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"During the '40s they used to say that I had 40 suits and 40 pairs of shoes. It ain't true. I had 50 suits and 50 pairs of shoes and 50 pairs of pearl-gray gloves too!"—Cab Calloway
Born Cabell Calloway III in 1907 in Rochester, New York, Cab was an American Jazz singer and bandleader. His band, originally called The Missourians, was one of the most popular African-American big bands of the 1930s and 1940s. Calloway's band featured trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Adolphus "Doc" Cheatham, saxophonists Ben Webster and Leon "Chu" Berry, New Orleans guitar ace Danny Barker, and bassist Milt Hinton. Calloway continued to perform until his death in 1994 at the age of 86.
His impact on today's popular music reaches deep. In his own words; "You see this rapping they're doing today, I did that 25, 35, 45, 55 years ago!" Indeed, even the rotoscoped animations of his dance moves done for Betty Boop cartoons in the 1930's show him doing the moonwalk some 50 years before Michael Jackson would make it popular.
In a word, he was cool before the 'old school' was even built.
Modern audiences probably know him best for his performance of Minnie the Moocher, his most popular song, in the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers. In his prime he was best known for performing at The Cotton Club in Harlem during the 1930's. He was among the first African-American celebrities in an age when performers in blackface were still the norm, breaking new barriers and paving the way for nearly every black performer to come.
Tropes pertaining to him and his music include:
- Alliterative Name
- Anti-Love Song: "That's What I Hate About Love"
- Audience Participation Song: Many of Cab Calloway's songs invoked this. His songs were often written so that his orchestra and/or the audience could repeat his scat talk. Every once in a while he'd surprise and confuse everyone by breaking out in very rapid, hard-to-repeat gibberish in place of his typical "hi-de-hi-de-hi-di-ho", just for laughs.
- Big Band: His was one of the first and one of the first to swing.
- But Not Too Black: His lighter skin made it easier for white audiences to accept him in an era when blackface was still acceptable. Cab Calloway may have been one of the first people this trope was applied to.
- Call-and-Response Song
- The Cover Changes the Gender: Cab Calloway did a cover of "Blues in the Night (My Mama Done Told Me)" in which he sings about how his mother told him that women are 'two-faced' and will leave him to sing the blues. The odd thing about this version is his mother bashing her own gender, when in the original the mother warns the singer of the dangers of men.
- Dance Sensation: "The Calloway Boogie". Yes, he had his own boogie.
- Friendly Local Chinatown: See Opium Den below, if that gives you any indication.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: The undisputed world champion of his time. "Minnie the Moocher" is a prostitute high on opium; "Smokey Joe" is a pimp; "The Hi-de-Ho Miracle Man" is a lying con artist; "The Reefer Man" was a street pot dealer. Few of the white patrons of the Cotton Club caught on.
- Have a Gay Old Time: In "Minnie the Moocher's Wedding Day"
"When the folks in Chinatown start acting gay/ There's something in the air that makes them feel that way."
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Minnie the Moocher
"She was the roughest, toughest frail/ But Minnie had a heart as big as a whale."
- "I Am" Song: "The Hi-Di-Ho Man"
- Incredibly Long Note: You'd be amazed at his lung capacity. Just listen to "The St. Louis Blues".
Cab Calloway: "The St. Louis bluuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu...."
- Jive Turkey: Ain't nobody these days hep to the jive enough to dig what this hep cat's saying. Y'all a bunch of squares.
- Large Ham
- Man in White: A lot of the time, at least in his film appearances.
- The Movie: Cab Calloway's Hi De Ho. The plot is somewhat secondary to his musical performances though.
- Ode to Intoxication: "Reefer Man" and "Smokin' Reefer" were directly this, though a lot of his other songs are also riddled with drug and alcohol references.
- Opium Den: Many of his songs take place here. Smokey Joe often takes Minnie the Moocher to an opium den in Chinatown to kick the gong around.
- Perpetual Smiler: During his performances.
- Pimp Duds: By today's standards, though zoot suits and such were the 'in' style at the time.
- Oh, no: he was pimpin' even for his time.
- Recurring Character: Minnie the Moocher and Smokey Joe appear in a lot of his songs.
- Revival by Commercialization: His performance in The Blues Brothers may just have been what saved him from becoming just another forgotten Jazz singer from the 1930's in the eyes of modern audiences, and especially in the 1980's.
- Rotoscoping: His dance moves were used in a few of Max Fleischer's Betty Boop cartoons...including on a dancing walrus in Minnie the Moocher.
- Scat Singing: Cab Calloway was famous for this. He later admitted that when he first began singing 'scat' it was because he'd forgotten the words to a song, but after it went over well with his audience he began to purposely write it into his songs.
- Sequel Song: After "Minnie the Moocher" became his Signature Song, Cab Calloway wrote a series of songs about Minnie and her boyfriend Smokey Joe.
- Sesame Street Cred: One of the earliest celebrities to do it too.
- Shout-Out: Most of the swing bands out during the swing revival of the 1990's did at least one. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy did a cover of Minnie the Moocher, and the Squirrel Nut Zippers did a music video much like the old Fleisher cartoons Cab appeared in, complete with the lead singer doing Cab's dance moves at the beginning.
- The Oogie Boogie Man from The Nightmare Before Christmas was inspired by Cab Calloway.
- Voltaire is a big Cab Calloway fan, and many of the songs from his album Ooky Spooky are an homage to Cab's style.
- Danny Elfman, of all people, performed a Calloway-inspired number in the ultra-weird Forbidden Zone
- A fairly early Shout-Out is in the Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess; the character of Sportin' Life is based on Calloway, so much so that Calloway was asked to play it in the 1952 revival.
- Calloway did a few shout-outs himself. Even Minnie the Moocher was originally a shout-out to his own sister, a bandleader in her own right, who had created the character.
- Signature Song: "Minnie the Moocher"
- Still Got It: He continued to perform right up until the last years of his life. His appearance in The Blues Brothers proved he still had it.
- Taking the Bullet: The song "San Francisco Fan" is about a female performer who takes "a dozen slugs" for her no-good gambling boyfriend after he's caught cheating at a game and someone tries to shoot him for it.
- Minnie the Moocher takes the bullet for Cab Calloway in the movie Hi De Ho.
- Walking in Rhythm: Cab during his performances.