This Day In History: December 25th
Singer and bandleader Cab Calloway became one of the most popular entertainers of the 1930s and ’40s. He was known for his enticing voice, vibrancy on stage and dapper appearance which allowed him to perform at Harlem’s famous Cotton Club.
Cabell Calloway III was born on December 25, 1907, in Rochester, New York. He grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, which is where he first began singing. However, he moved to Chicago and began studying law at Crane College (now Malcolm X College). While studying law, Calloway remained focused on music and was able to meet Louis Armstrong, who tutored him in the art of scat singing.
By 1928 he was in charge of his own band, The Alabamians, and the following year he decided to move to New York. After the move he established Cab Calloway and his Orchestra and became a regular performer at the Cotton Club. Calloway’s career took off with his hit song, “Minnie the Moocher,” in 1931. It became a number one song that sold more than one million copies. It was famous for the call-and-response “hi-de-hi-de-ho” chorus, which would also become Calloway’s signature phrase through the remainder of his career.
Calloway and his orchestra had successful tours in Canada, Europe and across the United States. Despite finding success on stage, Calloway still had to deal with the realities of racism and segregation. The band traveled in private train cars whenever they performed in the South to avoid some of the effects of segregation.
Towards the end of the 1940s, big bands were losing popularity amongst fans and Calloway had to find new ways to reinvent himself. Calloway took his talents to a different stage for two years when he portrayed “Sportin’ Life” in the revival of the musical Porgy and Bess. He also made big-screen appearances in movies such as The Blues Brothers and introduced himself to new fans by appearing on Sesame Street.
Cab Calloway earned his reputation for being a top performer and entertainer through his energetic stage presence and musical talents. In 1993, President Bill Clinton awarded Calloway a National Medal of the Arts. Calloway died the following year on November 18, 1994, at the age of 86.