Interviews » Biographers

Alyn Shipton, author of Hi-De-Ho: The Life of Cab Calloway

 Alyn Shipton,

author of

Hi-De-Ho: The Life of Cab Calloway

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Clad in white tie and tails, dancing and scatting his way through the “Hi-de-ho” chorus of “Minnie the Moocher,” Cab Calloway exuded a sly charm and sophistication that endeared him to legions of fans.

In Hi-de-ho, author Alyn Shipton offers the first full-length biography of Cab Calloway, whose vocal theatrics and flamboyant stage presence made him one of the highest-earning African American bandleaders. Shipton sheds new light on Calloway’s life and career, explaining how he traversed racial and social boundaries to become one of the country’s most beloved entertainers.

Drawing on first-hand accounts from Calloway’s family, friends, and fellow musicians, the book traces the roots of this music icon, from his childhood in Rochester, New York, to his life of hustling on the streets of Baltimore. Shipton highlights how Calloway’s desire to earn money to support his infant daughter prompted his first break into show business, when he joined his sister Blanche in a traveling revue. Beginning in obscure Baltimore nightclubs and culminating in his replacement of Duke Ellington at New York’s famed Cotton Club, Calloway honed his gifts of scat singing and call-and-response routines. His career as a bandleader was matched by his genius as a talent-spotter, evidenced by his hiring of such jazz luminaries as Ben Webster, Dizzy Gillespie, and Jonah Jones.

As the swing era waned, Calloway reinvented himself as a musical theatre star, appearing as Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess in the early 1950s; in later years, Calloway cemented his status as a living legend through cameos on Sesame Street and his show-stopping appearance in the wildly popular The Blues Brothers movie, bringing his trademark “hi-de-ho” refrain to a new generation of audiences.

More than any other source, Hi-de-ho stands as an entertaining, not-to-be-missed portrait of Cab Calloway–one that expertly frames his enduring significance as a pioneering artist and entertainer.#

Shipton joins Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita in an April 6, 2011 conversation about Calloway.

 

 

 

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Cab Calloway

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“Clad in white tie and tails, dancing energetically, waving an oversized baton, and singing ‘Minnie the Moocher,’ Cab Calloway is one of the most iconic figures in popular music. He was the first great African American vocalist in jazz who specialized in singing without also doubling on an instrument, and he was also a conductor and bandleader who assembled a series of remarkably consistent hard-swinging ensembles. By always striving to hire the best musicians and arrangers, he took the art of big band playing forward consistently from the start of the 1930s to the end of the 1940s. The tenor saxophonist Chu Berry made some of his finest records in the Calloway band, as did trumpeter Jonah Jones, saxophonists Ike Quebec and Eddie Barefield, and drummer Cozy Cole. At its peak in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Calloway’s was the highest earning African American orchestra and, by virtue of its biggest hit ‘Minnie the Moocher,’ also one of the few to have broken through to the general public with a million-selling record. People loved Cab and his antics for what he was, irrespective of color. In later life, Cab transformed into an elegant and sophisticated star of the musical theater, but from the 1930s to the 1990s, he never forgot how to ‘hi-de-ho,’ and win over a crowd.”

- Alyn Shipton

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Minnie the Moocher , by Cab Calloway

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JJM   What was your critical opinion of Cab Calloway before writing Hi De Ho?

AS  Before I wrote the book I had a much lower critical opinion of him than I do now. While writing the book I listened to virtually everything that one can get hold of. Originally, I was very much influenced by the school of criticism that thought of him as an impediment to a very fine band. But the more I listened, the more I realized that he was a very fine bandleader. Although he didn’t own all of it – Irving Mills was his major financial partner – Cab really did shape and mold that band into something that was quite exceptional for its time, and I think that was one skill.

The other skill I really came to appreciate through researching the book was the variety and depth of his talent as a singer. I wrote at length about some of the unusual things he does, particularly how he incorporates different layers of scat singing where he can assume different persona, in some cases having not one but two conversations with other mythical characters within the course of a song, which is a very rare gift. An awful lot of vocalists who came after him, from early imitators like Billy Banks right the way through to people like Louis Jordan and Slim Gaillard, owed a huge amount to Cab. That’s the major critical reevaluation that happened after starting the book.

