Cab Calloway may not be a household name, but you’ve damn sure seen his signature moves or heard one of his songs. Fans have come to Cab Calloway through odd pathways, from the Betty Boop shorts that featured his animated avatar in the 1930’s, to his showstopping cameo in The Blues Brothers in 1980, to covers by unexpected artists like The White Stripes in the aughts. Like a lot of people, I came to this song through Joe Jackson’s cover. In the 80’s Jackson did more than anybody to guide rock fans into the world of swing and jazz music. His jazz covers proved that music that was swingin’ in the 30’s was still swingin’ right in tune with post-punk and new wave. That was a pretty surprising epiphany, given that rock fans tend to view jazz as being as stodgy and musty as their granddad’s old suits. Nobody could ever call Cab Calloway stodgy: he was always in the business of razzle-dazzle and good razzle-dazzle never fades. Calloway has managed to pop up as a cultural reference point in every decade, and being dead hasn’t slowed his roll. He just always comes back around, just as cool as the first day he did the Hi-De-Ho.
While we’re on the subject of the jazz age, and great dancing, and Cab Calloway film appearances…Here’s a video by onetime Nicholas Brothers student Janet Jackson. Ms Jackson’s music isn’t really my thing, but she certainly learned from some of the best, and she knows how to pay homage. (She’s also the only member of her family who seems to have her sanity intact, so you have to admire her wherewithal.) The video recreates 1930’s era Harlem in old school Hollywood style. Cab Calloway, the Nicholas Brothers and Cyd Charisse all make appearances, while Janet and her crew do some worthy moves (and rock some sweet zoot suits.) And it’s a pretty funky song too.
Here’s some real Hollywood showmanship, like they don’t make anymore. Out of all the great jazz bandleaders, Cab Calloway became the biggest pop cultural icon, and remains so. For one thing, Calloway had a charm and flair that Dave Brubeck and Count Basie didn’t have, and he was exceedingly smart about picking projects to lend his name to. Whether by luck or design, Calloway made a handful of film appearances that have stuck in our memories. He appeared, in animated form, in a series of Betty Boop shorts that are considered cult classics. He was a regular at the legendary Cotton Club, taking part in the Harlem Renaissance. And who can forget his climatic performance in The Blues Brothers? That has become his best known role, and it was a savvy move that insured a generation or two of new fans. But it still comes down to having a memorable personality, and Calloway was simply gifted as a showman. You can see it in this clip from Stormy Weather, an all-black musical revue from 1943. Also on hand, The Nicholas Brothers, a tap duo whose dancing was regarded with awe by everyone including Astaire and Baryshnikov. Their career spanned from 1920s vaudeville, to the Cotton Club, to Hollywood, to a teaching residency at Harvard, where their students included Michael Jackson. Their acrobatic skills on display are truly breathtaking, along with the polish and charisma of Cab Calloway. Those are skill sets that no longer have a place in Hollywood. There is not one film star left alive who could tap dance their way up and down a spiral staircase all in one unbroken take, all while smiling like it’s no big thing. There aren’t very many stars alive who could tap dance across a flat stage anymore, either.
Blues In the Night, music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Johnny Mercer, written 1941. Originally written for a film of the same name, Blues In the Night has since been recorded by nearly every jazz singer our there, including Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day, Dinah Shore, Artie Shaw, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland and many many others.
Lucky for us the great Ella lived well into the television age, and we can see her in full color.
Cab Calloway’s version, complete with funny business. Besides leading his popular orchestra, Calloway appeared in a series of musical films in the 30’s and 40’s, most of them now forgotten. Judging from this performance, he had quite a gift for comedy.
Cab and Ella are all well and good, but the definitive version of this song is and always will be Daffy Duck’s.