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Cab Calloway, Legendary Hi De Ho Man of Jazz, Dies : Music: Bandleader who was famed for his flamboyant stage routines suffered a stroke in June. He was 86.

November 20, 1994|BURT A. FOLKART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cab Calloway, who dressed like the Taj Mahal, spoke like a hip Tower of Babel, and fathered the internationally beloved heroine of the song "Minnie the Moocher," is dead, it was learned Saturday.

Calloway, who was 86, had suffered a severe stroke June 12 at his home in White Plains, N.Y., and died late Friday in the hospital unit of Cokesbury Retirement Village near Wilmington, Del. His family was at his side, said his wife, Nuffie.

A bandleader, singer, author and dancer, he had performed for more than six decades in the nation's gaudiest nightspots, on Broadway and in films.

Although many modern critics found his musical machinations of marginal worth in an era of "cool," erudite jazz, no one could dispute his entertainment value and the affection showered on him over the years.

He was the essential "Mr. Maestro" from the day he first stepped on the stage at Harlem's famed Cotton Club during the Roaring '20s to his dazzling performance in the 1980 film "The Blues Brothers." By that time he had come to epitomize the flamboyant Jazz Age.

Although a slight 5 feet, 8 inches tall, he appeared half a foot taller and pounds heavier in the white tuxedos with flowing tails that became his signature.

And he had a vocabulary to match his grandiloquent attire. Even if it did not make any sense.

Calloway was considered the father of "jive language," even publishing a "Hepster's Dictionary," which became necessary if one were to translate spoken Calloway into understandable English.

He also came to be known as "King of the Hi De Ho," a sobriquet that had its origins in his rendition of "Minnie the Moocher, the Lowdown Hootchie Kootcher." As Calloway would complete each verse of the song he would chant, "Hi De Hi De Hi De Hi," and the audience would respond, "Ho De Ho De Ho De Ho." In performance, it became a much-anticipated ritual between entertainer and audience that became the favored point of almost all his concerts.

But Cabell Calloway III was not supposed to have spent his life singing the praises and phrases of loose women. He was supposed to have been an attorney.

He was the second of six children born to a Rochester, N.Y., attorney and his wife, and his parents had hoped he would follow his father into law. But an older sister, Blanche, had become a bandleader and singer in Chicago and in 1924, after graduating from high school, Calloway followed his sister to that jazz capital.

He did enroll briefly as a pre-law student at Crane College but that lasted less than a year. He had taught himself to play the drums and soon landed a job at the Sunset Cafe, where his flamboyant ways began to attract attention.

Within six months he was standing at the front of the stage rather than seated at the rear of the band. He was leading his first group, Cab Calloway and His Alabamians.

The band's first booking, at the Savoy Ballroom in New York City, proved a flop and Calloway dissolved the group. He remained in New York however, taking a role in "Connie's Hot Chocolates," one of the all-black revues popular with white audiences.

His rendition of Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin"' was a high point of the show and Irving Mills, a well-known Broadway manager, took him under his wing.

Calloway also learned to play the saxophone and formed an orchestra that over the years came to feature such stellar jazz artists as Jonah Jones, Dizzy Gillespie, Leon (Chu) Berry, Cozy Cole and Ben Webster. Calloway's talented and young ensemble became so popular it was given billing over Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club.

That celebrated den of iniquity was considered New York's hottest entertainment spot. Opened in 1926 at 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue by former heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson (who sold it to a syndicate of mobsters), the club was the antebellum South in miniature.

The bandstand was a replica of a Confederate plantation home. It featured white columns and a backdrop on which were painted slave quarters set amid weeping willows.

Waiters wore red tuxedos like the butlers of the Old South and the tables were covered with red and white checked gingham tablecloths. And, of course, only whites were permitted in the audience.

Trumpeter Jones recalled those years and that setting in 1981, three years before the film "Cotton Club" was released with Calloway in a featured role. Jones told an interviewer that despite Calloway's propensity for gambling away box office receipts, he never missed a payroll and also insisted on renting separate sleeping and dining cars for his touring musicians so they would not be subjected to the prejudice of white-dominated railroads.

Calloway did well at the Cotton Club and quickly moved from saloons to movie sets, appearing in such popular films as the first of the "Big Broadcast" pictures in 1932, "Stormy Weather," "International House" and "The Singing Kid."

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