One of my favorite movies as a child was the Blues Brothers. Jake and Elwood were the coolest guys I had ever seen in my life. Black suits, black hats, and black shades that they never took off. Not even at night. And the music? The music changed my life! The Star studded cameos by Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and James Brown! Belushi and Akroyd must have pulled every string in the book to get these cameo’s.
The first time I saw it I was like 7 or 8. My brother and I never missed a chance to watch this movie. This was a time before straight to TV or DVD. These were days of old sets. With dials and buttons. Or even more likely, missing dials and buttons. If you grew up in the 80’s, watching a movie you really liked meant waiting for it to come on. None of this “On Demand” stuff. The T.V. Guide was paper, and it came in the mail or with newspapers. It took effort if your were going to catch one of your favorite flicks on the screen, and my brother and I very rarely put more effort into watching any movie than we did The Blues Brothers. What 8 year old little boy wouldn’t enjoy the endless chase scenes and crashes? I still dream of, just one time, tearing through a huge shopping mall at high speed. Smashing through stores and causing mayhem. A dream I have not completely given up on, but that is another story all together.
Besides, this rebellious daydream was not the reason I gave my all to catch every showing of this oh-so timeless classic. Like I said, it was the music. Everyone knows and loves Aretha Franklin. James and Ray too were already legends in their own right, but the one musical number I waited the whole movie to see, was Minnie The Moocher performed by none other than Rochester’s own, Cab Calloway.
If you ever watched this movie as a kid, you know exactly what I mean. Even at that age, his energy and presence was just as strong as it was during his big band years of the 1930’s. At the time I had no idea that this swing and jazz legend shared the same birthplace as myself. Born on Christmas Day in 1907, Cabell Calloway III was really only a Rochesterian by birth, and in my opinion, spirit. At the age of 10 he moved from Rochester to Baltimore. It was there that he would spend his formative years. His mother was a school teacher, and his father was a lawyer. Cab had a modest middle class upbringing, and was remembered by many of his classmates as being energetic, humorous, and “always singing.”
A 1994 Baltimore Sun article painted a picture of a young man with limitless talent. Along with being gifted musically, he was also an accomplished athlete. Known as the best guard on his basketball team in high school, Cab would spend his senior year playing professional b-ball for the Baltimore Athenians, an all-black traveling team.
After high school he attended a law school in Chicago, but this was just a passing fancy. Music was his true calling. While in Chicago, he met Louis Armstrong. This fated meeting lead to his tutelage in scat singing by Satchmo himself. Scat, in case you did not know, is a form of improvisational jazz singing that became a staple of many accomplished jazz vocalists as the genre was in its early stages. Cab’s singing allowed him to inject a bit of energy and humor to his performances. This energy and humor would become Calloway’s signature style. Setting him apart from other band leaders, and increasing his popularity.
In 1928 he took the reigns of his own band, which he called “The Alabamians.” He moved to New York City that same year, and by 1930 his orchestra would become the house band of the world famous Cotton Club in Harlem. His popularity at the time was rivaled only by Duke Ellington, who’s orchestra shared the house band title with Calloway’s. Now, if I have to explain who HE is or what that means, then you need to stop reading right now, dig into to the history of jazz in America, and learn yourself something. Wait, no. Finish reading this, we can discuss your lack of musical knowledge at a later date.
Throughout the 1930’s and into the early 1940’s, big bands were king. Calloway recorded “Minnie the Moocher” in 1931, and it is by far his most recognized composition. He continued to dish out the hits clear through the decade. Songs like “Reefer Man”, “Stormy Weather”, and “That Old Black Magic” rang out in the New York streets, building on what was already an impressive reputation. Just as impressive as his own musical talent was the list of jazz legends that cut their teeth as a part of Calloway’s orchestra. Guys like Bennie Payne, Ike Quebec, and Dizzie Gillespie were all once members of his group.
The late 1940’s saw the big band era coming to a close. Cab, who had already had movie credits among his credentials, appeared in several films. “The Big Broadcast”, “The Cincinnati Kid”, and .
his final film appearance, and for me personally his most influential, was in the 1980 hit, “Blues Brothers.”
They often called James Brown the hardest working man in show business. Cab Calloway may have been James before there was James. This man has a catalog that spans more than 40 years. From the silver-screen, to Broadway, to world tours, his presence and influence was felt. It wasn’t until November 1994 that Mr Calloway passed, just shy of his 87th birthday. As a kid I knew him as the old music promoter buying time for Jake and Elwood to get to their show, but he was much more than that. Cab Calloway was one of many powerfully musical souls that shaped an era before most of us were born. He was also a fellow Rochesterian, whose music, class, and style continue to influence aspiring young musicians around the globe.