Sunday, January 21, 2018

Cab, Alyn and Biographies - C.A.B.

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Duke's replacement at the Cotton Club, Cab Calloway’s … scat-jive vocals, epitomized in the "hi-de-ho" call-and-response effects on his hit "Minnie the Moocher," delighted audiences. Calloway had led the Alabamians in Chicago and, later, the Missourians in New York, and in 1929 had appeared in the revue Hot Chocolates, before securing the coveted Cotton Club job. Incorporating a heavy dose of novelty songs and scat vehicles into a more conventional hot jazz sound, Calloway achieved a celebrity—and record sales—to rival Ellington's at the time.”
- Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz [New York: Oxford, 1997, p. 130]

“At his very first session - in July 1930, with an astonishingly virtuosic vocal on 'St Louis Blues' – Cab Calloway served notice that a major jazz singer was ready to challenge Louis Armstrong with an entirely different style….

The lexicon of reefers, Minnie the Moocher and Smokey Joe, kicking gongs around and - of course - the fabulous language of hi-de-ho would soon have become tiresome if it hadn't been for the leader's boundless energy and ingenious invention: his vast range, from a convincing bass to a shrieking falsetto, has remained unsurpassed by any male jazz singer, and he transforms material that isn't so much trite as empty without the investment of his personality.”
-Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“Many jazz historians with a purist and pro-instrumental bias have ignored or dismissed Calloway and his orchestra as musically irrelevant. And insofar as others have dealt with the band at all, they have generally picked their way through its several hundred recordings, snobbishly culling only the instrumental solos as being worthy of comment, usually by Chu Berry, Dizzy Gillespie, and one or two others. This is eminently unfair and historically unjustifiable on sev­eral counts.

First of all, Calloway was a magnificent singer, quite definitely the most un­usually and broadly gifted male singer of the thirties. Second, considering his enormous popularity, and therefore the temptation to cater to the basest of mass tastes, Calloway's singing—and even his choice of material (when all is said and don) is of far higher caliber than any other male vocalist's (with the exception
of Jimmy Rushing and some of the great blues singers of the period). Moreover Calloway, amazingly, even in his most extravagant vocal antics, never left the bounds of good taste. It was as though he had a built-in mechanism that kept him from turning corny.
Third, he was a true jazz musician and as such surrounded himself with a real jazz orchestra, something no other band-leading vocalist cared (or managed) to do. In that regard, though he had every excuse to do otherwise, his perfor­mances—especially in clubs and dances, as opposed to recordings with their absolute time limits—were always liberally sprinkled with instrumental solos and ensembles, more so the more popular he became (in this respect a deliberate reversal of the usual trend).
- Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945 [New York: Oxford, 1989, pp. 329-330]

Okay, you can groan if you like, but I worked long and hard to get the title of this piece to abbreviate to C.A.B.

I wanted it to reflect the fun and joy that was Cab Calloway’s life and the pleasure I gained from reading Alyn Shipton’s splendid biography about this too-soon-forgotten figure in Jazz history.

This opening paragraph from Alyn Shipton’s Introduction and Acknowledgements to Hi-De-Ho: The Life of Cab Calloway [New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, also now available in paperback] provides this overview of Cab’s achievements and his significance in American contemporary music.

“Clad in white tie and tails, dancing energetically, waving an oversized baton, and singing "Minnie the Moocher," Cab Calloway is one of the most iconic figures in popular music. He was the first great African American vocalist in jazz who specialized in singing without also doubling on an instrument, and he was also a conductor and bandleader who assembled a series of remarkably consistent hard-swinging ensembles. By always striving to hire the best musicians and arrangers, he took the art of big band playing for­ward consistently from the start of the 1930s to the end of the 1940s. The tenor saxophonist Chu Berry made some of his finest records in the Calloway band, as did trumpeter Jonah Jones, saxophonists Ike Quebec and Eddie Barefield, and drummer Cozy Cole. At its peak in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Callo­way’s was the highest earning African American orchestra and, by virtue of its biggest hit "Minnie the Moocher," also one of the few to have broken through to the general public with a million-selling record. People loved Cab and his antics for what he was, irrespective of color. In later life, Cab transformed into an elegant and sophisticated star of the musical theater, but from the 1930s to the 1990s, he never forgot how to "hi-de-ho," and win over a crowd.”

