By Charles Hallman
Emmy-winning filmmaker Gail Levin says her father often urged her to do something on Cab Calloway (1907-1994), who broke the color barrier with his signature song “Minnie the Moocher” that features the “Hi de ho” refrain. He was one of the first Black musicians to tour the segregationist South during the 1930s.
Cab Calloway: Sketches, the 2010 documentary that Levin co-wrote with French writer Jean-Francois Pitet, explores Calloway’s musical beginnings through archival footage of his work, as well as interviews with Calloway’s daughters Cecelia and Camay, his grandson Chris “Calloway” Brooks, The Blues Brothers director John Landis and others.
Often compared to the regal styling of Duke Ellington, Calloway’s style instead was “earthier,” notes Levin in a phone interview with the MSR. “Duke was so elegant, so refined and so restrained, and Cab was such a wild man in so many ways,” she explains. “He was uncontainable when he got in front of his band and the crowd.”
This however, overshadowed his musical influences, which broke many barriers. For example, “Minnie,” a song with taboo subject matter, once was featured in a Betty Boop cartoon. Calloway later published a dictionary of jive slang, starred in films and played on Broadway.
“He had cartoons drawn of him. He was a personality for children while at the same time being a very sophisticated, very irrepressible entertainer singing drug songs,” explains Levin.
The Blues Brothers, which starred John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, reintroduced Calloway to a whole new audience three decades ago. “I think he [director John Landis] thought Cab was fantastic and was the absolute embodiment of Curtis [Calloway’s character in the film] for The Blues Brothers,” says Levin. “That was in 1980 when nobody knew who he was. Now there’s a whole other generation of people who have no idea who he was, and the meaning of the song.”
At nearly every Minnesota Timberwolves home game, a climatic scene in The Blues Brothers that shows Calloway singing “Hi de ho!” is played on the arena scoreboard as a rally cry. It is probably safe to say that most fans in attendance don’t really know who they are truly watching overhead.
“The audience [watching Calloway perform in The Blues Brothers] was regular people brought in for that scene,” admits Levin. “They had no idea who he was.”
Levin’s film also was included in a cinema retrospective in France, alongside The Blues Brothers: “They first screened The Blues Brothers, and then they screened the Cab film,” she says proudly.
The filmmaker also features in the film animation based on caricatures of Calloway by illustrator Steve Brodner and French cartoonist Cabu. She borrowed a page from an old Gene Kelly film, where he danced with the cartoon character Jerry the Mouse: “That was my dream from the beginning of doing the film,” says Levin. “I didn’t have the Gene Kelly budget, so we had to be very inventive.”
Playing the Kelly role was Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater choreographer/principal dancer Matthew Rushing, who explains in the film how modern Calloway’s movements were and his impact on hip hop. Rushing dances alongside an animation of vintage Calloway. “It’s all done by computer systems,” Levin points out.
Cab Calloway: Sketches is more than a biography and a tribute to one of the most popular Black big band leaders ever. However, Levin adds the one-hour film wasn’t enough time to fully present the jazz legend. “I would have liked to put much more about [his] Broadway run. He was great in Hello, Dolly and he was in The Pajama Game and in Porgy and Bess. He [also] was a gambler, and we left out some of the colorful, personal parts of his life,” notes Levin.
Nonetheless, her film fit quite nicely in the American Masters series: “I am especially delighted to bring Cab Calloway to younger audiences,” said series creator and executive producer Susan Lacy in a press release.
“I think people thought he was full of antics and full of b.s., and didn’t realize the full extent of his musicianship, his discipline, his incredible well of talent from singing, to dancing, to band leading,” concludes Levin. “To me, he was quite unique, quite original.”
To see more on Cab Calloway, go to www.pbs.org/amer icanmasters.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.