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Calloway, Cab (ell III)

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Calloway, Cab (ell III), flamboyant American singer, bandleader, and songwriter; b. Rochester, N.Y., Dec. 25, 1907; d. Greenburgh, N.Y., Nov. 18, 1994. Calloway was an exuberant entertainer whose dancing and mugging tended to overshadow his abilities as a singer and bandleader, though he scored a series of hits, especially in the 1930s, and fronted a worthy jazz ensemble, especially in the 1940s. Primarily a live performer, he also had a successful career in films and on the legitimate stage. Among his biggest hits were “Minnie the Moocher” and “(Hep-Hep!) The Jumpin’ Jive.”

Calloway was the son of Cabell Calloway II, a lawyer, and Eulalia Reed Calloway, a teacher. In his youth, the family moved to Baltimore, and he was a boy soprano in the church choir, later singing in the Baltimore Melody Boys, a quartet. The family moved to Chicago, and he had a band while attending Douglass H.S., from which he graduated in 1927. He enrolled as a pre-law student at Crane Coll. in Chicago but began to appear in the all-black revue Plantation Days at the Loop Theatre with his older sister Blanche, herself a singer and bandleader. He also worked as a relief drummer and master of ceremonies at the Sunset Café. In 1928 he began singing with and fronting the band the Alabamians.

Also in 1928, Calloway entered into a common-law marriage with Wenonah Conacher; they had a daughter. He later married a second woman, with whom he adopted a second daughter. In 1942 he met a woman named Nuffie, with whom he fathered two more daughters, Chris and Lael, before arranging a divorce from his wife and marrying Nuffie in 1949. They had a third daughter, Cabella. Both Chris and Lael Calloway became performers and appeared with their father.

In the fall of 1928, Calloway went to N.Y. and worked with the band the Missourians. Back in Chicago in April 1929, he and the Alabamians appear at the Merry Gardens. But he returned to N.Y. and appeared in the all-black Broadway revue Hot Chocolates, which opened June 20 and ran 228 performances. In October he and the Alabamians appeared in N.Y. at the Savoy Ballroom, but the group broke up after the unsuccessful engagement. Acquiring Irving Mills of the Mills Music publishing company as his manager, Calloway returned to the Missourians and reorganized them. Recording for Brunswick as the Jungle Band, they scored their first hit in December 1930 with “St. Louis Blues” (music and lyrics by W. C. Handy).

In February 1931, as Cab Calloway and His Orch., the group headlined at the Cotton Club, replacing Duke Ellington. On March 9 they recorded “Minnie the Moocher” (music and lyrics by Calloway, Mills, and Clarence Gaskill, based on the traditional song “Willy the Weeper”); it became a best-seller in April and was Calloway’s signature song from then on. Calloway continued to appear at the Cotton Club regularly throughout the 1930s, and his major hits of the period, many of them featured in the club’s revues, included “St. James Infirmary” (music and lyrics by Joe Primrose; 1931), “Kickin’ the Gong Around” (music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Ted Koehler; 1931), “Trickeration” (music by Arlen, lyrics by Koehler; 1931), “Minnie the Moocher’s Wedding Day” (music by Arlen, lyrics by Koehler; 1932), “Moon Glow” (music and lyrics by Will Hudson, Eddie DeLange, and Irving Mills; 1934), and “Chinese Rhythm” (1934). In 1939 he scored a million-seller with “(Hep-Hep!) The Jumpin’ Jive” (music and lyrics by Calloway, Jack Palmer, and Frank Froeba). He also appeared in the films The Big Broadcast (1932), International House (1933), The Singing Kid (1936), and Manhattan Merry-Go-Round (1937).

In the 1940s, Calloway led a celebrated band anchored by such notable instrumentalists as Dizzy Gillespie, Chu Berry, and Milt Hinton. He reached the Top Ten of the pop charts in March 1942 with “Blues in the Night” (music by Arlen, lyrics by Johnny Mercer) and the Top Ten of the R&B charts in February 1946 with “The Honeydripper” (music and lyrics by Joe Liggins), and he appeared in the films Stormy Weather (1943) and Sensations of 1945 (1944).

The decline of the Swing Era forced Calloway to break up his big band in April 1948, though he reformed it on a temporary basis for specific engagements. For the most part he led bands ranging in size from four to seven pieces for the next several years. In June 1952 he was cast in a touring production of Porgy and Bess that played in the U.S. and Europe for more than two years, finishing in August 1954. He appeared in the W. C. Handy film biography St. Louis Blues in 1958, in the film The Cincinnati Kid in 1965, in an all-black replacement cast in the Broadway musical Hello, Dolly! in 1967, and in the Broadway revue Bubbling Brown Sugar in the late 1970s. He continued to record occasionally, and last reached the R&B charts with a rerecording of “Minnie the Moocher” in 1978.

Calloway made his final film appearance in The Blues Brothers in 1980 but remained active until shortly before his death following a stroke at age 86 in 1994.

Calvé (real name, Calvet de Roquer), (Rosa-Noémie) Emma [next] [back] Calloway, Cab (1907–1994)

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