Alan follows with this next sentence which I’m sure that many of us can relate to:

“Before I began work on this book I had only a scant awareness of the full and impressive range of Calloway's achievements.”

But now, thanks to Alyn Shipton’s detailed research and great skills as a storyteller, one can more fully understand and enjoy the fascinating exploits of Cab Calloway, one of the most creative entertainers in the history of American popular music.

The operative word here that Mr. Shipton’s work brings home to the reader is – entertainer. For when Cab was at the height of his career in the 1930’s and 1940’s, people expected to be entertained by popular music and that’s exactly what they got - and then some - from experiencing Cab and his orchestra of first-rate musicians.

Hi-De-Ho: The Life of Cab Calloway begins by providing a look back at the atmosphere of the times in which Cab’s personality and interests were formed with a description of the Baltimore and Chicago of the first quarter of the 20th century.

Almost from the start, what Ted Gioia refers to as Cab’s “eccentric individualism” displayed itself as he grew into a street smart kid in Baltimore [1907-1927] and a very hip young man in [Chicago 1927-1930] who had a knack for seeing and for being seen.

Aspects of Cab’s nature are on display in all their glory in the following anecdote as shared by Cab’s daughter, Camay, in a 2005 interview with Mr. Shipton:

“When he was in high school he was a show-off. Because he was playing basketball, [and] he was very handsome, all the girls were around him, and before he left school, he got a car, because he had all these little jobs. He played the drums, but he also walked horses, sold newspapers, he was hustling, selling different things around town, so this meant he had enough money to buy a car. He told me how he parked it one day right in front of the school, when they were having this big assembly. As it began, the principal got up and asked if the teacher who had parked out front would kindly go out and move his car, because it was in a restricted area. There was silence in the auditorium, then my father stands up and the whole auditorium erupts, with kids shouting "Go Cab go!" as he walks his very hip walk up the aisle to go out and move his car.” [p. 12]

Always a great adapter, Cab’s vocal style owes much to his sister Blanche’s vocal experimentation as Mr. Shipton explains in his chapter Chicago High Life 1927-1930:

“The time that Cab and Blanche had spent together on the road with Plan­tation Days had given him an opportunity to learn many aspects of stagecraft and presentation from her firsthand…. She was, according to Cab’s grandson Christopher Calloway Brooks, who knew her in old age, "a truly electrifying performer.” Her wild dancing and uninhibited singing were undoubtedly a prototype for much of Cab s own act. She made a conscious break with the tradition estab­lished by the classic blues singers such as Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey who stood forward on-stage and sang over the footlights directly at the audience, irrespective of whether they were being supported by a pianist or a full pit orchestra. Instead, Blanche developed numbers in which she interacted directly with members of her supporting band. Cab was later to do this by encouraging his instrumentalists— and thereby his audience — to shout back verbal responses in answer to his lyrics. The most famous example was to be “Minnie the Moocher" but he also created routines in which he alternated musical phrases with his sidemen such as "The Scat Song." The immediate precedent for this was to be found in Blanche's act. In the surviving early mov­ies of Cab at work, we can no doubt see plenty of nuances directly derived from her vocal and terpsichorean performances.” [p. 19]

Through a rapid sequence of events, Cab climbed to the forefront of the New York entertainment world in 1931 after he began fronting the orchestra [then known as The Missourians] that would replace Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club in uptown, Harlem. Interestingly, Irving Mills, Duke Ellington’s manager would also become Cab’s manager after he began work at The Cotton Club.

