5. Cab Calloway & His Orchestra – The Man From Harlem (1932)
Published January 2019
Outside of the city upstate New York gets its first tenuous US100 connection, with Calloway born on Christmas Day in Rochester on the shores of Lake Ontario, 300 miles northwest of NYC.
One of the songs that had managed to register up to this point was Man From Harlem. Although fond of jazz, the genre never quite grabbed me like it did my father but here – in a raucous, boisterous, mischievous rob-a-bank kind of a way – was something I could get my teeth into. Combined with the NYC neighbourhood titular name check, on it went – and I was delighted to discover that behind it lay yet another distinctly New York kind of a story which enabled me to transport our US100 tour bus to the fascinating setting of prohibition era Harlem.
The Man From Harlem may or may not be self-referential – Cab Calloway was not a Harlemite by birth or upbringing, but by the song’s 1932 recording he had taken over Duke Ellington’s role as house band leader in the area’s most famous showpiece venue, the Cotton Club. Parallels can certainly be drawn between the party-starting hedonism of the man described in the song’s lyrics and the spectacular stage presence for which Cab was famed.
When Calloway took over the Cotton Club gig, Harlem had New York’s largest concentration of African-Americans, with many having travelled in large numbers as part of the Great Migration. Driven by economic opportunity and escape from Jim Crow-sanctioned racial segregation, many black Americans had departed the south in order to settle in northern and midwestern urban centres. This movement of people was at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance, a catch-all term for the heightened level of cultural, social, and artistic expression from African-Americans during this period – not just in Harlem and New York, but also Chicago, Philadelphia and other Great Migration hotspots.
As a notorious speakeasy in the prohibition era, the Cotton Club lay at the heart of these developments. But while it provided an artistic platform for the likes of Ellington and Calloway, the venue did not in actual fact represent an escape from segregation. It may not have been a legal stipulation to separate white from black outside of Jim Crow territory, but that did not prevent many establishments from operating their own inhouse racist policies. At the Cotton Club – owned by a English-born gang leader known as The Killer – black performers were forbidden from fraternising with entirely white audiences. The very essence of its marketability was in providing a setting for elitist downtown whites to dip their toes into a ‘primitive’ uptown world, without getting their shoes dirty. Acts were implored to play ‘jungle music’, with the audience-performer dynamic described as being akin to that of a zoo.
Calloway had previously cut his musical teeth while studying in Chicago, performing alongside Louis Armstrong in Fats Waller’s 1929 broadway musical revue, Connie’s Hot Chocolates. Having become resident bandleader at the Cotton Club a year later, he would have been among those black performers who segregation confined to a basement next door whilst not on stage. They would knock back liquor and smoke marijuana, activity alluded to in the closing bars of The Man From Harlem. The protagonist’s final act is to cheer up some low looking ladies: Come on, sisters, light up on these weeds and get high and forget about everything.
At points elements of Calloway’s scat vocals can be heard, a skill he allegedly picked up from Louis Armstrong. One of Cab’s trademarks in live performance was improvisational delivery of obscure lyrical nonsense, often incorporating Harlem street slang. In fact such was his aptitude for ‘jive’ vernacular, Calloway quite literally wrote the book on it: the first dictionary ever published by a black person was his 1939 Hepster’s Dictionary: Language of Jive.
Cab Calloway’s Cotton Club residency helped launch a career that took off in the 1930s, his jazz classic Minnie the Moocher earning him a level of celebrity as the ‘the Hi De Ho Man’. Up to the 1960s he was also a star of the silver screen, appearing mostly as himself in a wide variety of films as well as several Betty Boop animated shorts. The first of these, 1932’s Minnie the Moocher, sees Boop – a sexualised jazz ‘flapper’ on the screen who attracted controversy, censorship, and lawsuits in the real world – run away from home and be confronted by Cab in walrus skeleton form, a genuinely surreal and disturbing sight that only gets weirder as various other ghouls and demons join the party. As well as his voice, Calloway also provided dance – Max Fleischer, in this ‘golden era’ of American animation, pioneered the technique of ‘rotoscoping’ (essentially tracing) to transfer Cab’s unique dance moves to the world of cartoon. One can also find a bizarre episode of Porky the Pig in which the animated swine adopts black face in order to impersonate Cab.
In later years Calloway made appearances in all sorts of curious places, including but not restricted to The Blues Brothers, Sesame Street, and 1986’s Wrestlemania 2 (judging a boxing match between Mr T and Rowdy Roddy Piper), as well of course approximately 8,742 electroswing remixes and covers to be played in trendy East London establishments some 80 years later. His final years were spent in northern Delaware where he passed away in 1994, aged 86 – a year after the Cab Calloway School of the Arts in the state was named in his honour. Here students to this day sing Minnie the Moocher as the school song – to quote Wikipedia: ‘not a conventional choice for a school song due to several alleged references to drugs and prostitution’.
The Harlem Renaissance is said to have died with the Great Depression – but not before it had presented black musicians, authors, artists, and entertainers with a level of opportunity hitherto unavailable, and White America’s stereotypical pigeonholing of African Americans began to shift away from rural peasantry as a result. Meanwhile prohibition and racial segregation may have visibly faded from mainstream American society, legally overturned in 1933 and and 1964 respectively – but smatterings of them can still be found in one form or another. The Cotton Club permanently closed its doors in 1940, with the feds sticking their nose into the tax affairs of Manhattan nightclub owners.
50 years before Michael Jackson popularised the Moonwalk, Cab Calloway was backwards gliding as a dance move in the animated films in which he was rotoscoped. He is quoted as saying that in the 1930s the move was known as ‘the Buzz’.
A Night-club Map of Harlem, James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection (1932)
Cab Calloway – The Hepster’s Dictionary (1939)
Steven Watson – The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African-American Culture, 1920-1930 (1995)