Calloway was a master of energetic scat singing and led one of the United States' most popular African American big bands from the start of the 1930s through the late 1940s. Calloway's Orchestra featured performers that included trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Adolphus "Doc" Cheatham, saxophonists Ben Webster and Leon "Chu" Berry, New Orleans guitar ace Danny Barker, and bassist Milt Hinton. Calloway continued to perform until his death in 1994 at the age of 86.
After graduating from high school Cab joined his older sister, Blanche, in a touring production of the popular black musical revue Plantation Days (Blanche Calloway herself would become an accomplished bandleader before her brother did, and Cab would often credit his inspiration to enter show business to her). Cab attended Lincoln University, PA , and left in 1930 without graduating.
When the tour ended in Chicago in the fall, Cab decided to remain in Chicago with his sister, who had an established career as a jazz singer in that city. His parents had hopes of their son becoming a lawyer like his father, so Calloway enrolled in Crane College.
His main interest, however, was in singing and entertaining, and he spent most of his nights at the Dreamland Cafe the Sunset Cafe and the Club Berlin, performing as a drummer, singer and emcee.
At the Sunset Cafe he met and performed with Louis Armstrong who taught him to sing in the "scat" style.
The Cotton Club was the premier jazz venue in the country, and Cab Calloway and his Orchestra (he had taken over a brilliant but failing band called "The Missourians" in 1930) were hired as a replacement for the Duke Ellington Orchestra while they were touring. (There is some speculation that Mafia pressure was responsible for Cab's hiring.) Calloway quickly proved so popular that his band became the "co-house" band with Ellington's, and Cab and his group began touring nationwide when not playing the Cotton Club. Their popularity was greatly enhanced by the twice-weekly live national radio broadcasts on NBC at the Cotton Club. Calloway also appeared on Walter Winchell's radio program and with Bing Crosby in his show at the Paramount Theatre. As a result of these appearances, Calloway, together with Ellington, broke the major broadcast network color barrier.
Unlike many other bands of comparable commercial success, Calloway's gave ample soloing space to its lead members, and, through the varied arrangements of Walter 'Foots' Thomas, provided much more in the way of musical interest.
In 1931, he recorded his most famous song, "Minnie the Moocher". That song, "St. James Infirmary Blues", and "The Old Man Of The Mountain" were performed for the Betty Boop animated shorts Minnie the Moocher, Snow White and The Old Man of the Mountain, respectively. Through rotoscoping, Cab not only gave his voice to these cartoons but his dance steps as well. Cab took advantage of this and timed his concerts in some communities with the release of the films in order to make the most of the attention. As a result of the success of "Minnie the Moocher" he became identified with its chorus, gaining the nickname "The Hi De Ho Man." He also performed in a series of short films for Paramount in the 1930s (Calloway and Ellington were featured on film more than any other Jazz Orchestra of the era). In 1943 he appeared in the high-profile 20th Century Fox musical film, Stormy Weather.
In 1941 Cab Calloway fired Dizzy Gillespie from his Orchestra after an onstage fracas erupted when Calloway was hit with spitballs. He wrongly accused Gillespie, who stabbed Calloway in the leg with a small knife.
In 1944, The New Cab Calloway's Hepsters Dictionary: Language of Jive was published, an update of an earlier book in which Cab set about translating jive for fans who might not know, for example, that "kicking the gong around" was a reference to smoking opium.
In the 1950s, Calloway moved his family from Long Island, NY, to Greenburgh, NY, to raise the three youngest of his five daughters.
In his later career, Calloway became a popular personality, appearing in a number of films and stage productions that utilized both his acting and singing talents. In 1952, he played the prominent role of "Sportin' Life" in a production of the Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess with William Warfield and Leontyne Price as the title characters. Another notable role was "Yeller" in The Cincinnati Kid (1965), with Steve McQueen, Ann-Margret and Edward G. Robinson.
In 1967 Calloway co-starred as Horace Vandergelder in an all-black revival of Hello, Dolly! (even though the original production was still running) starring Pearl Bailey. This was a major success and led to a cast recording released by RCA. In 1973–1974 he was featured in an unsuccessful Broadway revival of The Pajama Game alongside Hal Linden and Barbara McNair.
1976 saw the release of his autobiography, Of Minnie The Moocher And Me (Crowell). It included his complete Hepsters Dictionary as an appendix.
Calloway attracted renewed interest in 1980 when he appeared as a supporting character in the film The Blues Brothers, performing "Minnie The Moocher", and again when he sang "The Jumpin' Jive" with the Two-Headed Monster on Sesame Street. This was also the year cult movie Forbidden Zone was released, which included rearrangements and parodies of Cab Calloway songs written by Danny Elfman, a Calloway fan.
Calloway helped establish the Cab Calloway Museum at Coppin State College (Baltimore, Maryland) in the 1980s and Bill Cosby helped establish a scholarship in Cab Calloway's name at the New School of Social Research New York City. In 1994, a creative and performing arts school Cab Calloway School of the Arts was dedicated in his name in Wilmington, Delaware.
In 1986, Calloway appeared at World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE)'s WrestleMania 2 as a guest judge for a boxing match between Rowdy Roddy Piper and Mr. T that took place Nassau Coliseum. Also in 1986 he headlined to great success a gala ball for 4,000 celebrating the grand opening of one of the top hotels in the U.S. at the time, Dallas-based Rosewood Hotel Co.'s Hotel Crescent Court in Dallas, Texas. In 1990 made a cameo in Janet Jackson's video for "Alright". In the United Kingdom he also appeared in several commercials for the Hula Hoops snack, both as himself and as a voice for a cartoon (in one of these commercials he sang his hit "Minnie The Moocher"). He also made an appearance at the Apollo Theater.
|2008||Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award||Honoree|
|1999||Grammy Hall of Fame Award||Minnie the Moocher||Brunswick (1931)||Inducted||Jazz (Single)|
|1987||Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame||Inducted|
|1967||Best Performances||Outer Critics Circle Awards||Winner||Hello, Dolly Musical|
Father- Cabell Calloway II (Lawyer)
Mother- Martha Eulalia Reed (Teacher)
Sister- Blanche Calloway (Bandleader)
Wife- Betty (div.)
Wife- Nuffie (m. 1945, until his death)
Girlfriend- Zelma Proctor (high school)
Daughter: Camay Murphy (by Zelma)
Daughter: Chris Calloway
Daughter: Eulalia Tyson
Daughter: Cabella Langsam