Cabell "Cab" Calloway III (December 25, 1907 – November 18, 1994) was an American jazz singer, dancer, bandleader and actor. He was associated with the Cotton Club in Harlem, where he was a regular performer and became a popular vocalist of the swing era. His niche of mixing jazz and vaudeville won him acclaim during a career that spanned over 65 years.
Calloway was a master of energetic scat singing and led one of the most popular big bands in the United States from the early 1930s to the late 1940s. His band included trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie, Jonah Jones, and Adolphus "Doc" Cheatham, saxophonists Ben Webster and Leon "Chu" Berry, guitarist Danny Barker, bassist Milt Hinton, and drummer Cozy Cole.
Calloway had several hit records in the 1930s and 1940s, becoming known as the "Hi-de-ho" man of jazz for his most famous song, "Minnie the Moocher", originally recorded in 1931. He reached the Billboard charts in five consecutive decades (1930s–1970s). Calloway also made several stage, film, and television appearances until his death in 1994 at the age of 86. He had roles in Stormy Weather (1943), Porgy and Bess (1953), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), and Hello Dolly! (1967). His career saw renewed interest when he appeared in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers.
Calloway was born in Rochester, New York on Christmas Day in 1907 to an African American family. His mother, Martha Eulalia Reed, was a Morgan State College graduate, teacher, and church organist. His father, Cabell Calloway Jr., graduated from Lincoln University of Pennsylvania in 1898, and worked as a lawyer and in real estate. The family moved to Baltimore, Maryland when Calloway was 11. Soon after his father died and his mother remarried to John Nelson Fortune.
Calloway grew up in the West Baltimore neighborhood of Druid Hill. He often skipped school to earn money by selling newspapers, shining shoes, and cooling down horses at the Pimlico racetrack where he developed an interest for racing and betting the horses. After he was caught playing dice on the church steps, his mother sent him to Downingtown Industrial and Agricultural School in 1921, a reform school run by his mother's uncle in Chester County, Pennsylvania.
Calloway resumed hustling when he returned to Baltimore and worked as a caterer while he improved his studies in school. He began private vocal lessons in 1922, and studied music throughout his formal schooling. Despite his parents' and teachers' disapproval of jazz, he began performing in nightclubs in Baltimore. His mentors included drummer Chick Webb and pianist Johnny Jones. Calloway joined his high school basketball team, and in his senior year he started playing professional basketball with the Baltimore Athenians, a team of the Negro Professional Basketball League. He graduated from Frederick Douglass High School in 1925.
In 1927, Calloway joined his older sister, Blanche Calloway, on tour for the popular black musical revue Plantation Days. His sister became an accomplished bandleader before him, and he often credited her as his inspiration for entering show business. Calloway's mother wanted him to be a lawyer like his father, so once the tour ended he enrolled at Crane College in Chicago, but he was more interested in singing and entertaining. While at Crane he turned down the opportunity to play basketball for the Harlem Globetrotters to pursue a singing career.
Calloway spent most of his nights at Chicago's Dreamland Café, Sunset Cafe, and Club Berlin, performing as a singer, drummer, and master of ceremonies. At Sunset Cafe, he was an understudy for singer Adelaide Hall. There he met and performed with Louis Armstrong, who taught him to sing in the scat style. He left school to sing with the Alabamians band.
In 1938, Calloway released, Cab Calloway's Cat-ologue: A "Hepster's" Dictionary, the first dictionary published by an African-American. It became the official jive language reference book of the New York Public Library. A revised version of the book was released with Professor Cab Calloway’s Swingformation Bureau in 1939. He released the last edition, The New Cab Calloway’s Hepsters Dictionary: Language of Jive, in 1944. On a BBC Radio documentary about the dictionary in 2014, Poet Lemn Sissay stated, "Cab Calloway was taking ownership of language for a people who, just a few generations before, had their own languages taken away."
Calloway remained a household name due to TV appearances and occasional concerts in the US and Europe. In 1961 and 1962, he toured with the Harlem Globetrotters, providing halftime entertainment during games.
Calloway was cast as "Yeller" in the film The Cincinnati Kid (1965) with Steve McQueen, Ann-Margret, and Edward G. Robinson. Calloway appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on March 19, 1967, with his daughter Chris Calloway. In 1967, he co-starred with Pearl Bailey as Horace Vandergelder in an all-black cast of Hello, Dolly! on Broadway during its original run. Chris Calloway also joined the cast as Minnie Fay. The new cast revived the flagging business for the show and RCA Victor released a new cast recording, rare for the time. In 1973–74, Calloway was featured in an unsuccessful Broadway revival of The Pajama Game with Hal Linden and Barbara McNair.
His autobiography, Of Minnie the Moocher and Me was published in 1976. It included his complete Hepster's Dictionary as an appendix. In 1978, Calloway released a disco version of "Minnie the Moocher" on RCA which reached the Billboard R&B chart. Calloway was introduced to a new generation when he appeared in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers performing "Minnie the Moocher".
In December 1945, Calloway and his friend Felix H. Payne Jr. were beaten by a police officer, William E. Todd, and arrested in Kansas City, Missouri after attempting to visit bandleader Lionel Hampton at the whites-only Pla-Mor Ballroom. They were taken to the hospital for injuries, then charged with intoxication and resisting arrest. When Hampton learned of the incident he refused to continue the concert. Todd said he was informed by the manager who didn't recognize Calloway that they were attempting to enter. He claimed they refused to leave and struck him. Calloway and Payne denied his claims and maintained they had been sober; the charges were dismissed. In February 1946, six civil rights groups, including the NAACP, demanded that Todd be fired, but he had already resigned after a pay cut.
On June 12, 1994, Calloway suffered a stroke at his home in Westchester County, New York. He died five months later from pneumonia on November 18, 1994, at age 86, at a nursing home in Hockessin, Delaware. He was survived by his wife, five daughters, and seven grandsons.