Singer and bandleader Cab Calloway learned the art of scat singing before landing a regular gig at Harlem’s famous Cotton Club. Following the enormous success of his song “Minnie the Moocher” (1931), Calloway became one of the most popular entertainers of the 1930s and ’40s. He appeared on stage and in films before his death in 1994, at age 86.
Born Cabell Calloway III on December 25, 1907, in Rochester, New York, Cab Calloway’s charm and vibrancy helped him become a noted singer and bandleader. He grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, where he first started singing, and where his lifelong love of visiting racetracks took hold. A move to Chicago, Illinois, saw Calloway begin to study law at Crane College (now Malcolm X College), but his focus always remained on music.
While performing at Chicago’s Sunset Club, Calloway met Louis Armstrong, who tutored him in the art of scat singing (using nonsensical sounds to improvise melodies). In 1928, Calloway took over the leadership of his own band, the Alabamians. Ready for the next step in his career, he headed to New York the following year.
In 1930, Calloway got a gig at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club. Soon, as the bandleader of Cab Calloway and his Orchestra, he became a regular performer at the popular nightspot. Calloway hit the big time with “Minnie the Moocher” (1931), a No. 1 song that sold more than one million copies. The tune’s famous call-and-response “hi-de-hi-de-ho” chorus — improvised when he couldn’t recall a lyric — became Calloway’s signature phrase for the rest of his career.
With other hits that included “Moon Glow” (1934), “The Jumpin’ Jive” (1939), and “Blues in the Night” (1941), as well as appearances on radio, Calloway was one of the most successful performers of the era. During the 1930s and 1940s, he appeared in such films as The Big Broadcast (1932), The Singing Kid (1936), and Stormy Weather (1943). In addition to music, Calloway influenced the public with books such as 1944’s The New Cab Calloway’s Hepster’s Dictionary: Language of Jive, which offered definitions for terms like “in the groove” and “zoot suit.”
Calloway and his orchestra had successful tours in Canada, Europe, and across the United States, traveling in private train cars when they visited the South in order to escape some of the hardships of segregation. With his enticing voice, energetic onstage moves, and dapper white tuxedos, Calloway was the star attraction. However, the group’s musical talent was just as impressive, partly because the salaries Calloway offered were second only to Duke Ellington’s. The standout musicians Calloway performed with include saxophonist Chu Berry, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and drummer Cozy Cole.
In 1948, as the public had stopped flocking to big bands, Calloway switched to working with a six-member group. Beginning in 1952, he spent two years in the cast of a revival of the musical Porgy and Bess. In that show, he portrayed Sportin’ Life, a character Calloway himself had reportedly inspired George Gershwin to create. Calloway took other onstage roles over the years, including the male lead in a 1967 production of Hello Dolly!, whose all-Black cast also featured Pearl Bailey.
Calloway introduced himself to new fans by appearing on Sesame Street and in Janet Jackson’s 1990 music video for “Alright,” and shared his life story in an autobiography, Of Minnie the Moocher and Me (1976). He also made more big screen appearances, most notably in the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers. During the film, Calloway put on his trademark white tie and tails and performed “Minnie the Moocher” once again.
Calloway married Zulme “Nuffie” Calloway in the mid-1950s and together they made their home in Greenburgh, New York. The couple had one daughter, Chris Calloway, who later performed with her father and became a respected jazz singer and dancer. Chris died in August 2008 after a long battle with breast cancer; a couple of months later, Nuffie died at a nursing home in Delaware at the age of 93.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton presented Calloway with a National Medal of the Arts. Calloway’s later years were spent in White Plains, New York, until he had a stroke in June 1994. He then moved to a nursing home in Hockessin, Delaware, where he died on November 18, 1994, at the age of 86.