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Cabel Calloway III was born in Rochester, New York, on December 25, 1907. When he was six his family moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where his father practiced law and sold real estate.
As a youngster, Cab enjoyed singing in church, and he began taking private voice lessons as a teenager. After graduating from Frederick Douglass High School, his older sister Blanche, an established jazz singer, got him a part in the touring production of Plantation Days. When the tour ended its run in Chicago, Cab decided to stay there with his sister. Because he was expected to follow in his father's footsteps and become a lawyer, Cab took law classes at Crane College during the day but spent most of his nights performing in local nightclubs. One of those nightclubs was the Sunset Cafe, and it was there that he met trumpeter Louis Armstrong, who taught him to sing in the scat style.
By his twentieth birthday Calloway had organized his own orchestra and was singing lead vocals. The group, Cab Calloway and his Alabamians, became popular in Chicago, and eventually was hired to play at the Savoy Ballroom in New York City. That engagement did not go well, and Calloway dissolved the band. He was about to return to Chicago when he landed a part in a Broadway comedy, Connie's Hot Chocolates, in which Calloway was praised for his rendition of "Ain't Misbehavin'." By 1930 he had joined and then become leader of The Missourians, which, as Cab Calloway and His Orchestra, was hired by Harlem's famed Cotton Club as a replacement for the Duke Ellington Orchestra while it was touring. Calloway quickly proved so popular that his band became the "co-house" band with Ellington's, and his group began touring nationwide when not playing the Cotton Club.
In 1931, Calloway recorded "Minnie the Moocher," which became the first jazz record ever to sell a million copies; the song's chorus earned him the nickname "Hi-De-Ho Man." That song, along with "St. James Infirmary Blues" and " The Mountain," were performed for the Betty Boop animated shorts Minnie the Moocher, Snow White, and The Old Man of the Mountain, respectively. Calloway not only gave his voice to these cartoons, but his dance steps as well. He also performed in a series of short films for Paramount in the 1930's. Calloway made his first feature film appearance opposite Al Jolson in The Singing Kid (1936), in which he sang a number of duets with Jolson; the film included Calloway's band and a cast of 22 Cotton Club dancers from New York. The success of "Minnie the Moocher" and its steady gig at the Cotton Club kept Calloway's band in constant demand, and by the late 1930's it was one of the top grossing acts in jazz. The band also jump-started the careers of a number of young talents, including Dizzy Gillespie, Ben Webster, Cozy Cole, Chu Berry and Doc Cheatham. However, by the late '40s, Calloway's bad financial decisions -- and gambling -- caught up with him, and the band broke up.
After his band broke up, Calloway went back to performing at small clubs. In his later career, he appeared in a number of films and stage productions that used both his acting and singing talents, including the touring production of Porgy and Bess (1952-1954, opposite Leontyne Price and William Warfield), the all-black production of Hello, Dolly! (1967, opposite Pearl Bailey and daughter Chris Calloway), and the feature film The Cincinnati Kid (1965, with Steve McQueen, Ann-Margret, and Edward G. Robinson). In 1980, he performed "Minnie the Moocher" (and other songs) in the John Belushi-Dan Ackroyd movie The Blues Brothers, in which he was the oldest featured actor. He was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1987, and the Cab Calloway School of the Arts was opened in his honor in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1992.
Calloway maintained a fairly busy performing schedule well into his 80's. He suffered a stroke on June 12, 1994, and died in Hockessin, Delaware, on November 18, 1994.
Marriages and Children
Zelma Proctor -- 1924-? (may not have ever married) --
1 daughter, Camay
Most Notable Songs
"Minnie the Moocher"
The Big Broadcast (1932)
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This page was last updated on 08/25/2018.