Bandleader and vocalist Cab Calloway will always be remembered for his outrageous stage antics and wild lyrics. Consistently ranked among the top bands of the 1930s and 1940s, Calloway's orchestra entertained millions during its heyday, and the bandleader himself continued thrilling audiences up until the time of his death. His older sister, Blanche, was also a popular vocalist and bandleader in her own right.
Born in Rochester, New York, Cab grew up in Baltimore. He studied music and voice as a youth, singing at local speakeasies when he could. Cab also excelled in sports. During his senior year in high school, he played for the Baltimore Athenians of the Negro Professional Basketball League. Torn between sports and music, he finally chose the latter. His mother, however, wanted him to follow his father's footsteps and become a lawyer. With that goal, Cab moved to Chicago to attend Crane College.
Blanche was already in Chicago, singing and dancing professionally. She helped Cab get a job with her in the musical review Plantation Days. When the show closed in 1927 Cab found a job singing at the Dreamland Cafe. In 1928 he went to work as the emcee of the Sunset Cafe, which also featured a house band called Marion Hardy's Alabamians. One day, during rehearsal, he decided to do a number with the band. They liked him so much they made him their leader. Cab dropped out of college to pursue a career as a entertainer.
MCA signed the Alabamians in 1929 and sent them on a tour, which ended up in Harlem. The group flopped in New York, being perceived as ''unhip.'' The band decided to return to Chicago, but Cab remained in New York, where he took over as leader of a group called the Missourians. He left after only a brief time to return to Chicago, where he once again led the Alabamians. He soon returned to New York, where Louis Armstrong helped him get a spot in the Hot Chocolates review.
The Alabamians made a return engagement to New York late in the year, appearing at the Savoy Hotel, with Cab as leader. When the group returned to Chicago, Cab again remained behind and took over the Missourians. This time, he renamed the group as Cab Calloway and His Orchestra. They were booked into the Cotton Club in early 1931.
Always appearing in a white silk suit, with top hat and tails, Cab took the public by storm with such songs as ''Minnie the Moocher'' and ''Kickin' the Gong Around'' (the latter a reference to smoking opium). He gained national attention when Bing Crosby featured him on the Lucky Strike radio show. He was the first black entertainer to perform on a ''white'' program. One night, while performing ''Minnie the Moocher'' on the radio, he forgot the lyrics and started to scat. His famous trademark, ''Hi-De-Ho,'' was born.
In 1932 he made his first of many films, which include such classics as the Big Broadcast and Stormy Weather. The orchestra was also featured on its own radio program, Cab Calloway's Quizzicale during 1941 and 1942. The show was aired on both Mutual and NBC Blue as a sustainer, since no sponsor could be found for a program which featured African-American entertainers.
Cab's orchestra remained on top throughout the 1930s and into the war years, touring extensively in the United States and Canada. They also toured Europe in 1934. Many critics felt that Cab's outfit of the early 1940s, which featured Dizzy Gillespie, Ben Webster, Cozy Cole and Chu Berry, was his best line-up. The end of the swing era, however, took its toll, and in 1948 Cab was forced to disband. He then organized and toured with a sextet, occasionally reforming a big band for special engagements. He continued to perform, touring the world for more than forty years, both with small outfits and solo, until his death.
In the early 1950s Calloway toured the United States and Europe in the stage production of Porgy and Bess. In the late 1960s and during the 1970s he worked on Broadway, starring is such shows as Hello, Dolly!, with Pearl Bailey, and The Pajama Game. In 1978 he appeared in three episodes of Sesame Street. In 1989 he appeared in a Janet Jackson video. Cab Calloway died in 1994 after suffering a stroke. His daughter, Chris, is a vocalist.