Cab Calloway

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Whether Cab Calloway was a better singer or band leader is sometimes debated, but truthfully he was the same energetic hipster whether facing the band or the microphone. Calloway’s band was a reflection of his personality rather than having its own unique sound, as did those of Glenn Miller and Harry James. He was definitely the star of the show, though he spared little expense in backing his vocals with the finest musicians. Calloway had no illusions about the importance of the band, stating, “I’m up front there doing my act, but it’s the guys themselves who are making this band what it is.” In truth he hired the musicians, shaped their playing, and gave them their identity.

Calloway’s band was a reflection of his personality rather than having its own unique sound, as did those of Glenn Miller and Harry James.

As a swing band his group had just as much punch as Count Basie’s but they employed a somewhat looser style. Buster Harding directed the band and wrote its arrangements, and he knew how to showcase such excellent musicians as Doc Cheatham, Jonah Jones, Ben Webster, Hilton Jefferson, Milt Hinton, Shad Collins, Tyree Glenn, Cozy Cole, Dizzy Gillespie, and Chu Berry, as well as Calloway himself. Unfortunately, the recording ban hit just as the band was at its peak.

In live appearances, Calloway encouraged his musicians to take solos and improvise freely, but he was always front and center on his recordings, with the band blowing up a storm between his vocal flights. Calloway’s vocals were hot, hot, hot—but he could also match Jolson for sentimentality. He sang about drug addicts and sex and got away with it by using slang that was unrecognizable to white record company executives and audiences. Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler wrote “Kicking the Gong Around,” a paean to opium, which Calloway sang at the Cotton Club. “Minnie the Moocher,” his best known number, was also about a dope fiend—bet you didn’t know that. (Calloway’s coauthors on “Minnie” were Clarence Gaskill and Irving Mills, the latter the king of the cut-in.) Calloway sang freely though cryptically about sex in such songs as Arlen and Koehler’s “Trickeration” and Fats Waller’s “Six or Seven Times.”

It’s quite apt to compare Calloway to Jolson, though Calloway was not nearly as lachrymose. He was, however, practically Hebraic in some of his intonation—in fact, he sang a number of songs in Yiddish! This mixture of blues, jazz, and cantorial crooning made Calloway one of the most eclectic singers in popular song.

His fearless performances translated well to both stage and screen. While still in his teens he appeared in Chicago in the Plantation Revue; in 1929 he appeared on Broadway in Hot Chocolates; and he returned to the stage in an historic 1953 revival of Porgy and Bess and then, almost forty years after his Broadway debut, played opposite Pearl Bailey in Hello, Dolly! Following a role in an unfortunate revival of The Pajama Game, he was featured in Bubbling Brown Sugar in 1980 and made his last Broadway appearance in Uptown… It’s Hot! in 1986. He made his film debut as a voice in a series of surrealistic Betty Boop cartoons in the early 1930s, going on to perform in a series of films with and without his band up to 1980’s The Blues Brothers.

Even in his final appearances Calloway retained all the irrepressible wit and energy of his early years. Today people still recognize and adore “The Hi-De-Ho Man” in the sparkling zoot suit, through his film appearances and recordings. (KB)

Heavy thinking and remembering

Having made only $50 from the successful “Memphis Blues,” Handy looked around for a suitable subject for another blues song. He remembered a time a few years earlier, when he was “unshaven, wanting even a decent meal, and standing before the lighted saloon in St. Louis, without a shirt under my frayed coat.” He also recalled a “woman whose pain seemed even greater. She had tried to take the edge off her grief by heavy drinking, but it hadn’t worked. Stumbling along the poorly lighted street, she muttered as she walked, ‘My man’s got a heart like a rock cast in the sea.’ By the time I had finished all this heavy thinking and remembering, I figured it was time to get something down on paper, so I wrote, ‘I hate to see de evenin’ sun go down.’ If you ever had to sleep on the cobbles down by the river in St. Louis, you’ll understand the complaint.”St. Louis Blues

Tells a story

Harold Arlen: "The words sustain your interest, make sense, contain memorable phrases and tell a story. Without the lyric, the song would be just another song."That Old Black Magic

But what can I do?

Johnny Mercer meant his 1942 lyric, set to Harold Arlen’s tune, to refer specifically to Judy Garland, with whom he was having an affair. The song consists of the famous line: “I should stay away, but what can I do?”That Old Black Magic

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