Faces of the Harlem Renaissance

Cab Calloway

1907-1994 / Vocalist, bandleader

A premier black entertainer of the Harlem Renaissance, Cabell ("Cab") Calloway's impressive singing ability and showmanship won him steady gigs at the famous Cotton Club.

Calloway's lasting influence on popular music stems from his minting and mastery of scat-jive vocals.

His signature style was to improvise nonsense (but incredibly inventive) lyrics on the spot, often incorporating snippets of Harlem street slang in his monologues and songs.

Some of Calloway's most popular songs referenced the nitty-gritty of Harlem nightlife and its more fervent practitioners, such as his 1931 smash hit, "Minnie the Moocher." In this innovative song, Calloway used call-and-response technique to bat the phrase "Hi-de-ho" back and forth between stage and audience.

Calloway didn't find acclaim in nightclubs alone. His talent also sparkled in theaters and on the silver screen. In 1929, when Calloway landed a role in Connie's Hot Chocolates—a musical revue created by the team of Fats Waller and Andy Razaf—he found himself sharing the stage with a young trumpeter named Louis Armstrong. In 1937, he appeared in the revue Manhattan Merry-Go Round with the beloved dance group Whitey's Lindy Hoppers.

Audiences nationwide would soon witness Calloway's talents when he toured in George Gershwin's acclaimed musical Porgy and Bess, playing a fictional character named "Sportin' Life," who is thought to have been based on Cab Calloway himself.