Hi-De-Ho: The Life of Cab Calloway

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Cab Calloway - Minnie the Moocher

When the baby was born, he needed to get to New York to see her and also to give her some money. So when his sister breezed into Baltimore in this show called Plantation Days and said that there was a vacancy in a vocal quartet called The Crackerjacks, he took it upon himself to join.

BOOK REVIEW: 'Hi-De-Ho' - Washington Times

Even at that stage he was such a good singer and had such a big personality that he quickly worked into the act and was able to tour with the group. We know that the show with him in it was playing at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem just about the moment his daughter was born. Blanche was in New York quite a lot, where she appeared at a number of clubs, and she kept an eye on the baby and sent news back to Cab about her. It is a hardware store today, and what survives from the Sunset are murals of dancers that look a bit like the extraordinary Harlem renaissance paintings of Aaron Douglas that are up in the Schoenberg Institute in Harlem.

So, imagine this large, cavernous club with tables and chairs around it, a dance floor, and the band actually on the same level as the dance floor. He told me that these entertainers had had a really significant place in all their lives and that the band would have known their routines and very much revered the performers. It is still going on in hip-hop today, which is a point I make at the end of the book. I actually see this as all part of a continuity, which begins way before Williams and Walker. Not to be putting down my colleagues, but I do sometimes think that they live in a hermetically sealed bubble in which only jazz goes on.

Cab decided to rehearse his own numbers with the band and realized immediately that he had a talent for directing the band. This led to an interesting moment because when the house band was asked to make room for another band to come in, Cab felt that his loyalties now lay with the musicians he directed and not with the club, so he chose to leave. Cab decided his band was not going to be ripped off and insisted on being paid in cash. There was literally thousands of dollars in one-dollar bills stuffed into the drum cases and guitar cases, and they carried their instruments separately because they were so worried about the money being stolen.

Once Cab said that was the way they were going to be paid, everybody rallied around him and Cab got them paid. How did this event effect his future? But to get out of this wilderness, they toured the Midwest and really tightened their act up as a band.

Hi-de-ho: The Life of Cab Calloway

Cab was leading the Alabamians, who had actually not been very good, and he knew the minute they went on tour from Chicago that he was leading a band that sounded old-fashioned to the listeners of the east. Instead, the Missourians played a driving, full to the bar bluesy sound which gets Gunther Schuller terribly excited in his book, The Swing Era , where he called them one of the most exciting blues-based bands of the Midwest, and I believe he is right.

So in fact the band had to scuffle to find jobs out of town, or they played one or two nights a week with other people just in order to survive so they could come together and be adopted by the proper local AFM branch in New York. He was in Hot Chocolates as a singer and actor, and singers and actors were immune to this restriction imposed on musicians. What was his secret to winning over a crowd? First of all, we have to remember that the Cotton Club audience was predominantly white.

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In fact, the club actively discouraged African American patrons; they had a very unpleasant set of bouncers who were there to make sure that only the people they wanted came into the club. So Cab played to a white audience at the Cotton Club. The other thing is that he was playing to a national audience every night on radio, and these half hour broadcasts from the Cotton Club, which had been very successful for Ellington, were even more successful for Calloway. Cab had a complete ability to connect to any listener who heard him on the radio from the Cotton Club, and as a result he stacked up an enormous audience.

When the band went on tour in the south, audiences who felt they ought not to like them because they were a black band nevertheless turned up, and this was because they loved Cab.

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So, it was very possible to see him performing. In other words, what we can click on a computer and see instantly people were going to the cinema to see, where they would have a chance to see Cab actually dancing. There is a particularly wonderful moment of him on camera showing his band in a Pullman car, crossing America, where Cab rehearses the band while dancing between the bunks in the sleeping car.


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He had almost no space to dance, yet he does this incredibly athletic routine, spinning around, shimmying, waving his hands in the air, directing with his baton, and the musicians are playing cramped up sideways in their berths with their instruments poking out from between the curtains. He could perform anywhere and still be absolutely the center of attention. He could get his tongue around the most extraordinary lyrics, but a lot of hard work and practice went into that to make it look so nonchalant.

It was only once, but nevertheless it was in that extraordinary sequence in Stormy Weather with the Nicholas Brothers jumping and leaping all over everything. It took another 18 months or so before they broke up, but he was still able to do things for Cab. One of the things that I found quite remarkable in the Cab Calloway Papers in Boston University Library were examples of the meticulous press packs on Cab that Mills sent out. This was a military operation in terms of its scope, and in the way it controlled lazy editors, basically, because without being unfair to the editors at the Pittsburgh Courier or the Chicago Defender or the Baltimore African American , if somebody provided them with ready-made copy and photographs and advertisements that all tied in, they used them.

His career as a bandleader was matched by his genius as a talent-spotter, evidenced by his hiring of such jazz luminaries as Ben Webster, Dizzy Gillespie, and Jonah Jones. As the swing era waned, Calloway reinvented himself as a musical theatre star, appearing as Sportin' Life in "Porgy and Bess" in the early s; in later years, Calloway cemented his status as a living legend through cameos on "Sesame Street" and his show-stopping appearance in the wildly popular "The Blues Brothers" movie, bringing his trademark "hi-de-ho" refrain to a new generation of audiences.

More than any other source, Hi-de-ho stands as an entertaining, not-to-be-missed portrait of Cab Calloway--one that expertly frames his enduring significance as a pioneering artist and entertainer. Chicago High Life Cotton Club Stomp Harlem Fuss Zaz Zuh Zaz On the Road Again Shipton goes beyond thorough; he sometimes plods his way through the life of one vastly popular entertainer.

BOOK REVIEW: 'Hi-De-Ho'

It is well known that Cab gave short shrift to his sidemen. Solo space was rare and if you stepped out of line you were history. However, he did realize early on that Gillespie was a solo voice to be reckoned with. Then came the cutting incident. To his credit, Cab did not have Diz arrested. Bottom line: Dizzy was out of the band.

They reconciled later. Calloway was a womanizer of major proportions. Any wonder then that he married four times?


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  • But he never stopped lending support to his children and later grandchildren on every level, be it financial or musical. He was making big bucks even for the s. Some sidemen repaid their leader. Cab demanded that his hits be played the same way every show. His major musicians could not sit still for that.

    Berry was of particular importance. A sideward comment was made that most never even knew he played the instrument. But audiences white and black just wanted to hear Minnie and to shout back in response. Shipton points out that Cab liked singing ethnic things, the blues, for example.

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    Pure pathos. When Sammy Davis, Jr. Bailey, who was improvising the script on stage and confounding the others, walked off the show while it was still a hit.


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