Cab Calloway was an American jazz musician of the 20th century. He was born in Rochester, New York, on December 25, 1907 to Martha Eulalia Reed and Cabell Calloway, Jr., both of whom were college graduates. Martha was a teacher and church organist whereas Cabell was a lawyer and also worked in real estate. The family relocated to Baltimore, Maryland in 1918, to an area known as Sugar Hill, considered to be the economic and cultural centre for affluent blacks at the time. Cab belonged to a comfortably well off middle class family.
He had musical talent, a fact that his parents recognized early on. They enrolled the young Calloway in vocal lessons in order to strengthen his technique. He began to be attracted towards jazz music, a fact that both his parents and teacher disapproved of. His parents wanted him to study law, so he enrolled at Crane College, in order to oblige them. However, his love for jazz was strong and he became a regular at several of the nightclubs in Baltimore. One of his main inspirations was his sister Blanche, who was a famous bandleader and musician herself.
During college, he was more interested in jazz clubs like the Dreamland Ballroom, the Sunset Cafe, and the Club Berlin. Here he met and became an understudy for a singer named Adelaide Hall, and also met the famous jazz musician Louis Armstrong. Armstrong taught Calloway a singing technique known as “scat singing”, a improvised style of jazz singing in which the voice is used in imitation of an instrument. This method of singing became one of Calloway’s signature moves when he became famous.
Calloway then began singing with a band called the Alabamians and around the same time, he left school and moved to New York. In New York, he was a regular at “the Cotton Club”, the most respected jazz club in the country. He also joined and took over a band called “The Missourians” which was later renamed “Cab Calloway and His Orchestra”. The band began performing regularly at the Cotton Club with the likes of Duke Ellington and Mills Blue Rhythm Band, and also toured the country, performing at various venues. They were also regularly featured on a live radio show which was broadcast on NBC from the Cotton Club. This was a major accomplishment for both Calloway and Ellington, as the racial barrier on radio was a monumental one to break.
His most famous song was “Minnie the Moocher” released in 1931, which became so popular that reached No. 1 and sold almost a million records. The song was performed on a short animated series of the same name, featuring the famous animated character Betty Boop. His other hits included “Moon Glow” in 1934, “The Jumpin’ Jive” in 1939 and “Blues in the Night” in 1941. Calloway also made Hollywood appearances in movies such as “The Big Broadcast” in 1932, “The Singing Kid” in 1936 and “Stormy Weather” in 1943. He remained relevant with the changing times, by reducing the number of his band mates to 6 when the trend for larger bands diminished. He also made appearances on television shows such as “Sesame Street” and was featured on a music video by Janet Jackson. In 1967, he was the male lead in the all black production of “Hello Dolly!”. His lifetime achievements in the arts earned him a “National Medal of the Arts” presented by President Bill Clinton. He died on November 18, 1994 due to a stroke at the age of 86 in Hockessin, Delaware.