Saturday, 11 February 2017

Before Rock 'n' Roll There Was Cab Calloway

Lamont: "What are you bringing all of this up for now? Here we all are into a discovery about Africa and you're talking about slicking down your hair to look like white people."
Fred: "I ain't sayin' nothin' about no white people. I said Cab Calloway!"
(Sanford and Son, "Lamont Goes African", season 2 episode 17)

Rock 'n' roll grew out of a number of different music genres. Both blue and rhythm and blues have often been acknowledged as progenitors of rock music. Less often acknowledged is the debt that rock 'n' roll owes to jazz, more specifically Swing. Swing music is essentially jazz written specifically for dancing. Swing bands are noted for their strong rhythm sections, accompanied by a lead section of brass, woodwinds, and sometimes even stringed instruments such as guitar or violin. Swing proved phenomenally popular from 1935 to 1946. In fact, this time period is often called "the Swing Era". Swing would have an impact on the development of rock music, from African American musicians such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Fletcher Henderson to Western Swing musicians such as Bob Willis and Hank Thompson. Among the Swing artists to have the most impact on rock 'n' roll was Cab Calloway.

Cab Calloway was born to an upper middle class family in Rochester, New York on December 25 1907. His mother was a teacher, while his father was a lawyer who also worked in real estate. He had formal training from a young age. Cab Calloway's parents, realising their son had musical talent, enrolled him in private voice lessons. Throughout his childhood young Cab Calloway continued to study music in school. He also learned music from another source. While still a teenager he began going to the various jazz clubs in Baltimore, and even performing at them. Among his mentors was legendary drummer Chick Webb.

Despite his talent in music, Cab Calloway's parents hoped that he would follow his father into a legal career. He even enrolled at Crane College in Chicago. Despite this his love of jazz proved too strong, and Cab Calloway soon found himself performing at the Dreamland Ballroom, the Sunset Cafe, and the Club Berlin in Chicago as both a drummer and a singer. It was not long before he left school to devote himself to music full time.

Cab Calloway eventually joined a group called The Missourians. It was not long before he became the band's leader and it was renamed "Cab Calloway and His Orchestra". Their big break came when they were hired to substitute for the Cotton Clubs house band,  Duke Ellington Orchestra, while they were touring. Cab Calloway and His Orchestra proved so popular that the Cotton Club hired them as a house band alongside Duke Ellington's group. Radio broadcasts were regularly made from The Cotton Club through NBC's Red Network, giving both Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway national exposure.

With nationwide exposure on the radio, it would not be long before Cab Calloway began having hit records. His single "Saint Louis Blues" went to no. 16 on the Billboard singles chart. It was "Minnie the Moocher" that would prove to be Mr. Calloway's biggest hit. The song proved to be phenomenally popular and reached no. 1 on the Billboard singles chart. From the Thirties into the Forties Cab Calloway would have a whole string of hits, including "Saint James Infirmary", "Kicking the Gong Around", "Tickeration", "Minnie the Moocher's Wedding Day", "Reefer Man", "Moon Glow", "Angels With Dirty Faces", "(Hep Hep!) The Jumping Jive", and "Blues in the Night". His popularity led to several appearances in movies, including The Big Broadcast (1932), The Singing Kid (1936), and Stormy Weather (1943).

Unfortunately by the late Forties Cab Calloway's career would be in decline. A number of bad financial decisions, as well as gambling debts, led to the break up of Cab Calloway and His Orchestra. Following the end of World War II the popularity of Swing music had also gone into decline. Cab Calloway continued to appear in films (such as Rhythm and Blues Revue in 1955 and St. Louis Blues in 1958) and even in such stage productions as Porgy and Bess. In 1980 he appeared in the movie The Blues Brothers.

Cab Calloway's appearance in The Blues Brothers resulted in renewed interest in his career. He played at The Ritz London in 1985. Along with other performers he was filmed for a BBC television special entitled The Cotton Club Comes to the Ritz. In 1986 he appeared on Broadway in Uptown... It's Hot!. In 1988 he performed with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. He later appeared at the Apollo Theatre. Cab Calloway died on November 18 1994 at age 86.

As pointed out above, many Swing musicians had an impact on rock music. Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, and yet other would influence the development of rock 'n' roll. That having been said, the influence of Cab Calloway on rock 'n' roll would go well beyond his music. Quite simply, Cab Calloway was the consummate showman. His clothing on stage was outrageous by the standards of the time. In fact, it was Cab Calloway who popularised the zoot suit. On stage Mr. Calloway almost never stood still. He would dance around the stage, often with a conductor's baton that he would thrust and even twirl. Even his singing differed a bit from that typical in jazz of the time. It was a combination of traditional vaudeville singing, scat singing, and, quite often, improvisation.

Indeed, it must be noted that in many ways Cab Calloway and His Orchestra was quite different from other swing bands of the time. Most swing bands were led by an instrumentalist. Glenn Miller played trombone. Duke Ellington was a pianist. Tommy Dorsey played trombone, while his brother Jimmy played clarinet and saxophone. Nearly all of these bands had vocalists and many of these vocalists would become quite popular (Frank Sinatra, Kay Starr, Billie Holiday, and many others got their start with the Big Bands). That having been said, Cab Calloway and His Orchestra was actually led by vocalist, much in the same way many modern day rock bands are.  Cab Calloway not only performed much as modern day rock stars would, but he even recorded the song "I Want to Rock" many years before the word "rock" was ever applied to a genre of music.

Cab Calloway would have an immediate influence on a number of artists who followed him. Jazz singer Louis Prima, jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (who played with Cab Calloway for a time), and pop singer Frankie Laine all drew upon Cab Calloway for inspiration. Many of the early rock 'n' roll acts also looked to Cab Calloway for their stage performances. Mr. Calloway's influence upon Little Richard is obvious, but such diverse rock acts as Jerry Lee Lewis and even Elvis himself drew upon his showmanship in some way. Artists from James Brown to Prince owe something to Cab Calloway. In fact, it seems possible that the many tropes of rock music performances (jumping around the stage, et. al.) can be traced back to Cab Calloway.

Cab Calloway was a flamboyant, expressive vocalist who headed his own band at a time when Big Bands were generally led by instrumentalists. He was not simply a talented songwriter and singer, but one who put on incredible shows for which he is still well known. That he had lasting impact on rock 'n' roll, as well as other genres of music, should perhaps not be surprising.

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