Bandleader, singer and songwriter Cabell “Cab” Calloway III was born in Rochester, NY, on Christmas Day of 1907. He was the second of Cabell and Eulalia Calloway’s six children. When young Cab was six years old, the family moved to Baltimore, where his father practiced law and sold real estate.
Calloway studied music as a child and enjoyed singing in church. Despite his parent’s disapproval of jazz, Calloway started hanging out and performing at Baltimore jazz clubs, where he met drummer Chick Webb and pianist Johnny Jones.
After graduating from Frederick Douglass High School, Calloway joined his older sister, Blanche, in Chicago, where he took acting lessons. Blanche, who was established as a singer, helped Cab join a vocal quartet in “Plantation Days,” one of the first major African-American revues.
By the time he was 20, Calloway was singing lead vocals with his own 11-member band, the Alabamians. The band became popular in Chicago and performed at the Savoy Ballroom in New York City. After a stint appearing in a Broadway comedy, Calloway formed another band and began performing at New York nightclubs. In 1929, Calloway and his band were asked to fill in for Duke Ellington at the famed Cotton Club. For the next decade, Ellington and Calloway alternated headlining at the Cotton Club.
Calloway reportedly learned scat singing, using nonsense syllables, from Louis Armstrong. Singers sometimes used scat when they forgot a song’s lyrics. Calloway began writing songs with scat choruses, which received rave responses from audiences and earned him the designation as the Hi Di Ho man.
Calloway died in 1994 five months after suffering a stroke.
One of Calloway’s best-known songs is “Minnie the Moocher,” which was introduced to a new generation as the high point in “Blues Brothers” film (1980). Here Calloway performs the song in a 1942 clip:
Calloway performing “Reefer Man”:
Here is a 1934 short feature from Paramount with Calloway and his band: