HI-DE-HO: THE LIFE OF CAB CALLOWAY
By Alyn Shipton
Oxford University Press. $29.95, 283 pages, illus.
My guess is that not many Americans under 40 have heard of the once famous singer/dancer/ band leader Cab Calloway (1907-1994). Some may remember him from the 1980 movie “The Blues Brothers” in which Calloway, who was then in his 70s, appeared. But why isn’t he more generally remembered, along with his illustrious contemporaries such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington? After all, Calloway was a musical star not just for a few years, but for decades.
According to author Alyn Shipton, his original recording of “Minnie the Moocher” - the song with which he was universally identified - was “the first million-selling disc by an African-American artist. By 1978 the record had sold close to two and a half million copies.” His “gross income in 1944 was $48,000 … equivalent to around $690,000 in 2009.” Over the years, his band employed such jazz luminaries as Ben Webster, Milt Hinton, Leon “Chu” Berry, Cozy Cole, Doc Cheatham, Jonah Jones, Dizzy Gillespie and Illinois Jacquet. White and black audiences alike were enthralled by his energy, his versatility and his total command of the stage. In 1993, President Clinton awarded him the National Medal of the Arts.
It is the great merit of Mr. Shipton’s richly documented, well-written, and musically informed “Hi-De-Ho” that he makes a convincing case for Calloway as an unjustly neglected entertainer. Mr. Shipton argues that at the very least Calloway’s band should be included in the jazz pantheon, if not on a level with Ellington’s, then at least as an organization to be taken seriously. He cites scholar Gunther Schuller’s “The Swing Era,” which includes a “masterly reappraisal of the [Calloway] band.” Schuller praised the band’s “exciting elemental jazz” and its “clean, balanced and disciplined” sound.
The problem with Mr. Shipton’s argument is that we can still hear Armstrong’s and Ellington’s recordings and immediately be in the presence of the essence of their art. But not even the best recordings could capture Calloway’s rough magic, which was always dependent on audience reaction and participation. He didn’t in the strictest sense lead his band as much as he used it as part of his act. Mr. Shipton describes Calloway in action:
“His vocal gymnastics are matched by exaggerated gestures. … He moves spectacularly. … His movements drew on the entire lexicon of vernacular African American dance” from “frenetic movement to slow-drag walking … as he throws back his head, and projects his voice, displaying his distinctive perfect teeth, his singing is marked by a complete lack of inhibition and freedom that matches the finest jazz instrumentalists of his age. … [He was] … all singing, all dancing … jumping and jiving [and] scat singing. He assumed the role of ‘preacher’ and the band became his congregation, interacting with his musicians and the audience, a style familiar to anyone who had witnessed the revivalist fervor of an African-American gospel meeting.” Try that, Lady Gaga.
Calloway was a good-looking, jive-talking, blues-shouting, scat-singing, loose-limbed entertainment phenomenon, dressed in his “snow white dress suit with extra long tails,” (or, during the 1940s, an outsized zoot suit) waving an oversized baton. He was in constant motion, drawing the paying customers in with charismatic charm until they, like his band, became part of his “call-and-response” act, shouting out “hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-ho,” in response to his “hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-hi” as he sang the story of Minnie The Moocher, a “red-hot hoochie-coocher” who “kicked the gong around.”
The lyrics to that song and to so many of his other songs made not-so-veiled references to drug use and reveled in double-entendre. This should not be surprising because ever since he was a boy, Calloway was attracted to the demimonde of “hustlers, gamblers and pool sharks.” Music and women were his pleasures, but betting on the horses was, to him, a serious business.
Cabell Calloway was born on Christmas in 1907 in Rochester, N.Y., although his family roots were in Baltimore, where he grew up. His sister, Blanche, was a star of the black entertainment circuit when he was still a boy, and her “wild dancing and uninhibited singing” was a prototype of his own act. From the Sunset Cafe in Chicago to the Cotton Club in Harlem, he was a star almost from the beginning of his career.
In May of 1930, he became leader of the Missourians, a band with a Kansas City blues-based style. This group formed the basis of his band, with constant changes in personnel to keep things fresh, for years to come. In 1926, Irving Mills, who managed Duke Ellington’s career for many years, became Calloway’s manager. As is the case with Ellington, Calloway benefited from Mills’ shrewdness in handling publicity, but who is to say whether Mills’ habit of claiming credit for songs he did not write outweighed his managerial value to Calloway?
After World War II, his big band, like most of the others, lost its audience for various reasons, ranging from the advent of television to the increasingly high cost of touring. He endured a period of public neglect unlike anything he had known in his adult life and became deeply depressed.
But his career was resurrected when he accepted the role of Sportin’ Life in a 1952 theatrical revival of “Porgy and Bess.” From then on, although he hit some dead spots now and then, he was back in the public eye, playing in an all-black cast of “Hello Dolly,” and other Broadway shows. He died on Nov. 18, 1994. Mr. Shipton’s excellent book should convince many readers and, I hope, some critics, that it might be time to experience Calloway’s recordings and movies again, and try to discover, in part at least, what the hi-de-ho-ing was all about.
William F. Gavin is a writer living in McLean, Va.