Mr. Shipton offers this view of Cab’s rise to “fame and [relative] fortune” in his chapter entitled Cotton Club Stomp, 1930-1931:

“The year 1931 saw Cab using his base at the Cotton Club to begin his relent­less climb to national and then international stardom. Dressed in his white tie and tails, his long straight hair ruffled into a prototype Beatle mop, and con­ducting with an oversized baton, Cab Calloway crystallized his persona as an entertainer at the club. An accurate impression of how he appeared at the time can be seen in the 1934 movie Cab Calloway's Hi-De-Ho, in which his act was filmed on a mock-up of the Cotton Club stage. He holds the viewer's attention with effortless authority. Singing “Zaz Zuh Zaz," his vocal gymnas­tics are matched by exaggerated gestures, and between the vocalizing he moves spectacularly—running the gamut of jazz dance devices from frenetic movement to slow-drag walking. Indeed his movements drew on the entire lexicon of vernacular African American dance, with allusions to nineteenth-century survivals such as buck and wing alongside comparatively recent fads like the black bottom. His gestures and his vocals were designed to bring his band — and thereby his audience — into the act as well, highlighting the differ­ent sections of musicians, and encouraging them to shout or sing a response to his words.

As he throws his head back and projects his voice, displaying his distinctive perfect teeth, his singing is marked by a complete lack of inhibition, and a freedom that matches the finest jazz instrumentalists of the age. At twenty-six years old, when this film was made, he had used his first three years of working regularly at the Cotton Club to consolidate a stage personality that cut through racial and class boundaries. It turned him into an entertainer who connected with all of American society, not just the African American public who bought his discs, or the well-heeled white pleasure seekers who defied the Depression and flocked to Harlem to hear him in person.” [p. 50]

Some of the insider dealings, trials and tribulations of staffing and traveling with a big band in the 1930’s, particularly with an all-black big band, are graphically detailed in Mr. Shipton’s chapter, Harlem Fuss, 1931-1933:

"Cab was making changes," recalled guitarist Danny Barker. "From 1931 he . . . fired one Missourian of the original band at a time. Rumor says he fired them because when he first joined the band they resented him. [It was] a process: to break up a clique in a band. You get a clique in a band, that's trouble." [p.54]

“It was well known that some 1930s swing bands had influential inner cliques that dictated their entire repertoire and policy, including decisions on who the featured soloists would be, and who was to be marked out for promotion.” [p.55]

“In 1932, the band’s work settled into a stable pattern. It would work at the Cotton Club for several months on end, and then take off for one or two ten-week tours during the course of the year.” [p.69]

One of these tours involving stops at “resorts” in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina broke down terribly.

As Mr. Shipton explains: “Although Cab and most of his men had previously toured the South and Southwest in some combination or another, it was a shock to return there after the high life they had enjoyed in Manhattan. … Most of the musicians who made that tour had stories of the privations the band endured. … In these adverse conditions, Cab came into his own as a leader [helping to militate and mitigate the unpleasant conditions]. … The result was that Cab forged a bond between himself and his men.”

In his next chapter Zaz Zuh Zaz, 1933-1934, Mr. Shipton describes how Irving Mills became Cab’s new manager and sent the band on a 1933-1934 European Tour [with mixed results], takes us with Cab on a series of crisscrossing tours of the United States [On The Road Again,1934-37] during which Cab was to become a national sensation and then moves on to provide in-depth descriptions of the time spent on the Calloway Band by its two most famous Jazz soloists: tenor saxophonist Chu Berry [Chuberry Jam 1937-39] and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie [Dizzy Atmosphere 1939-1941].

All death is dreadful and untimely, but what made tenor saxophonist Chu Berry’s even more so was his relatively young age [33] when he lost his life in a car accident, his closeness to everyone in the Calloway Band, especially to Cab, and the fact that Chu’s brilliance as a musician was transforming Cab’s music into a full-fledged Jazz Orchestra.

As Mr. Shipton notes: “It was the tragic demise of one of the greatest saxophone talents in Jazz, and also the man who had been a key element in the gradual reform of the Calloway band, consolidating its position as a genuine Jazz orchestra at the highest level.” [p.159].

Turning to Doc Cheatham, Cab’s lead trumpet player for many years, Mr. Shipton goes on to reinforce the view that by the early 1940’s the band was looking to reinforce its Jazz credentials: “He [Cab] had to change the band, because he knew he wouldn’t be able to scream for the rest of his life.” [Doc Cheatham, Guess I’ll Go And Get The Papers, p. 46; Shipton, p.135].

