Artists - Cab Calloway

Artist Biography

Born Cabell Calloway III on December 25, 1907, in Rochester, New York, Cab Calloway emerged as a magnetic force in the world of music and entertainment. From his early years in Baltimore, Maryland, where his love for singing blossomed alongside a fascination with racetracks, to his time studying law at Crane College in Chicago, Illinois, Calloway’s destiny was always intertwined with the rhythm of music. 

While studying law in Chicago, Calloway felt the irresistible pull of showbiz and began performing at Chicago’s Sunset Club. It was there that Calloway’s path intersected with jazz legend Louis Armstrong, who became his mentor in the art of scat singing—a skill that would shape Calloway’s unique style. In 1928, Calloway formed a band called “The Missourians” and within a year, he took his band on a leap of faith to New York City.

Calloway soon found himself at Harlem’s renowned Cotton Club, initially standing in for Duke Ellington’s world-famous band while Ellington toured. However, Calloway’s presence and star quality made him an overnight success. Calloway stood out from other band leaders of his day who traditionally led their orchestra’s with a simple baton and a smile. But Calloway, unlike anyone else, danced, sang, and was a personality. As a result, Ellington and his band were quickly replaced by Cab Calloway and “The Missourians” now known as “The Cab Calloway Orchestra.”  By 1930, Calloway, barely 23, was the new star of the world-famous Cotton Club, leading his orchestra in unforgettable performances night after night. His colorful zoot suits and fresh dance moves were exciting and captivating for all audiences.

Calloway’s breakthrough came in 1931 with his chart-topping hit “Minnie the Moocher.” The unforgettable “hi-de-hi-de-ho” chorus, coupled with Calloway’s spontaneous scatting genius, soon became his signature. “Minnie the Moocher” sold over a million copies, marking Calloway as the first African American artist to ever sell a million records. Despite its lively tempo, the song actually tells the story of a young girl entangled in the clutches of a pimp more interested in heroin than love. The infectious rhythm enchanted audiences of the time, passionately singing along without fully grasping the song’s controversial lyrics.

With hits like “Moon Glow,” “The Jumpin’ Jive,” and “Blues in the Night,” Calloway’s influence stretched far beyond the stage, and radio soon followed. Sharing the airwaves with the widely popular Walter Winchell and Bing Crosby, Calloway achieved yet another historic milestone as the first African American with a nationally syndicated radio show. Even amidst the depths of the Great Depression, Calloway’s talent garnered him a staggering $50,000 annually at just 23 years old, which would be close to a million dollars annually today.

Following his success on stage and radio, Hollywood was ultimately next. From the early 1930s through the 1940s, Calloway graced films such as “The Big Broadcast” with Bing Crosby (1932), “The Singing Kid” (1936), and “Stormy Weather” (1943). “Stormy Weather,” one of Hollywood’s first mainstream films featuring an all-black cast, showcased Calloway alongside other top performers of the time, including Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Lena Horne, the Nicholas Brothers, and Fats Waller. Fred Astaire has quoted the grand finale of “Stormy Weather” which  includes Calloway as “the greatest dance number ever filmed.”

Calloway’s innovative dance and physicality were also characterized in cartoons and animation. He lent his voice to Betty Boop cartoons such as “Minnie the Moocher” (1932), “Snow-White” (1933), and “The Old Man of the Mountain” (1933). In these animations, Calloway not only provided his voice and records but also served as the inspiration for the characters’ movements, with his dance steps immortalized through animation. During this time, jazz music was taboo in mainstream society, often associated with counterculture, African Americans, and nightlife. Betty Boop cartoons, with their risqué humor and jazz soundtracks featuring Calloway, conveyed a message of caution or warning to audiences and children about the dangers of embracing a more liberated, sinful lifestyle.

For more than a decade, Cab Calloway and his orchestra played exclusively at the Cotton Club in Harlem. In addition to their residency in Harlem, the band toured the globe, dazzling audiences with their talent and showmanship. Calloway’s collaborations with luminaries like Dizzy Gillespie and Cozy Cole further solidified his legacy. Gillespie, once a member of Calloway’s Orchestra, was fired from the band following an incident where unhappy audience members threw spitballs at Calloway. Blaming Dizzy for the audience’s reaction ultimately led to a fight where Gillespie stabbed Calloway in the leg with a knife.

By the late 1940s, Calloway’s band had disbanded, apparently due to his gambling habits and love for the racetracks. Nevertheless, Calloway’s passion for entertaining endured, leading him to continue captivating audiences for years to come. Transitioning to smaller ensembles and theatrical roles in his later years, he remained a fixture in the world of entertainment. In a memorable moment, Ed Sullivan invited the music legend to perform his timeless hit “St. James Infirmary” on his February 23rd, 1964 show, with the newly debuted British phenomenon, “The Beatles.” Calloway would also make headlines on Broadway in an all black ensemble of  “Hello Dolly ”  starring Pearl Bailey. From appearances on Sesame Street, to the 1980 hit blockbuster film “The Blues Brothers” plus Janet Jackson’s iconic music video for “Alright,” and of course his unforgettable performances on The Ed Sullivan Show, Calloway’s magnetic presence resonated across generations.

Recognized with a National Medal of the Arts by President Bill Clinton in 1993, Cab Calloway has impacted generations of music and style. His final years were spent in White Plains, New York, until his eventual passing in 1994. Through jazz and true artistry, Cab Calloway’s spirit lives on in the timeless rhythms and melodies of today’s music that he continues to inspire.

If you want to see full performances by Cab Calloway, tune into our YouTube playlist.