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Kickin' The Gong Around

Cab Calloway and his Orchestra


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A birthday tribute to a legendary performer


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Singer and bandleader Cabell “Cab” Calloway was born on December 25, 1907 in Rochester, New York.

The younger brother of singer Blanche Calloway, Cab grew up in Baltimore and attended law school but he soon quit school to try to make it as a singer and dancer, learning about show business from Blanche.

Calloway appeared in the revue Plantation Days, worked at Chicago’s Sunset Café as an emcee and substitute drummer and in 1929 took over leadership of a group called the Alabamians, bringing them to New York to appear at the Savoy Ballroom.

That band was not strong enough to make it so Calloway broke up the group and appeared in the show Hot Chocolates along with Louis Armstrong.

He had much better luck when he took over the Missourians in 1930, a ten-piece band that he renamed the Cab Calloway Orchestra.

From the time that he made his first records on July 24, 1930, Calloway was quite recognizable, an extroverted singer who took wild chances.

1931 was his breakthrough year with his orchestra becoming the house band at the Cotton Club, appearing regularly on the radio, and recording the original version of “Minnie The Moocher”; by the end of the year Cab Calloway was a household name.

Calloway would be famous for the rest of his life as a colorful showman, conductor and bandleader and a very enjoyable and exciting singer who mixed together the influences of Louis Armstrong, Al Jolson, opera singers, Bing Crosby and even minstrel shows while leading a series of excellent bands.

Calloway kept up a busy schedule of nightclub appearances, regular radio broadcasts and occasional film work (including 1943’s Stormy Weather) through the mid-1940s, and he kept his big band together until 1948 when he cut back to a combo.

In later years, Calloway played the role of “Sportin’ Life” in George Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess for two years, appeared in public with short-term bands whenever he wanted, and served as an inspiration for the Retro Swing movement of the 1990s.

Here is Cab Calloway performing a riotous version of “Kickin’ The Gong Around” in the early 1930s.

-Scott Yanow

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