Viewing page 14 of 14

Reprinted from NEW YORK EVENING JOURNAL, Saturday, September 19, 1936

The Voice of Broadway- by Louis Sobol

'Hi-de-ho' Calloway Tells of Climb from Harlem to Top Spot on B'way
Down Memory Lane!
With Cab Calloway

It was a sprint between Santa Clause and Doc Stork on that Christmas Day in 1907 with 40 Cypress St. in rochester, N.Y., as the goal. St. Nick must have pulled a Jesse Owens finish, for it wasn't until after breakfast that I arrived. They named me Cabell Calloway III, after my father and paternal grandfather. I'm sure that if they could have foreseen the present billing of me outside the Cotton Club as "His hi-de-highness of hi-de-ho!" they would have saved that dignified moniker for another son. Mine was the life of the average small colored boy. Rhythm always playing an important role. I sold papers, jogged and shuffled for pennies and at the ripe age of seven, was the "champeen" drummer-by of our neighborhood. This, despite the handicap of sawed-off broom handles and a garbage-can cover as my equipment. I was set to enter Crane University to study law when my sister, Blanche, came to town with a colored show. She heard me that Sunday singing in the church choir. "Kid," she said, "the law and you won't mix. It's show business for you. Come back-stage Monday."

Blanche insisted that if I were to get anywhere I had to begin as a single. So I sang solos and with a quartet until we reached Chicago, the Dreamland Ballroom on State Street. Joe Glazer liked my work and offered me a job in the Sunset Cafe which was the Cotton Club of Chicago. One night Adelaide Hall was too ill to appear. She was soloist in the most important number. Glazer knew I was up on the song so he let me do it. After the number was over a heavy-set fellow sent over a fifty dollar bill and requested that I sing another number. That was my introduction to Al Capone. From that night, I got a good spot and billing in the show. As was the club custom in those days, the bands were small. This one was no exception--but certainly an all-star group. Louis Armstrong played the trumpet and Earl Hines was at the piano-- a band in itself. Armstrong suggested that I do my numbers from the band stand-- and it was through his suggestion that I adopted my present style of leading, waving arms, swaying body, syncopated steps and singing against rhythm. Jack Dempsey was in the club one night with a group of celebrities. When he saw my act from the bandstand, he told Glazer to let me lead the band as long as his party remained. Although my musical knowledge was limited to a bit of drumming, I seemed to go over with the crowd. That was my debut as a band leader. The Savory Ballroom in New York offered me a ten-week booking. We came to New York via the one-night dance stand route. We were riding on the crest of the wave and had forgotten that the wave might break on top of us. It did. We were a colossal, tremendous, gigantic failure in our New York debut. Harlem stayed away. 

Louis Armstrong was making a big hit at Connie's Inn, down the street. So I stopped in for a little advice. Louis introduced me to Connie Immerman who was readying a sepian revue for Broadway, "Hot Chocolates." Louis persuaded Connie to give me an audition. I sang "Lover Come Back To Me," with a rabbit's foot in my hand. I got the job. I was to sing "Ain't Misbehavin'." It turned out to be the hit song of the show. When the show closed we tramped about playing short engagements and then wound up at the Parody Club on Broadway. Here we had an hour's broadcast over a small station which eventually brought us on top. Our singing style attracted attention and we had many lucrative offers. Our new band went over with a bang. Bill Robinson, the great 
"Bojangles," was signed for a week's engagement at the Paramount Theatre. We were billed to co-star with him and were a bit timid about it. "Boy," he said, "I've been on the stage for more years than you got. Audiences at Times Square and 42nd Street are just the same as those Lenox Ave. and 125th. Just give!" He was right. I count it a great privilege to be working with him again at the new Cotton Club. The following week at the Brooklyn Paramount, Rudy Vallee was the headliner. I can't understand why you and he don't get along, Louis. He's really a most generous and obliging fellow. At least I found him so. He promised to help me any time I asked. I went to Europe on tour shortly after, and when I retuned was fearful that my popularity had waned. I went to Vallee and asked for advice. He didn't give advice-- he gave me a million dollars worth of publicity. He allowed me to use his radio variety. It accomplished wonder and I'm eternally grateful to him.

Herman Stark engaged us for the new Cotton Club show. It was in this show that we dropped our scat business and took up hi-de-ho-ing. Clarence Robinson staged a spectacular number, "Minnie the Moocher," and that gal sure became popular. Now Benny Davis and J. Fred Coots have written a new one for the new show called "Frisco Flo." You'll like that gal, too. When the Cotton Club season was finished we were booked for a nationwide tour of motion-picture houses and became pioneers throughout the South. No colored aggregation had ever appeared below the Mason and Dixon line, but Texas wanted us. They couldn't pay our regular $6,000 a week salary, but offered us 50 per cent of the gross. Showmen warned us to steer clear of the spot, but I wanted to break this myth if possible. We not only broke the myth, but the theatre's attendance records as well and pulled out $8,000 for the week. Then we conquered other Southern States, breaking records every place we went. Churches and jazz bands do not mix well, ordinarily, but Dr. Christian F. Reisner invited us to play at the Broadway Temple Methodist Episcopal Church in Manhattan. Remembering my boy-hood days in the choir, I presented a program of spirituals and semi-spirituals. "Go Down, Moses" was so well received that Dr. Reisner had me repeat the number in its entirety. Since then many churches throughout the land have bid for our services.

Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians accepted an engagement at the Paramount Theatre one Christmas week only to learn after they had opened it that it would conflict with a date their Ford sponsors had arranged in Philadelphia. Paramount offered to free them for that evening if they could get another name band to substitute. Waring visited me at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, where I was playing six shows a day. I accepted the job and spent the most restless day in theatrical history. The eight shows we performed and our maniacal drives between Times Square and Harlem are an experience which will never be forgotten. Then Europe called. The Palladium in London signed us for four weeks. Our opening brought out a capacity crowd, but the audience was bewildered by our weird antics. They couldn't underestand what it was all about. I only saved the show by getting the conservative Britishers to join in singing the hi-de-hos. Hannon Swaffer, England's noted critic said that I was the first human who had ever broken down the dignity of a Londoner sufficiently to get him to disgrace himself in public. And, he added, I must be a great salesman to collect the salary which the audience did all the work. But the Palladium engagement was a great success. We played for King Edward VIII (then Prince of Wales) and the King of Greece at an immense benefit given by Jack Buchanan. Our labor permit did not allow us to play dance music at any function, but Lord Beaverbrook was very anxious to engage in a fox trot, and it was obvious that the Prince was not averse to a dance either. So I struck up a mild number, and everyone was delighted-- everyone, that is, but the proprietor who demanded that I stop before his license was revoked. The Prince was downhearted but admitted that he had no power to the change the situation. He returned to his table without his desired fox-trot.
Please note that the language and terminology used in this collection reflects the context and culture of the time of its creation, and may include culturally sensitive information. As an historical document, its contents may be at odds with contemporary views and terminology. The information within this collection does not reflect the views of the Smithsonian Institution, but is available in its original form to facilitate research. For questions or comments regarding sensitive content, access, and use related to this collection, please contact