During his first decade in the business, Cab had always tried to maintain an excellent band with fine soloists and imaginative arrangers and this was to become even more the case in what Mr. Shipton describes as Cruisin’ with Cab, 1941-1948.

The irony for Cab’s band is that the better it became artistically, what Mr. Shipton describes as the “more assured and confident sound of the band,” the sadder it was when this artistry was undermined by a variety of factors that came into existence in the decade of the 1940s.

Of course the main force at work during the first half of this decade was World War II.  But domestically, Cab had to also contend with many other pressures and stressors, all of which are ably described in detail by Mr. Shipton. For example:

“This and the other records made on July 27 were to be Cab's last commercial discs to be cut until January 1945, owing to a long-running dispute between the AFM and the record industry that began on August 1, 1942. In pursuit of a levy for musicians to compensate them for the loss of sales incurred through the proliferation of jukeboxes, the union forbade its members to record. The result was an unintentional but seismic shift in the record industry in favor of purely vocal records, because singers were not included in the ban. …

Cab, on the road with his huge entourage, selling out theaters, and still able to broadcast with the band over national radio networks, decided to stick with his existing record contract and wait for a settlement. It did not suit him to make purely vocal discs and abandon the show he had built up over so long, and which he was managing to retain more or less intact despite the draft. As things turned out, Columbia (one of Irving Mills's stable of labels) was one of the last firms to settle with the union, and so in 1943-44, apart from a handful of V-Discs made for American troops overseas, the band s only commercial recordings were done for movie sound tracks. This fitted Irving Mills's long-term strategy for Cab, which was to continue to build him into a star who was never dependent on just one form of mass communication. Consequently Mills started the process of intro­ducing him socially to the who's who of Hollywood with the aim of making him a crossover film star, thereby repeating his success with both the white and black public on radio, record, and stage. [p,164, Emphasis mine]

The result of Mills’ strategy for Cab was that he would make a number of important films in the 1940s including Cabin in the Sky, Stormy Weather and Sensations of 1945 that would establish him as a film star. This stardom then made it possible for Cab to crossover into other forms of entertainment when social and economic factors following the end of WWII essentially put an end to most of the big bands.

During this period, Cab’s band would feature a new theme song, “Gerald Wilson’s modernistic Cruisin’ With Cab, along with a host of excellent Jazz soloists including trumpeter Jonah Jones,  tenor saxophonists Illinois Jacquet and Ike Quebec bassist Milt Hinton and drummer Cozy Cole. The band played it last gig in July, 1948 at the Roxy Theater in New York.

Jonah Jones recalled what happened next:

“He cut the band down to about seven pieces, me on trumpet, Keg John­son on trombone, and two saxes, Hilton Jefferson and Sam 'The Man" Taylor. There was Dave Rivera on piano, Milt Hinton on bass, and Pan­ama Francis on drums. That lasted for a while. Then he finally cut it down to four pieces and I was the only horn in the band. . . . There were three rhythm, and myself. . . . He was a wonderful director, he loved to direct, so even with the quartet he was directing us. He still changed clothes all night.” [p.182, Mr. Shipton’s 1995 interview with Jonah Jones]

Mr. Shipton’s Porgy, 1949-1970  opens with this description of the state of the big bands by the early 1950’s:

“Cab was not alone in facing the problems of maintaining a big band at the end of the 1940s. Of the most famous African American leaders, a few managed to keep their full orchestras afloat by rebalancing their repertoire. Duke Ellington, by subsidizing the band from his royalties, largely avoided such compromises. Lionel Hampton kept a smaller, but still sizable, band going by appealing to a different public. He adopted rhythm and blues techniques of style and presentation, which included Billy Mitchell playing the tenor saxophone on his back and fellow tenorist Gene Morris dropping to his knees during his solos. By contrast, Benny Carter was forced to dissolve his regular band in 1946. Despite the unexpected death of its leader in 1947, the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra struggled on a bit longer, but folded at the end of the decade following Ed Wilcox’s unsuccessful attempts to keep it going. ‘The Twentieth Century Gabriel,’ trumpeter Erskine Hawkins, scaled back his big band gradually, ending up with a quartet in 1953.

