Review of "Hi-De-Ho," Alyn Shipton's biography of Cab Calloway

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, October 24, 2010


The Life of Cab Calloway

By Alyn Shipton

Oxford Univ. 283 pp. $29.95

Alyn Shipton takes the title of this biography from the refrain that Cab Calloway chanted -- and urged his audiences to chant -- while singing "Minnie the Moocher," the most famous and popular of all the innumerable songs he performed in an incredibly long career that began in 1927, when he was 19 years old, and continued until his death in 1994, a month shy of his 87th birthday. The song was, and remains, immensely amusing as well as catchy, but the irony is that it celebrates a culture -- what Shipton calls "the seamy world of narcotics" -- in which Calloway himself declined to participate.

By March 1931, when he made the first of his many recordings of "Minnie," Cab (short for Cabell) Calloway had left his home in Baltimore and set himself up as a singer, dancer and bandleader in Harlem, where he greatly enjoyed the high life. He was a prodigious consumer of alcohol but abstained from marijuana and stronger drugs; indeed, he forbade members of his band to use marijuana, though with only limited success; yet he built his show-business persona around "a Harlem demimonde of Minnie and the drug culture." Shipton writes:

"Cab was to record the song many more times in his career, but this original version became the first million-selling disc by an African American artist, and Cab was eventually presented with a gold disc in the fall of 1944. The song had achieved overall sales of close to two and a half million for Cab by 1978, a truly remarkable achievement. It became the template not only for further remakes but also for several other numbers that Cab gradually added to his repertoire as the 1930s went on. Some of these were about Minnie and Smokey Joe, the fictional character who introduced her to opium addiction or 'kicking the gong around,' whereas others picked up on the 'hi-de-ho' catchphrase that the original song introduced. All of these pieces were designed to involve the audience in Cab's musical storytelling, by joining in the 'hi-de-ho' responses, and thereby becoming part of the song."

With exceptional skill, in this and many other numbers, Calloway managed to play both sides of the street: Using the jive talk popular among African Americans, especially those in the big cities, he was able to communicate on a hip, insider level while delighting non-initiates (most of whom probably were white) with the joyfulness and apparent nonsense of his lyrics as well as giving them the pleasure of participating in call-and-response scat choruses. As a result he was a wildly popular performer whose appeal crossed racial lines to an extent rare among black artists of his day.

He led a big band for almost two decades and eventually became known as one of the leading jazz musicians of the '30s and '40s, yet he wasn't really one. He couldn't play any instrument with more than amateur skill, and though over the years he attracted a number of first-rate musicians to his band -- among them Cozy Cole, Jonah Jones, Chu Berry and Dizzy Gillespie -- many of them regarded him with a bit of skepticism:

"It was to be an irony that Cab's desire to improve the band by bringing in a higher quality of musician triggered doubts among his men about his own abilities. To the newcomers his inventive capacities as a dancer, his innovations as a vocalist, his remarkable timing, and his ability to connect with the public were unimportant. Could he sight-read a score? Could he hear tiny harmonic mistakes in the sections or tell if one member of the reeds or brass was fractionally out of tune? Could he beat in a number at precisely the right tempo? These were the measures by which instrumentalists accustomed to playing for so many hours each day sized up the musical abilities of their conductors. By the end of the ['30s] when players like Dizzy Gillespie arrived in the ranks, they were much freer with their opinions, Dizzy holding forth with the view that 'Cab was no musician.' "

That judgment should be taken with a grain of salt, for Gillespie "did not so readily fit into the framework that Cab had established for himself and his men, whether socially or musically." His bebop style had yet to evolve, but he was fully developed as an eccentric who did not take kindly to Calloway and most members of the band. The truth is that, by Gillespie's arrival in 1939, Calloway presided over a true jazz band that could hold its own in the competitions staged between the leading bands of the pre-war years. He also presided over what was, at least by jazz-band standards, a reasonably happy crew. He paid well -- only Duke Ellington paid better -- traveled in comfort, stayed in good hotels and gave everyone a vacation at Christmas, which just happened to be his birthday. The other band members "admired his craft, his skills as a performer, and his charisma," and "in return, they would do anything for him." As one of them said: "He was a great performer and he knew what he wanted. His showmanship was carefully arranged. He learned his arrangements and the band played them to perfection. And he was a helluva singer. Cab Calloway had good lungs."

He was a tough cookie whose school had been the streets of Baltimore, but he was also smart and charming. He was married twice and fathered four daughters, one of them out of wedlock, and he had "a reputation as a ladies' man, especially as there were so many lithe, attractive, and available dancers in Harlem's nightlife." He was incredibly energetic, fully capable of playing a full night's set, carousing until the small hours, sleeping off a monster hangover, then doing it all over again.

When the big-band era crashed to a close in the late 1940s, he went through a period of depression, but he rode it out and reinvented himself. Though he stayed on the road for most of the remaining four-and-a-half decades of his life and from time to time led big bands for short engagements, he metamorphosed into a one-man act that proved as popular as his first incarnation. Not merely did he continue to perform "Minnie" and all the other songs that had made him famous, he ventured into stage and film. In 1952 he was persuaded, against his initial skepticism, to take on the role of Sportin' Life in a production of "Porgy and Bess" that played all over Europe and the United States and did much to establish its reputation as serious opera. In 1967, he played Horace Vandergelder in "Hello, Dolly!" with an all-black cast (Dolly was played by Pearl Bailey) that in the opinion of many was better than any before or since. He also did a hugely successful cameo in 1979 in the film "The Blues Brothers" in which, as Shipton notes, a whole new generation discovered him.

Shipton, a British jazz journalist whose other books include biographies of Fats Waller and Dizzy Gillespie, does a workmanlike if uninspired job with Calloway, whose zest and brio shine through only intermittently. That's largely because the private Calloway is hard to pin down, as so often is the case with artists whose huge public images disguise elusive inner lives. Say it for Shipton, though, that he makes a solid case for Calloway as a jazz musician as well as an entertainer, and he certainly makes you want to listen to "Minnie" and all the others, for the umpteenth time in my case and, it is to be hoped, for the first time in others'.

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