JJM  Concerning Cab’s musical complexity, when describing his recording of “St. Louis Blues,” you wrote, “These chart the progress of Cab and the band as they found a natural musical language and style together. In due course, he would roll into this singing an astonishing range of allusion, consolidating Armstrong’s scatting, timing and phrasing, but also looking beyond jazz to a wider set of influences that encompassed Jewish cantors, country blues singers, and fast-talking low-life street characters.” This is a style that sets him apart from the typical jazz musician of his era…

AS  Yes, I think so. I think the other thing about him is that he was clearly not backward educationally – after all, his parents had ambitions for him to be a lawyer. He may have been lazy and he might have wanted to go off and do things at the racetrack that kept him from going to school, but he was a very bright man from an early age. That’s reflected in the way he put songs together and the way he talks and his extraordinary range. On a recording like “Nagasaki,” for example, one minute he is doing little snatches of an Armstrong vocal, then he’s singing “Them cats will get you,” which just flies past, and there are all these other wonderful allusions to food, and to the way people are living. It’s like a very compressed version of some of the comments you get in a Fats Waller song, but whereas Fats would sort of interject these into his lyrics as he was playing, probably talking to his side men in the studio, with Cab you get it compressed into a sort of pate, if you see what I mean. There is a tighter range of allusions in a shorter space of time.

JJM You consider “Nagasaki” to be one of his greatest vocal triumphs and one of the most remarkable vocal performances in jazz…

AS  Yes, it’s a shame that Columbia didn’t record it better, and it would have been great if RCA had recorded it because those RCA recordings are so beautifully done. It’s sad that we don’t have it so perfectly preserved as that wonderful remake of “Minnie the Moocher” he did for RCA, and “The Scat Song” and things like that where you can hear every nuance of the song.

JJM  What was his first musical ambition?

AS  I’m not sure that he didn’t think that he could be a drummer to start with, because there are all these stories of him playing the Arabian Tent Club in Baltimore as a drummer, and singing was something that crept in. The banjo player Elmer Snowden said that “Cab was no drummer,” although that may have been said with a certain amount of sour grapes. I have a feeling that Cab pretty quickly realized that if he was going to make his fortune it was going to be as a dancer, a stage personality, and a singer, and not as either a drummer or an alto saxophonist.

 

 

JJM You devote much of the story of his young adult life to the influence his sister Blanche had on him…

AS  I’m convinced that she’s the great undiscovered story that this book has started to shed some light on, and I really hope now that someone will go out and research a full biography of Blanche Calloway, because she’s a fascinating figure. You can hear the evidence of her influence. She recorded a song called “Just A Crazy Song,” which was recorded before she could have possibly heard Cab’s recording of “Minnie the Moocher.” The songs were recorded six weeks apart at a time when it took longer than that to simply press and manufacture a record. So I think we can be pretty sure that she was doing an act – which included “Hi-De-Hoing” and shout-backing and many of the things that we hear in Cab – way before he was.

JJM  She recorded with Louis Armstrong in November of 1925…

AS  Yes that’s right, and those are interesting. When I was a kid, there were LP’s called Louis and the Blues Singers which were collections of him doing sessions in Chicago with blues singers passing through town, and Blanche Calloway stands out to me as one of the more unusual. I think it’s because there’s a slight “actressy” quality in her voice, which I talk about in the book. She had the ability to assume the character she was singing about, and that’s certainly something she passed on to Cab, and you hear that very early on in that first 1925 recording with Louis.

JJM  What were her limitations as a performer?

AS  Frankly, I think she was a one trick pony. I think she could do the shout-back-and-response stuff generally from the position of an adopted persona, but she didn’t have much range beyond that. You can’t really imagine her singing a ballad and meaning it unless it’s a lovelorn song where she’s putting herself into the character of the girl who’s been cheated on. On the other hand, Cab had an extraordinary ability to inhabit the lyrics he was singing about. When you hear him singing “Hi-De-Ho Man, That’s Me,” you can imagine him almost being a Baptist preacher with that amazing cantonal singing. While you can’t imagine Blanche approaching that range, she did manage to be a very gutsy and flamboyant female performer on stage who did have an act that worked extraordinarily well with the public, and I think that flamboyancy is what Cab learned from her. He took the “Hi-De-Ho” persona and the idea of engaging with the audience and using the whole African American tradition of call and response, and he did it all brilliantly – but he picked it up from her. I think she never quite got as far beyond that as she could, but of course she became a millionaire in her own right by selling cosmetics to African American women in later life.

