Cab Calloway was a singer and bandleader known for scat singing, high energy performances, and slick white tuxedoes. He was a regular performer at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem and became one of the most popular musicians of the 1930s and ‘40s.
He was born Cabell Calloway III on December 25, 1907, in Rochester, New York, then he grew up in Baltimore where his singing career began. Calloway studied law at Crane College (now Malcolm X College) in Chicago, but soon returned to music. He met Louis Armstrong who taught him about scat singing, then he became the leader of his own band, the Alabamians.
After moving to New York, he started performing at the Cotton Club, becoming the bandleader of Cab Calloway and his Orchestra. The band included such talents as trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonist Chu Berry, and drummer Cozy Cole. While Calloway became a regular favorite at the club, he released “Minnie the Moocher,” which became a No. 1 song. More hits followed like “Moon Glow,” “The Jumpin’ Jive,” and “Blues in the Night.”
Calloway’s star power in music transitioned to film, which was churning out musicals and films with club scenes. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, he appeared in The Big Broadcast, The Singing Kid, Stormy Weather, and Hi De Ho.
Expanding on his hip public persona, Calloway also wrote books, including The New Cab Calloway’s Hepster’s Dictionary: Language of Jive, which defined the trendiest terms of the period. When the big band club scene started to dwindle, he starred in a revival of the musical Porgy and Bess in the early ‘50s and was the male lead in an all-Black production of Hello Dolly! in ’67.
Years later, a new generation learned about Calloway when he was on Sesame Street and wrote his autobiography, Of Minnie the Moocher and Me. He appeared in the music video for Janet Jackson’s “Alright” and he performed “Minnie the Moocher” in The Blues Brothers.
In ’93, Calloway was given the National Medal of the Arts by President Bill Clinton. He died a year later at the age of 86.