In January 1950, Count Basie was forced by rising costs and diminishing bookings to cut his regular touring group back to a septet. This small group became an octet when Basie s long-term guitarist, Freddie Green, rehired him­self, on the grounds that he'd given so much of his life to the band he was in no mood to be fired. Basics octet, with Clark Terry, Buddy DeFranco, and Wardell Gray among its members, and Neal Hefti writing the charts, used considerable ingenuity to compensate for the size of the band, and consequently made some of the best music Basic ever recorded. These discs sit interestingly at a stylistic crossroads between those made by his original Kansas City big band and the more forward-looking orchestra he was to lead in the 1950s.

Unlike Basie’s, the music that Cab recorded in 1949 is definitely not the most distinguished part of his legacy. It both mirrors his depressed personal state of mind, and also shows him searching for a new role as a popular entertainer. …”[pp,183-182].

Many of the musicians who climbed off the band buses went to work in smaller combos that played the Jazz club circuits; some formed into show bands that played cocktail lounges and the Las Vegas casinos; some got “day gigs” and resorted to playing the occasional weekend casual for weddings and private parties.

However, in the 1950’s and 60’s, those with good music reading skills initially found an abundance of work in the movie and television studios in Los Angeles and the Broadway theater and television studios of New York. In both cities, recording commercials and jingles for radio also offered steady work, as did cutting [the then new]long-playing albums as a recording orchestra contract player behind pop hit singers like Patti Page, Perry Como and Rosemary Clooney.

The Broadway stage was a very lucrative place to be when it was in vogue in the 1950’s and 1960’s and, after scuffling for a few years, Cab was to put his marvelous skills as a “crossover artist” on display there in productions of Porgy and Bess and Hello, Dolly!. He also took his Sportin’ Life Porgy and Bess characterization on the road in a one-man show that toured Great Britain.

As Mr. Shipton observes of Cab at this point in his career:

“The years in Porgy and Bess had given him the opportunity to develop a far richer and more flexible sound, which was to be the hallmark of his mature years….” [p.205]

Cab’s career was also helped along by television appearances on Person-to-Person with Edward R. Murrow and The Ed Sullivan Show and he gained a measure of financial security from performing as the halftime act for The Harlem Globetrotters basketball team which was then owned by Abe Saperstein whom he had known since the 1920s “when Cab was learning his trade in Chicago.” [p. 207].

The final two decades of Cab’s life are covered by Mr. Shipton in The Hi-De-Ho Man 1971-1994. During this period we find Cab literally struggling to get out of the house and in front of an audience.

As Mr. Shipton explains:

“Most of the marriages that came out of the era of the old Galloway band, such as those of Milt and Mona Hinton, Danny and Blue Lu Barker, or Dizzy and Lorraine Gillespie, were similarly long lived, but all of them had a compa­rable element of tension between the pull of the road (or the studios) and the hearth. Dizzy always longed to be home, but as soon as he had been back in his New Jersey house for a couple of days, he was planning his next escape, because as his road manager Charles Lake put it, "he didn't know what to do with himself when he was at home for any length of time.”

Cab was much the same.” [p. 213]

Cab’s creative urges found expression in a variety of settings including made-for-movie television episodes, a revival of the Broadway show The Pajama Game and a number of appearances at international Jazz festivals.

Of Cab’s career during this period, Mr. Shipton writes:

“His voice had developed into a fine musical theater baritone, capable of projecting forcefully into all but the largest of theaters, and his abilities as an actor grew at the same time. Now—as he approached his seven­ties—he was standing still artistically, and reverting to an ever-diminishing repertoire of his own most famous songs, most of which he could probably sing in his sleep.” [pp.219-220].