 

JJM  The Chicago Tribune critic Ashton Stevens called Plantation Days the “…fastest and best show I have seen in years.” Another critic said it made Shuffle Along look like a “funeral procession.” What was Cab’s role in this performance?

AS  Initially he wanted to use it as a means to get to New York so he could see his newly-born daughter. The story is that he fell in love with his girlfriend, Zelma Proctor, while he was at school. Unfortunately, she became pregnant. She was very sensible and decided that marrying someone while still a teenager wasn’t the thing to do – especially to a hotshot like Cab – but, quite surprisingly, he took his responsibilities very seriously. When the baby was born, he needed to get to New York to see her and also to give her some money.

So when his sister breezed into Baltimore in this show called Plantation Days and said that there was a vacancy in a vocal quartet called The Crackerjacks, he took it upon himself to join. Even at that stage he was such a good singer and had such a big personality that he quickly worked into the act and was able to tour with the group. We know that the show with him in it was playing at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem just about the moment his daughter was born. Camay Calloway, who was very helpful to me while I was writing the book, arrived in 1927 at the very moment that Cab’s career was taking off. I think it’s an interesting idea that his career might not have taken off had she not been about to be born. She said to me she’d never thought of it like that, but once I pointed it out to her it seemed very obvious.

JJM  He lived in Chicago during this time…

AS  Yes, but he regularly sent money to New York. Blanche was in New York quite a lot, where she appeared at a number of clubs, and she kept an eye on the baby and sent news back to Cab about her. But Cab was definitely doing very well in Chicago so he stayed there, singing mainly at the Sunset, which is where Earl Hines and Louis Armstrong also performed – neither of whom really coincided with Cab for very long, although they did overlap for a few weeks.

JJM  Describe the Sunset Cafe when Cab played there?

AS  It was originally built as an automobile garage, so it was a big barn of a place. It is a hardware store today, and what survives from the Sunset are murals of dancers that look a bit like the extraordinary Harlem renaissance paintings of Aaron Douglas that are up in the Schoenberg Institute in Harlem. So, imagine this large, cavernous club with tables and chairs around it, a dance floor, and the band actually on the same level as the dance floor. When they talked about a “floorshow,” they were actually talking about a show that simply spilled onto and was part of the dance floor.

JJM  The audiences were mixed race?

AS  In Chicago that was possible. William Kenney’s marvelous book about the jazz age in Chicago gives us an idea that the city fathers wanted to defuse any kind of racial aggression, so one of the things that they turned a blind eye to was integrated audiences – and this was at a time when that would have been rare in other cities in the States.

JJM  The great stage performers of the era, Bert Williams and George Walker, helped, in your words, to “redefine how songs, comedic monologues, and dance routines could be delivered, with a mastery of timing and nuance that was related to the everyday speech patterns of the African American audience.” To what degree was Cab influenced by Bert Williams and George Walker?

AS  Well, I think a lot. In the book I write about Cab being their two personae rolled into one, because Walker was the flashy dressed, very smart looking, aspirational African American, while Bert Williams’ character was, to some extent, the country bumpkin with a certain amount of urban street smart layered on as well. They were probably the first black vaudeville act whose routines became nationally known through gramophone records so I think that Cab, consciously or not, adopted a lot of Bert Williams’ routines.

Williams and Walker were revered by members of Cab’s band. For example, Danny Barker – a key member of the band for nine years – owned a pair of Bert Williams’ shoes, which were lovingly brought out and shown to me on one of my first visits with him in New Orleans. He told me that these entertainers had had a really significant place in all their lives and that the band would have known their routines and very much revered the performers.

JJM  You also point out that, “Another common element with Cab’s vocal storytelling about Minnie (“the Moocher”) was that both Williams and Walker delivered songs which contained coded linguistic messages that bypassed a white audience, but were picked up immediately by their African American audiences.” So they were also influential to Cab in that regard because coded messages being sung to an African American audience was so prominent in Calloway’s writing.

