Gather around, kidlets, because I have a secret to share. Did you know we did not invent being hip? Seventy, eight, ninety years ago, people were hip. It’s true! Some were so hip then that they would still be hip now. One of the hippest of them all was singer/composer/bandleader Cabell “Cab” Calloway. Of course, in Cab’s day, it was often called being “hep”, which sounds much cooler.
I first knew Calloway as the debonair older gentleman in white tails who would show up occasionally on Sesame Street. Even though he was in his 70s by that time, his energetic spirit was still fully intact. And his charisma was such that, even at the age of five or six, I knew I was watching someone very special.
I know I’m not introducing some new or obscure talent here – most everyone reading this has probably heard Calloway’s biggest hit, “Minnie the Moocher”, more times than can be counted – but talents of the past can often seem boring, dated or amusingly innocent in the here-and-now. But Calloway wasn’t really playing it safe, though perhaps his use of jive slang made it seem so to squares. In “Minnie the Moocher” alone, there are references to moral ambiguity (“she was a red-hot hoochie coocher”, using her womanly wiles to get what she wanted) and drug use (when Min was taught how to “kick the gong around”, she was being introduced to opium). And an extended version of the song had Minnie and her man going to jail and Min dying in an insane asylum. With songs like “Minnie”, “Reefer Man” and “The Lady with the Fan”, Calloway wasn’t exactly painting pictures of a Norman Rockwell life.
Mentored into the business by his older sister and idol, Blanche, who was already a successful bandleader and singer, Calloway evolved into an all-around performer, singing and dancing as he conducted his band – a band which was, in turn, a springboard for many jazz greats, Dizzy Gillespie being the most famous example. (Speaking of the opposite of Norman Rockewll, Gillespie was fired when a misunderstanding over a spitball ended in Gillespie stabbing Calloway in the leg.) George Gershwin took Calloway as the model for the smooth and sly Sportin’ Life in his musical Porgy and Bess. And the Calloway flair extended into rock ‘n’ roll where he was a notable influence on Little Richard, Prince and Danny Elfman.
My first clue to how hip Cab Calloway was came when I finally took a concentrated interest in his music a few years ago. When I put on the great Calloway collection Are You Hep to the Jive? from Legacy and track five, the title track came up, I had to stop and play it again to be sure I was hearing it right. Back in 1940, long before Raekwon the Chef talked about “that motherfuckin’ fly shit”, before the Fly Girls danced around the set of In Living Color, Cab Calloway asked his listeners, “Do you lace your boots high? Are you fly, are you fly?” And his music was “rockin'” before Alan Freed claimed the term “rock and roll”.
Today, Cab Calloway’s music still sounds hot and fresh. It can still make you feel good. And Calloway is still one of the heppest cats to ever live.