During the swing revival of the 1990s it was singer and bandleader Cab Calloway, and not Benny Goodman or Duke Ellington or Glenn Miller, who provided the biggest influencewith the snazzy suits, hep language, and singer and band call and response that made Calloway famous. It was as if all you needed to do to form a swing band was listen to "Minnie the Moocher" and adopt a particular cool stance and you were all set. Ellington and Goodman may have had more of a lasting influence on popular music overallthey introduced more standards and originals while Calloway never really didbut Calloway's hyper, exuberant style was perfect for a generation of kids raised on rap and television.
And just as the swing revival (and all of the bands that popped up) was just a passing craze, Calloway is still largely an unknown figure to most of the public. In Hi-De-Ho, a new biography of the bandleader by Alyn Shipton, a well-known British jazz journalist, Cab is presented as the influential and important figure to jazz and popular music that he was. He created a top-notch touring unit and shepherded the careers of some of the greatest musicians in jazz.
Calloway's story follows a familiar arc: a talented bandleader hooks up with a great manager for a few successful years during the 1930s' big band heyday, then falls on hard times after the war when orchestras became impractical and people were content to stay at home and watch television. However, Calloway was fortunate enough to continue on into musical theater, while continuing to tour on his own fronting local orchestras bearing his old charts.
Shipton shows us why Calloway's unit was so successful, at times eclipsing the Ellington band in popularity. Never a great jazz musician, Calloway nevertheless knew what he wanted and demanded a lot from his band; the musicians were expected to be on time and dressed to perfection and were not allowed to indulge in marijuana or other drugs (despite Calloway's lyrics to the contrary). Calloway always sought out the best talent and poached other people's bands for great soloists like saxophonists Chu Berry and Ben Webster and drummer Jonah Jones. Any failure on the part of any of the band, no matter how essential, to follow the rules would result in fines or dismissal. Thus Calloway's band became a tight and disciplined ensemble that was successful enough to travel around the country in luxurious Pullman cars.
For his part, Calloway was a terrific entertainer and pioneered the "Hi-De-Ho" style of call and response between him and the band. Calloway was a great singer who was able to straddle the chasm between serious music and novelty numbers. He wasn't afraid to create songs with fake Chinese vocals or sing songs about people eating at his house, but they never seemed like the sort of thing the equally exuberant Spike Jones would do. Minnie the Moocher became his most enduring character and the brooding minor themed song his most identifiable.
As Shipton explains, a large part of Calloway's success was due to his manager Irving Mills, who quickly recognized Calloway could be a major player in many different milieu. Calloway was constantly on the radio and touring (especially during the recording ban) and was a frequent presence in movies, both with his band and as an actor. Alongside the success, of course, are the familiar tropes: a neglected family and a band meeting racism in the South despite their success and fame.
One of the most interesting narratives brought out concerns the stint of trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie in the band. This story is the stuff of legend, and Shipton sets it straight as best he can (he has also written a biography of Gillespie as well.) Gillespie is presented as a talented newcomer who refused to follow the rules, incorporating bebop ideas (or as Calloway referred to it, "Chinese music") while clowning around on the bandstand. While mistakenly confronted about an incident concerning spitballs, Gillespie pulled a knife on Calloway and was dismissed from the band. Gillespie comes off as an immature genius, quick to anger, and one who didn't like to be told what to do. This precociousness led to great things later on, but at this point it was clear that Calloway and Gillespie didn't get along.
After the war, Calloway hit on hard times for a while, but met with success in his second career on Broadway playing in long running musicals like Porgy and Bess and Hello, Dolly!. This new fame allowed him to continue to tour, trotting out the old hits for the old timers while endearing himself to a new generation. However, it was his appearance in the movie The Blues Brothers (1980) that really brought him a new level of fame. A humorous anecdote from the book concerns a disco arrangement of "Minnie the Moocher" that Calloway had introduced into the band in the 1970s. The old version was used for the movie and quickly made its way back into the book when that became the version that the fans of the movie wanted to hear.
Shipton's book doesn't quite have the fun and exuberance of Calloway's music (how could it?), but it presents an easy to read and definitive portrait of one the greatest entertainers jazz has produced. Perhaps the best compliment to pay to the book is that Shipton will make you want to listen to Calloway's music and seek out some of the recordings beyond "Minnie the Moocher." Calloway's music hasn't always been easy to find; Shipton shows us why the search is worth it.