AS  Yes, absolutely, and that’s never gone away. It is still going on in hip-hop today, which is a point I make at the end of the book. I’ve been taken to task by some jazz critics who ask how on earth I can make a link between Cab and that “dreadful hip-hop” stuff? I actually see this as all part of a continuity, which begins way before Williams and Walker. Early recordings sold to the black public in the United States were everything from sermons to comedy, so, it wasn’t simply a musical disc market. As jazz enthusiasts who are also writers about jazz tend to look at the world through myopic spectacles and don’t always remember that the gramophone buying public were buying records of all kinds of other stuff – not just music. Not to be putting down my colleagues, but I do sometimes think that they live in a hermetically sealed bubble in which only jazz goes on.

JJM  His performances – now easily accessed online – are evidence of his influence on generations of performers as well…

AS  Yes, you can see a connection with the generation before the hip-hoppers – entertainers like Gregory Hines, Richard Pryor, and to some extent Eddie Murphy – because of the way they moved, the way they told jokes, and the way they sing, all of which are very close to the way Cab performed as well.

JJM  When did he first discover that he had a talent for leading a band?

AS  Leading a band was somewhat accidental. While Cab was Master of Ceremonies at the Sunset, the house band – what later became the Alabamians – was led by a musical director, Marion Hardy, who wasn’t very good at his job. Cab decided to rehearse his own numbers with the band and realized immediately that he had a talent for directing the band. It was a “light bulb moment,” where he realized that he could not only be an M.C. and occasional vocalist and a stand-in for other acts when they didn’t show up, but he could be the director of the house band as well.

This led to an interesting moment because when the house band was asked to make room for another band to come in, Cab felt that his loyalties now lay with the musicians he directed and not with the club, so he chose to leave. That’s a really interesting decision, because he could have stayed in Chicago where he could have remained a very highly paid, very popular individual, but instead his heart and mind were in directing a band. I thought after the book was published that maybe I didn’t make enough of that choice he made, which is a really extraordinary decision, if you think about it – to leave a very safe job as the maitre d’ of an incredibly popular nightclub and go off on the road with a band that really had no prospect of getting much in the way of gigs.

JJM  Yes…Throughout the book you made a point of pointing out a bond that existed between himself and his band members, suggesting that he would, “stick up for them and lead them through thick and thin.”

AS  Yes, that “thick and thin” comment was as a result of a situation that took place during a tour of the South, where bands routinely would be ripped off by clubs and left stranded without cash. Cab decided his band was not going to be ripped off and insisted on being paid in cash. They took the proceeds of the box office and hid the money in their instrument cases – so much money that Doc Cheatham said they had never seen so much before. There was literally thousands of dollars in one-dollar bills stuffed into the drum cases and guitar cases, and they carried their instruments separately because they were so worried about the money being stolen. Once Cab said that was the way they were going to be paid, everybody rallied around him and Cab got them paid. Even though men in the band like Garvin Bushel, Ben Webster and Dizzy Gillespie were skeptical about Cab’s musical abilities, all of them recognized that when it came to the actual business of leading a band, he was extraordinarily good at it.

JJM  Another turning point in his career was “The Million Dollar Affair in Musical Talent,” a big band battle held at the Savory Ballroom in May, 1930 that included the bands of Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and Chick Webb. How did this event effect his future?

AS  That was a fantastically important experience, because the Missourians, who were the house band at the Cotton Club before the Ellington band, had been in the wilderness for a bit. But to get out of this wilderness, they toured the Midwest and really tightened their act up as a band. So you have to imagine that they arrived in New York with a point to prove – that they could get back to the level where they were worthy of being the house band at somewhere like the Cotton Club.

Cab was leading the Alabamians, who had actually not been very good, and he knew the minute they went on tour from Chicago that he was leading a band that sounded old-fashioned to the listeners of the east. It is interesting that Cab had already recognized that, despite putting a lot of effort into leading the Alabamians, he didn’t consider them to be a long term band to lead, but, he did see them as a vehicle to use in order to leave Chicago.

He liked the way the Missourians played together as a band, and how they had a cohesive sense of swing without sounding old-fashioned like the Alabamians – who I suspect had a two-beat Ragtime sort of feel. Instead, the Missourians played a driving, full to the bar bluesy sound which gets Gunther Schuller terribly excited in his book, The Swing Era, where he called them one of the most exciting blues-based bands of the Midwest, and I believe he is right. Cab spotted that as well, and since the Missourians won the band contest and he won the leader contest, it was a natural conclusion that they’d put the two of them together.