Upon his death in 1994, the jazz singer, orchestra leader, and black Broadway performer Cabell “Cab” Calloway (b. 1907) received a celebrity-studded memorial tribute at New York’s St. John Cathedral that fully befitted the scope of his stature in American music. Calloway’s establishment as a seminal icon of twentieth-century popular culture seemed assured; subsequent efforts by Christopher Calloway Brooks to lead a tribute band (aided by a brief swing revival) were likewise promising. Just fifteen years later, however, Calloway’s name rests in the margins of music history textbooks and cultural studies. Fortunately, Alyn Shipton’s new biography Hi-De-Ho: The Life of Cab Calloway fills a gaping hole as the only book-length study on the subject to emerge since the publication of a 1976 autobiography.1 Given Calloway’s current low profile in popular media and academic disciplines, Shipton’s otherwise modest book may prove more precious than anyone could have realized at the project’s inception.
Armed with oral histories, newspaper archives, public records, and his own collection of interviews, Shipton traces his subject’s career from Baltimore, where the young Calloway rejected his family’s middle-class values in favor of street adventure. Inspired by the professional success of his older sister, Calloway eventually focused on show business, honing his craft on the vaudeville circuit with touring black stage revues. By the late 1920s, he was singing and fronting bands in Chicago nightclubs, where he rubbed shoulders with Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines. Territory touring and a band battle at New York’s Savoy Ballroom led to the leadership of his own orchestra and a series of residencies at the prestigious Cotton Club; an aspiring instrumentalist himself, Calloway exercised proactive leadership of his band, replacing personnel and carefully refining orchestral arrangements to showcase his vocals. [End Page 109]
By the mid-1930s, his virtuosic scat and ensemble call-and-response routines in hits like “Minnie the Moocher” and “Zaz Zuh Zaz,” supported by the wily marketing of white manager Irving Mills, were influencing a generation of performers and audiences. Film appearances, network radio broadcasts, and a 1934 tour of Europe delivered international fame; a stage persona built around eccentric dance, jive lingo, exotic linguistic tropes, and double-entendre drug references made Calloway a ubiquitous (if somewhat controversial) symbol of youth and African American culture. Following the demise of the Swing era, Calloway increasingly found rewarding work in Broadway musicals, including highly successful touring productions of Porgy and Bess and Hello, Dolly! In the 1970s, an emerging nostalgia circuit provided Calloway another run, as he reprised signature hits for fundraisers, vacation resorts, and television programs.
The scope of Hi-De-Ho is broad for its size, including biographical data, discussions of performance techniques, prose analyses of recordings, contemporary media reactions, and itineraries and anecdotes of the orchestra’s adventures on the road. General audiences and jazz fans will find an illuminating story of a charismatic figure who enjoyed groundbreaking crossover appeal, including what may be “the first million-selling disc by an African American artist” (48). Shipton’s handling of primary sources is his strength, and he takes good advantage of whatever access he was able to get to the Calloway papers held at Boston University, including previously unpublished press releases and correspondence. There is a tendency to accept secondary sources at face value: a few long-standing errors in publications like Jim Haskins’s The Cotton Club or various discographies are perpetuated.2
Although the pacing of the book can feel mechanical in its cyclical updates of Calloway’s personal life, band personnel, or contextual glosses on broader developments in popular music, most of the scheduled forays into topics like the French zazous movement, African American vocal quartets, early twentieth-century Freemasonry, or jive slang are welcome and cogent. Other discussions, such as that of Calloway’s stylistic nods to “the scales and a cappella melodies of Jewish cantors” (145), remain only as enlightening as the scholarship referenced...