The infamous jazz band leader, composer and singer Cab Calloway, a.k.a. Cabell Calloway III, was born on Christmas day in 1907, in Rochester, New York. He inherited musicality from his mother, a church organist and teacher, and his singing talents were initially noticed when singing church hymns as a child.
After the death of his father, the family moved to Baltimore, Maryland in 1918, where he worked first as a shoe-shine boy, then later a newsboy selling the Sunday papers whilst finishing his schooling. There, Cab met the jazz pianist Tommy Jones and drummer and band leader Chick Webb, who had a strong influence on his early jazz training. His older sister Blanche was also a jazz singer and band leader, and under the influence of these three, pretty soon Cab started performing regularly in Baltimore jazz nightclubs.
After touring with his sister Blanche in a musical called Plantation Days, Cab ended up in Chicago where he entered Lincoln University to study law, but dropped out before graduating. "Night clubbing and school didn't pan out so well, together, so I figured I'd give up school" Cab said. In Chicago at the Sunset Cafe, Cab cut his teeth as an understudy for Adelaide Hall, and it was here that Louis Armstrong taught Cab how to scat. He also performed at Dreamland Ballroom and Club Berlin with his group The Alabamanians.
In 1929, during the prohibition era (1919 to 1933), the bandleader and pianist Duke Ellington invited Cab Calloway and His Orchestra to replace his band at the Cotton Club in Harlem, New York, whilst the Duke Ellington Orchestra was on tour. This led to a regular deal with the club, alongside notables like Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters, and Ellington. The Cotton Club was the number one jazz venue in the country, run by the gangster Owney Madden from his cell in the maximum security prison Sing Sing. Although it was a whites-only nightclub, many black performers had the opportunity to showcase their talents to a high-class celebrity audience whilst Madden flogged his high-quality liquor to New York's finest.
It was at the Cotton Club that Cab Calloway and His Orchestra first brought down the house with their rendition of the risqué song "St. James Infirmary," written by the Jazz music publisher Irving Mills (a.k.a. Joe Primrose,) and based on an English folk song called "The Unfortunate Rake" about a licentious soldier that eventually dies of a sexually-transmitted disease.
Cab Calloway's hit "Minnie the Moocher" launched him to international renown in 1931, and is recognizable to most people as Calloway's "vocal coat of arms." The scat-based call and response between the audience of "Hi de hi de hi de hi" and variants ("The Hi-De-Ho Miracle Man," "You Gotta Hi-De-Ho," "Smokey Joe," "Kicking the Gong Around," and "Reefer Man" among others) were infectiously popular, earning him the nickname "The Hi De Ho Man."
The 1930s saw Calloway's transition into television and film. Along with "St. James Infirmary," "Minnie the Moocher" was made into a Bettie Boop animation short, and his dance steps were also animated through the technique of rotoscoping. In 1932 he appeared along Bing Crosby in his first Hollywood feature film, The Big Broadcast, and featured regularly in movies until 1980 (The Blues Brothers.) He also entered the Broadway scene, performing in George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, in 1950 where he played the part of Sportin' Life, a character that Gershwin supposedly created especially for him.
When asked who his heroes were, Calloway is reported to have said "I'll tell you who my heroes are. My heroes are the notes, man. The music itself. You understand what I'm saying? I love the music. The music is my hero."
Cab Calloway wrote a dictionary in 1944 translating the Harlem patois known as jive, called The New Cab Calloway Hipster's Dictionary: Language of Jive.
Calloway regularly performed until his death from a stroke in 1994, at the age of 88.
Cab Calloway is credited with a precursor to the Moonwalk dance performed from 1930 onwards, which he called "The Buzz."