Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Within the landscape of jazz music in the early twentieth century, Cab Calloway stood out as a unique figure. Born in Rochester, New York to upper middle-class parents, Calloway moved to Baltimore when he was eleven. His family recognized his budding musical talent and procured him private voice lessons in 1922. After high school, Calloway joined the touring Plantation Days music revue with his sister Blanche, herself already an accomplished bandleader. Calloway attended Crane College in Chicago with the intention of becoming a lawyer, but soon found himself attending the city’s myriad jazz performance spaces and laboring as a drummer, singer, and emcee. He left school and by 1929 had joined the Missourians. He assumed leadership for the group in 1930, which was initially hired to fill in for Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club in Harlem while Ellington was touring, but it proved to be so popular that “Cab Calloway and His Orchestra” became joint house band with Ellington’s. Radio performances, both live and recorded, national tours, and live engagements with Bing Crosby in New York helped to propel Calloway to stardom through the 1930s. In 1931 Calloway recorded his best-known song, “Minnie the Moocher,” which sold over 1 million copies. His unique performance style was recreated via rotoscope and incorporated into three Betty Boop cartoons during 1932–1933. Calloway’s icon status was cemented in his run of films for Paramount in the 1930s, which made him and Duke Ellington the most filmed jazz performers of the time. He recorded with RCA, Variety, Brunswick, Vocalian, and Okeh through 1948. He performed live and appeared in various radio, television, and film productions until his death in 1994.