off with improvised scatting.
Later, Calloway, in a black tux with tails, twirls a long, white baton on "The Jumpin' Jive." Bouncing on the balls of his feet, he dips down so his long hair falls in his face, whips his head back, widens his toothy grin, and shouts, "Can't you hear those hep cats call? Come on, boys, let's have a ball. The jim-jam-jump with the jumpin' jive makes you get your jive on the mellow side." As the band pumps out horn riffs behind him, Calloway trades shouts with the musicians and then with the audience, stirring up everything into an irresistible frenzy.
No wonder he was the first African American to be featured regularly on network radio and the first black artist with a number-one pop hit (1931's "Minnie the Moocher"). In his songs from Stormy Weather, Calloway anticipated much of what would dominate American music in the coming half century. "My grandfather was an individual beyond category," says Christopher Calloway Brooks, Cab's grandson and current leader of the Cab Calloway Orchestra. "He revolutionized jazz…. He was a founding father of R&B and thus of rock 'n' roll and hip-hop. He made the music simple enough and direct enough that it had a universal appeal.
"If you ask those artists in the 50's who their influences were, they would tell you. Louis Jordan would tell you. James Brown would tell you. Jimi Hendrix said the one big-band guy he could stand was Cab Calloway."
"You see this rapping they're doing today," Cab himself was quoted as saying. "I did that 25, 35, 45, 55 years ago."
An argument can be made that the roots of Calloway's unusual musical cocktail—a potent mix of Southern blues and Northern jazz, of low comedy and sophisticated swing, of vaudeville entertainment and virtuoso solos—can be traced to his days in Baltimore.
Because Maryland is a border state, a lot of people came here from the South with the blues, which mixed with the more schooled bands from the North. Because Baltimore is a port town, a lot of foreign influences were here as well. Calloway even injected Yiddish phrases and Jewish cantorial music into his bluesy jive on such numbers as "A Bee Gezindt" and "Utt-Da-Zay."
"People who have an ear pick up on all those sounds," suggests Camay Calloway Murphy, Cab's daughter and Brooks' mother, "and make it part of what they play. My father sure did. Also, Maryland was a destination for a lot of freed slaves, and they developed these strong institutions—churches, schools, hospitals. Growing up as an African American in those days, those institutions gave you a lot of confidence. Confidence is crucial in show business, and no one had more confidence than Cab Calloway."
Calloway's ties to Baltimore are complicated, however. He wasn't born here. He was born as Cabell Calloway in Rochester, New York, on Christmas Day, 1907, and he didn't move to Maryland until 10 years later. He left Baltimore for good in 1927 to pursue his professional career in Chicago and New York. The nine years he spent here, though, were critical, for it was then that he first started singing and band leading, developing the style and skills that would carry him forward the rest of his life.
He lived at 1017 Druid Hill Avenue. On many days, he'd sell The Baltimore Sun for three cents a piece, keeping a penny for himself. He might go to school for a few hours, but at lunchtime he was back on the street selling the afternoon papers. And in racing season, he'd end up at Pimlico Race Track, selling the racing forms and "walking the hots," cooling off the horses after they'd raced.
Even as a kid, he'd been such a loud, compelling singer that his mother got him voice lessons. During Prohibition, he'd sing in speakeasies and roadhouses for tips. Eventually he was leading his own quartet and developing his own sound in Baltimore's clubs.
"Goodlow's, the Arabian Tent, the Gaiety, and Bailey's were not clubs in the way we think of a club today," he wrote in his autobiography. "These were three-story houses with the living room converted into space for tables and chairs. There'd be someone cooking ribs and barbecue and pigs' feet in the kitchen. Everybody would be laughing and dancing and hollering behind the music, which was always loud."
Calloway promised his mother he'd go to college (and briefly attended law school), but he was itching to get started as a professional entertainer. His older sister, Blanche, was already doing it, and she came home to Baltimore's Royal Theatre in the summer of 1927 as one of the stars in the touring musical, Plantation Days. Cab, who had just graduated from Douglass High School, weaseled his way into the show and left Baltimore when it moved on to Pittsburgh, Detroit, Columbus, and Chicago.
In Chicago, Calloway landed a gig at the Sunset Café, where Louis Armstrong led the house band. When Armstrong left Chicago for New York, Calloway took over the band and eventually followed his mentor to New York. In 1931, Calloway succeeded Duke Ellington as leader of the house band at the Cotton Club in Harlem. That same year, he had the nation's number-one hit with "Minnie the Moocher" and its immortal "hi-de-hi-de-ho" refrain. He would keep his orchestra together until 1948, and he went on to star in Broadway productions of Porgy and Bess (1952), Hello, Dolly! (1967), and The Pajama Game (1973).
If Calloway was such a pivotal figure, why isn't he better remembered? For one thing, one of his strengths was comedy, and critics and historians have tended to undervalue comedy and entertainment in contrast to tragedy and catharsis. It's a tendency that has sometimes slighted the artistic achievements of Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Richard Pryor, John Waters, Louis Armstrong, and more.
"For guys like Cab and Louis," Brooks says, "everything is grist for the mill—the virtuosity, the comedy, the vocals. The emotional range my granddad would take an audience over [the course of] a performance was very wide. It wasn't all angry; it wasn't all sweet; it wasn't all funny. Some songs had them rolling in the aisles, and others had them crying in their programs."
A further handicap for Calloway was his emphasis on live performance over recordings. "Granddad always used to tell me that he was a performing artist, not a recording artist," Brooks remembers.
As a result, Brooks and Murphy work on keeping Calloway's legacy alive. Now 81 years old, Camay Murphy lives in Baltimore. On a recent afternoon, she was in the Coppin State University Library, giving a tour of an exhibit called Hi De Ho Zoot Suiter from Baltimore, a collection of Cab Calloway memorabilia that will be on display at the World Trade Center's Top of the World Level in July and August.
The exhibit contains rare photos, posters, and records, a pair of tan suede shoes Calloway wore on stage, an autographed photo of Blanche Calloway, and a signed 1950 contract. The centerpiece of the exhibit is a series of biographical oil paintings, by Nathaniel Gibbs, that were commissioned especially for the show.
Murphy grew up in New York, but often visited Baltimore to see family. "What I really admired about Baltimore," she recalls, "was its mixture of people. In New York if you were a doctor or a lawyer, you lived on Sugar Hill in Harlem. In Baltimore, lawyers lived next to domestic workers, doctors lived next to nurses."
The 1968 riots changed all that. "Those magnificent houses—my grandmother had a black-marble fireplace and nine-foot ceiling—were ruined," she says. "It wasn't just a white exodus; it was also a black exodus. When you leave your own people, those who get left behind are embittered, even if they don't know they're bitter. They throw trash out the window, and they tear down the Royal Theater. They forget their own history."
She doesn't want her father to be forgotten, because his accomplishments, and what they represent, resonate beyond the historical record. "I saw what was happening not just to my father's memory but to the whole musical tradition in Baltimore," says Murphy. "Musical offerings were diminishing in the schools, even though music requires exactly what our kids need—concentration, discipline, practice, a sense of community. So I started pushing for more music programs—not just in singing and playing but also in musical history.
"History is essential, because you have to have something to build on—creativity doesn't just come out of the sky."