I doubt that many of us would want to join a touring company at the age of seventy, but then, none of us are Cab Calloway for that’s exactly what he did as described in the following excerpt from Mr. Shipton’s book:

“When he reached the age of seventy, he was fortunate that the growing vogue for African American stage musicals came to his rescue, and found him a new platform for his talents. In 1978 he joined the cast of the touring ver­sion of Bubbling Brown Sugar. The show was set in various fictitious Harlem nightclubs, and it was crafted by its author, Loften Mitchell, into a pacey sequence of songs, dances, and comic turns in the manner of a Cotton Club revue. Prior to Cab's arrival, the music contained in the show had altered slightly as it ran through 766 performances on Broadway, according to the talents of the available cast. Fundamentally, however, the repertoire was built around songs associated with Cab, Duke Ellington, Count Basic, Fats Waller, and Eubie Blake.” [p.220]

After sharing some amusing stories about Cab’s role in the movie The Blues Brothers Mr. Shipton offers this description of the final decade of Cab Calloway’s life as a performer:

“By the mid-1980s a new pattern had emerged. Cab and his new band would tour the United States and Europe in the summer festival months, they would take to the road again for short tours in the spring and fall, and he would otherwise pick and choose between individual engagements. Some of these were nostalgic, such as the memorial tribute to Ira Gershwin at the Gershwin Theater in August 1983, in which Cab sang a poignant version of "It Ain't Necessarily So," in mem­ory of Porgy and Bess's lyricist. Others were reunions with old friends, such as the all-star Songwriters' Guild event in January 1984 at the Palace in Manhattan, where Cab starred opposite Peggy Lee.

Particularly in Europe, on his summer tours in the 1980s and early 1990s, Cab's reception was terrific. This was not least because he was one of the few really high-profile survivors of the Cotton Club days who was still touring, and audiences hungered for an authentic link with the past. Louis Armstrong had died in 1971, Duke Ellington in 1974, ….” [pp.226-227]

There was not to be another decade as Cab Calloway died from complications of a stroke on November 18, 1994.”

Here are some thoughts that Mr. Shipton puts forth as an assessment of Cab Calloway’s storied career:

“… there is a wider legacy of Cab Calloway. Through his movie appear­ances in Stormy Weather and The Blues Brothers, we can see him in his pomp, and in his mature prime. In countless records, we can chart the extraordinary influence he had on jazz singing. With the reissue on CD of virtually all his work, it is possible to appreciate the sheer scale and consistency of his recorded achievement within the world of jazz, let alone his additional musical theater discs of Porgy and Bess and Hello, Dolly!

At a time when only Louis Armstrong had managed to bridge the gap between African American jazz and popular entertainment, Cab began by following in his footsteps and surpassed him. From the clubs of Baltimore to the cabarets of 1920s Chicago, and on to the mob-run Cotton Club, Cab ultimately transcended racial, class, and national boundaries. His music brought the storytelling traditions of African Americans to a huge public through his tales of Minnie and Smoky Joe, and his catchphrases became familiar the world over to several generations from the 1930s to the 1990s. With his straight hair and light complexion, he might have decided to pass for white, but he was always, uncompromisingly, a black artist.

Not being an instrumentalist like Armstrong, he initially achieved all this primarily as a vocalist, heard across America as he hi-de-hoed from the Cotton Club. His early triumphs like "St. Louis Blues," "St. James Infirmary," "Nagasaki," and "Minnie the Moocher" brought call and response to the fore­front of everyday entertainment in the 1930s. But these songs also set a tem­plate for the singers who would come afterward, from jump-jive vocalists such as Louis Jordan to more surreal entertainers such as Slim Gaillard, in whose work we find the early seeds of rap and hip-hop. In his films and recordings with the Cabaliers he sowed the seeds for doo-wop, just as pieces like "Calloway Boogie" looked forward to rhythm and blues.” [p.223]

It has been said that the unexamined life is not worth living and that the unlived life is not worth examining.

Hi-De-Ho: The Life of Cab Calloway offers the best of both of these worlds: Mr. Shipton’s very thorough examination of a life well-lived, that of one - Cabell Calloway [1907-1994].

Mr. Shipton’s accomplishment with this biography of Cab can also be viewed as being in the best tradition of what E.E. Carr suggested when he wrote: “The historian is an inveterate simplifier. He tidies up the infinite variety of events in order to make them intelligible.” [Times Literary Supplement, June 3, 1977].

The book is fully indexed, contains a bibliography and a listing of Cab Calloway’s recordings. Copies can be ordered directly from Oxford University Press at

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